Most of my clients say that olive oil is not suitable for Indian-style cooking. Though, most of them aren’t sure why. In the Mediterranean diet, which is widely known as the world’s healthiest, olive oil is the main cooking medium. It is used in all types of cooking, including deep-frying, baking, and roasting. This oil is also used as a dressing, in sauces, marinades, and as a condiment in the region.
And it can certainly be adapted for Indian cooking.
Why the controversy?
The smoke point of olive oil is largely responsible for the controversy surrounding it.
To determine whether a certain type of oil can be used as a cooking medium, the smoke point is considered. It’s the temperature at which fat molecules begin to degrade and there is visible smoke. Oils with low smoke points and high polyunsaturated fatty acids are prone to degrade and produce harmful polar compounds including lipid peroxide and aldehydes. Research shows that these compounds are carcinogenic in nature, cause increased oxidative stress in the body and increase risk of developing neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. So, most people prefer to cook with fats that are stable at high heat.
Olive oil has a low smoke point, which concerns some of its users.
However, recent studies have refuted the correlation between a cooking oil’s performance and smoke point. According to a 2018 study, extra virgin olive oil produced the least amount of harmful byproducts and was considered the best cooking oil, outperforming others with higher smoke points such as canola, coconut and grapeseed oil.
Identifying an oil’s exact smoke point can be difficult, but a range can be useful. Olive oil has a smoke point of 350–410°F (177–220°C), which is reasonably high for an unrefined oil. This temperature is used for most types of cooking. So, olive oil is suitable for most cooking methods.
A cooking oil’s smoke point isn’t the only property that determines its suitability. For cooking oils to be suitable, they must also be oxidatively stable. Among the three types of fatty acids—saturated (SFA), monounsaturated (MUFA), and polyunsaturated (PUFA)—saturated fats such as butter and ghee are well resistant to high heat. Most vegetable oils such as soybean and canola oil that are rich in PUFA are vulnerable to high heat and oxidative degradation. Olive oil is mostly composed of MUFA, which accounts for 73 per cent of its composition and gives it high oxidative stability when exposed to heat.
In a 2010 study, extra virgin olive oil was found to be particularly resistant to oxidation when it was used for deep frying. Another study compared the thermal oxidation of olive oil, sunflower oil, and a mix of both during 40 sessions of domestic frying of various foods. It found that during the first 20 fryings, olive oil and the oil mix performed more satisfactorily than sunflower oil. It is concluded that olive oil does not produce significant amounts of harmful compounds, even under extreme conditions such as deep frying.
Nutrition and health benefits
There are different grades of olive oil.
First-pressed extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) contains several bioactive substances, including powerful antioxidants and vitamin E, and is considered to be the healthiest type of olive oil. The oil is minimally processed and mechanically extracted. Refined oils, on the other hand, are produced through a combination of mechanical, heating, and chemical processes that leave them with high levels of oxidative by-products. As an antioxidant, vitamin E is effective against free radicals, which can cause cellular damage. Antioxidants in EVOO include oleocanthal, an anti-inflammatory compound, and oleuropein, a substance that prevents low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol from oxidation.
A 2020 study found that regular consumption of olive oil could be linked to lower levels of interleukin 6, a common inflammatory marker. A Mediterranean diet that is high in olive oil has been consistently linked to better heart health and may reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. Regular consumption of olive also oil lowers the risk of breast cancer and digestive system cancer.
EVOO enhances the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and beneficial components found in a variety of vegetables, such as carotenoids and glucosinolates.
In a nutshell
The flavourful, minimally processed olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fats, antioxidants, vitamin E, and vitamin K. Olive oil is heat-resistant and does not oxidise. The oil may be damaged if it is heated at very high temperatures such as 240°Celsius for long periods of time, such as 24 or 36 hours. These are, however, extremely rare conditions that do not occur in our homes. Aside from being the finest cooking oil among all, olive oil is also the healthiest. Wouldn’t it be great if we used olive oil more often?
Subhasree Ray is Doctoral Scholar (Ketogenic Diet), certified diabetes educator, and a clinical and public health nutritionist. She tweets @DrSubhasree. Views are personal.