Mediterranean cuisine constantly tops lists of the healthiest diets in the world and is renowned all over the world for its health benefits — and olive oil is a major cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet. Read on to discover exactly what the Mediterranean diet is, why olive oil is the main fat used in Mediterranean cuisine and how to choose an olive oil to complement your Mediterranean cooking at home.
What Is the Mediterranean Diet, Exactly?
Before we delve into why olive oil is such a big part of Mediterranean cuisine, we first need to define what the Mediterranean diet is. The Mediterranean diet is not a specific eating plan, but rather a broad term that refers to the food generally eaten in Italy, Greece and other countries that border the Mediterranean Sea. The specific dishes eaten vary from country to country and even region to region within the Mediterranean area, so Mediterranean cuisine focuses more on the commonalities found in these countries.
Generally speaking, the Mediterranean diet focuses a lot on fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains, nuts and seeds. Lean proteins are eaten in moderate amounts, and poultry and fish are much more common than red meat. Dairy products such as cheese, yogurt and eggs are also eaten in low to moderate amounts. Food is usually cooked fresh from scratch, with minimal consumption of highly processed or prepackaged food. Wine may be consumed in moderation, often alongside meals. Fruit is typically eaten in place of extremely sweet, highly sugary desserts.
As for olive oil, it is the main fat used in the Mediterranean diet and is the go-to cooking oil in Mediterranean countries. In the next section, we will explain more about how olive oil came to be such a cornerstone of Mediterranean cooking and why its popularity continues today.
Why Olive Oil Is Such a Big Part of the Mediterranean Diet
Part of the reason why olive oil is one of the most common ingredients in Mediterranean cuisine is because olive oil is one of the only cooking oils that can be made without the use of chemical solvents. Instead, extra virgin olive oil is made by physically pressing the olives to extract the juices and oils, a simple process that allowed it to be produced in the Mediterranean for centuries, before the advent of modern agriculture. Other cooking oils simply were not possible to produce until chemical solvents and refining processes were recently developed, which allowed previously unextractable cooking oils to be created.
Olive oil is also incredibly versatile in terms of flavor and also cooking applications when compared to other oils on the market today. It can be used to make olive oil cake, roast vegetables, pan fry meats, dress a salad and many other recipes. It also has a delicious flavor that varies from grassy to peppery, depending on the specific varieties of olives used to make the oil. This versatility is one of the reasons why olive oil has become a pantry staple in kitchens all over the world, not just the Mediterranean. There are very few recipes where olive oil does not work.
Olive oil also offers many health benefits, especially when compared to other common cooking fats and oils such as butter. First of all, olive oil is relatively high in two key healthy fats: polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats. It also contains high amounts of antioxidants, polyphenols and other beneficial compounds that help to keep you healthy. Regular consumption of olive oil in moderation has been shown to guard against heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and other health conditions. The reliance on olive oil (as opposed to other cooking oils) is one of the reasons why the Mediterranean diet is so healthy and well-rounded.
But not all olive oils are created equal these days, and any random bottle that you grab off the supermarket shelf might not provide the health benefits that you are seeking. In the final section, we will talk about how olive oil production has changed with the rise of modern agriculture and how to ensure that you are picking the healthiest olive oil possible for your Mediterranean cooking at home.
How to Choose Olive Oil for Mediterranean Cooking
Remember those chemical solvents and refining processes we mentioned earlier? Some olive oils that you see on the shelves are now made with them. While these processes and chemicals do allow companies to bottle and sell olive oil that was previously non-consumable, they also remove a lot of the beneficial compounds from the olive oil, making it more comparable to other basic cooking oils.
If you are wanting to get all the benefits out of your olive oil, look specifically for an extra virgin olive oil gift set, which has not been refined or exposed to chemical solvents in any way. Extra virgin olive oil is the type of olive oil that has been used in Mediterranean cooking for centuries and the only kind that will provide the health benefits the Mediterranean diet is known for. Other kinds of olive oil are a relatively recent invention of modern agriculture and cannot match extra virgin olive oil in either taste or health benefits (not to mention its long history of being used in Mediterranean cooking!).
Are you currently practicing a Mediterranean diet, or are you interested in trying to cook more Mediterranean dishes? Do you cook a lot with extra virgin olive oil even if you do not currently follow a Mediterranean diet? Let us know in the comments below!