Which Countries Grow the Most Antioxidant Rich Olives?

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Which Countries Grow the Most Antioxidant Rich Olives?
There’s something hypnotic about a vibrant, chartreuse stream of olive oil pouring down from a glass bottle and oozing its way around the contents of your plate. It’s a beautiful thing because you know it’s the kind of decadence you can feel good about. And you should. Olive oil is good for you. Loaded with beneficial fatty acids, powerful antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory properties, it’s an extremely healthy indulgence that you can justify every day. These fortuitous plant genes put olive oil right up at the top of the coveted “superfood” category, evidenced by its regular consumption in the world’s 7 Longetivty Blue Zones.

The Health Benefits of Olive Oil

  • It’s a Healthy Fat. Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fatty acids, or “good fats”. Studies show that a diet high in monounsaturated fats, instead of saturated fats, can help lower your "bad" LDL cholesterol.
  • It’s High in Antioxidants. The antioxidants found in olive oil and other foods fight and help neutralize free radicals in your body. Free radicals are responsible for cell damage that leads to certain types of cancer, dementia, and chronic inflammation, the primary risk factor for heart disease.
  • It’s Very High in Polyphenols. These are naturally occurring plant compounds with antioxidant properties. Olive oil, especially extra virgin olive oil, is the only edible oil that contains polyphenols.
  • It’s a Nutraceutical. With such a wide range of polyphenols, mono-unsaturated fatty acids, and vitamins, extra virgin olive oil is classified as a nutraceutical, aka a medicinal food. It’s rich in antioxidants and has anti-inflammatory properties, protecting you from age-related diseases.
  • It’s Good for Your Gut. Recent studies show a correlation between the benefits of olive oil and healthy gut microbiota. This is largely thanks to the collective health benefits of olive oil and the positive effects on the gut-brain axis.
  • It’s Good for Your Skin. The anti-inflammatory effects of olive oil also extend to your skin. Topical olive oil has been shown to soothe and moisturize your dermal layers, helping to stabilize cellular membranes and reduce the appearance of aging.

How is Olive Oil Made?

Olives are harvested from trees usually in early fall. Either by hand or with the help of a machine, the leaves and stems are separated. The olives, along with their pits, are then ground to a fine pulp by large granite wheels. This process is called a “cold press” and is done without using heat in order to preserve the flavor and maintain nutritional integrity. Next, the olive pulp is spread out along circular fiber disks that are layered in a tall stack, kind of like pancakes. Hydraulic pressure is applied to extract the liquid. The oil and water separate, leaving only the cloudy unfiltered oil remaining.

Virgin vs. Extra Virgin

Cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil is the least processed variety and is considered to be the healthiest and most antioxidant-rich. Since heat and chemical solvents aren’t used, the beneficial phenols remain intact. In contrast, regular, highly processed olive oils are robbed of their phenols. Olive oil is, unfortunately, one of the most adulterated food products in the world. Purity standards differ by country. Know what you’re buying and look up the standards of the country you’re sourcing from on the Olive Wellness Institute website.

Who Produces the Most Nutritious Olives?

It’s probably no surprise that Spain and Italy lead the charge when it comes to olive oil production. Greece, Croatia, Turkey, Morocco, and California are also big producers. In order to get the most antioxidant-rich olives, the goal is to have a finished product with the highest polyphenols, which means cold pressing the olives is key. High-polyphenol olive oil is extra virgin, cold-pressed oil that contains at least 5 mg of hydroxytyrosol per 1.5 tablespoons. Those levels depend on when the olives were harvested. The greener the olive, the higher the polyphenol level. You can tell by the flavor because an oil made with earlier harvested olives will taste slightly bitter and peppery compared to a smoother, less polyphenol-rich oil. Here are the olive varietals with the highest polyphenol levels, and a few brands we love:

How to Get the Best Health Benefits from Olive Oil

The first rule of thumb when it comes to selecting a good-quality olive oil is to look for the date on the bottle. Any reputable producer will make those numbers visible. The fresher, the better. Polyphenols act as a natural preservative, helping a good-quality olive oil stay that way for about 15 months. Once they begin to degrade, however, flavor flattens and the nutritional value quickly plummets. Pay attention to whether or not the oil is organic. Olive trees are hearty and live long lives, but they can experience rough patches in the form of seasonal bugs or blight. Pesticides may then be used. Thankfully, olive oil actually ranks low in pesticide residue by comparison to other types of produce. Cold-pressed organic olive oil should only really be used in the raw state. Use these for salads and sauces, rather than for cooking. If you’re cooking anything using high heat, the smoke point of olive oil is 374–405°F (190–207°C). For those recipes, opt for high-heat oils like avocado, pecan, or coconut oils. Finally, how much olive oil should you be consuming daily? Really, it depends on what else your diet consists of and whether or not the fat content of olive oil pairs well with the other components of your diet. The most robust research has been conducted in the Blue Zones, where on the island of Ikaria, centenarians are consuming 6 tablespoons of olive oil per day. If you’re ready to start upping your polyphenols, you can shop for oils that have been tested for polyphenol levels here. Some of our favorite ways to put these fine oils to use are in this super-green Cilantro EVOO Chimichurri, a colorful Melon and Pistachio Salad with olive oil, and this hearty Grilled Vegetable Risotto. Food just tastes better when you know it’s doing something good for your body, so drizzle on the green stuff and dive in!
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