Olive oil is a huge industry worldwide, and you might be surprised at who some of the world's biggest consumers are. Globally, 2,000,000 tons of edible oil are produced per year. Spain is the largest producer, followed by Italy and then Greece, but olive are also grown in Portugal, Brazil, Australia, Chile, Turkey, New Zealand, and South Africa ... and of course, the US, increasingly in Arizona, California, and Texas. But the biggest consumer? China, believe it or not. China requires a minimum of 17,000,000 tons edible oil per year, and they are starting to grown trees locally.
Why this sudden interest in olive oil? A couple of weeks ago, Eric and I toured a local olive grove and oil press called Bella Vista Ranch. The owner, Jack Dougherty, gave a very informative and entertaining lecture about the origins of olive oil and its many uses, the cultivation of trees worldwide but especially in Texas, how olive oil is made, and a lot more. Jack is both knowledgeable and opinionated, and it was fascinating --- and also very beautiful, sitting under the trees amid the olive grove and vineyards, looking out over the Texas Hill Country on a hot July day.The tour ended in the tasting room, where we enjoyed samples of Jack's grassy, peppery olive oil and several of his wines. We went home with a few bottles of each!
One of the things I found most interesting, of course, were the health benefits of olive oil. Of course, it's no news that it's one of the healthy oils. It's a monounsaturated fat, which can help control your cholesterol levels and normalize blood clotting. But what I didn't know previously was that olive oil contains a phytonutrient called oleocanthal, which imitates the effect of ibuprofen, reducing inflammation. And among its other benefits as a natural anti-inflammatory, it may be able to decrease the risk of breast and lung cancer. It's also rich in antioxidants, which help lower the risk of several types of cancer. The anti-inflammatory properties also have benefits for other diseases, including stroke, heart disease, arthritis, and some dementias.
And olive oil has recently been tied to studies suggesting that a Mediterrenean diet (which is rich in olive oil) significantly lowers the risk of Type II diabetes --- by almost 50%, compared to a low-fat diet. Olive oil contains a hormone called adiponectin, which helps regulate blood sugar levels.
Of course, it's still a fat, and therefore high in calories, so it should be used judiciously. But isn't it impressive that one tree, and one tiny fruit, could produce so many health benefits? Furthermore, considering that raw olives are inedible (they contain capsaicin, the compound found in chilis that makes them hot, and will burn your mouth if you taste one straight off the tree), it's rather surprising that ancient people figured out how to cure and eat them. The history is really fascinating.
As long as we're talking about healthy oils, I've recently become enamoured of cooking with coconut oil, a healthy and natural saturated fat. Try cooking your scrambled eggs in a tiny bit of it --- YUM! Among its benefits, coconut oil can join olive oil in boasting a good influence on heart health, Type II diabetes, the immune system, metabolism, and weight loss. I recently bought two big jars from a place called Tropical Traditions, and have been very happy with it. It's a much better deal than what you get in the store!
As if olive and coconut oils didn't do enough for us, they are also GREAT for your skin and hair. Years ago, one of the makeup artists at Chicago Lyric Opera told me that her greatest beauty secret was olive oil, which she used as a moisturizer on her face (she had gorgeous skin). It also works well as a deep conditioner for your hair, and helps control dandruff. Coconut oil is also great for your skin --- it's full of Vitamin E and fatty acids, which have anti-oxidizing and anti-bacterial properties. It's great for giving your hair some extra shine, or for treating dry, damaged hair; and it's especially good for Black hair.
By the way, we ended our trip to the Hill Country with a stop at the beautiful Italian restaurant, Trattoria Lisina, where we started a delicious meal with a dark green, deeply fruity olive oil and some really yummy bread for dipping. Thanks to the high calorie and carb content, that's not an everyday treat, but we sure did enjoy it!