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By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS

Most people know that olive oil is good for you.

Rich in healthy monounsaturated fats (as opposed to saturated fats — found in many other cooking oils — that can lead to heart disease and other health problems), olive oil is composed of 11 percent polyunsaturates, like omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, and a whopping 73 percent monounsaturated fat (oleic acid).

And according to recent medical studies, monounsaturated oil can help reduce inflammation (one of the main causes of pain and arthritic swelling), and may even have beneficial effects on genes linked to cancer.

Moreover, olive oil is full of powerful antioxidants such as vitamin E and vitamin K that may reduce the risk of certain chronic diseases, including diabetes and hypertension.

And, as if all that were not enough, olive oil may even help in preventing strokes and obesity.

Moreover, some recent scientific studies suggest that consuming olive oil regularly might — and the operative word here is “might,” since further research is needed — help slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease by helping to remove the accumulation of beta-amyloid plaques inside brain cells.

Indeed, the many benefits of olive oil — especially extra virgin olive oil — are becoming ever more apparent day-by-day.

That is was the key takeaway from a special olive-oil tasting and pairing seminar presented by the Spanish Olive Oil Consortium at Mexico City’s National Culinary Institute (Cuina) late last month.

Led by the Spanish government’s official extra virgin olive oil ambassador, Alfonso Fernández, whose family had been in the olive oil business for generations, the seminar, part of the European Union-sponsored Olive Oil World Tour Experience Mexico, began with a comparison of two different types of extra virgin oils, one called hojiblanca (white leaves) and one called arbequina.

“It is important to understand that not all olive oils are alike,” said Fernández. “The best olive oils are extra virgin and come from Spain.”

In fact, he said, Spain accounts for over half of the world’s total olive oil production and 80 percent of all extra virgin olive oil.

In Mexico, the figures are even higher, with nine out of every 10 bottles of extra virgin olive oil sold in the country originating in Spain.

“Olive oil is an essential part of Spanish gastronomy,” Fernández said. “We have been flavoring Spanish cuisine with quality olive oil for more than 3,000 years.”

He said that today every single province of Spain produces olive oil, although the highest-producing regions are the provinces of Jaén and Córdoba in Andalusia.

“Spain produces more than 260 varieties of olive oils, so we can offer the widest range of aromas and flavors,” Fernández said.

Moreover, according to the ranking made every year on the World’s Best Olive Oils website, which is based on the results of 16 major extra-virgin oil international competitions, seven of the 10 best olive oils in the world are Spanish.

The taste of the two extra virgin oils that were presented during the seminar were significantly different one from the other.

Fernández said that it is important to choose an extra virgin oil that is suited to your particular taste and based on how you are going to use it.

The hojiblanca oil presented in the seminar, which came from the southern Spanish province of Andalusia and which Fernández said is best suited for cooking, had a full nutty flavor with a slight bitter aftertaste.

Fernández explained that hojiblanca olive oil represents about 16 percent of all the oil produced in Spain.

The second oil presented was an arbequina, a type of oil that is normally produced in northeastern Spain, but in this case was also from Andalusia.

Thicker and with a more consistence fruity taste than the hojiblanca, this oil, with subtle hints of green apples and roasted almonds, was far less bitter and filled the entire mouth with a lush velvety texture that lingered pleasantly.

Fernández explained that arbequina oils are ideal for drizzling over dishes and adding to uncooked foods.

To prove that point, the seminar organizers offered up two virgin-olive-oil-infused cocktails, a delicious fruit margarita and a tangy bloody Mary, that were served with tapas, also topped with olive oil.

“Olive oil is great for cooking because monounsaturated fats are quite resistant to high heat,” Fernández said.

“Of course, it is perfect for making a paella or a tortilla española, but it also adds flavor and quality to traditional Mexicans dishes, like enchiladas and even guacamole.”

Fernandez said that even a few drops of virgin olive oil sprinkled over practically any  dish — even desserts — can intensify the flavor while adding nutritional health benefits.

Although it is more expensive than regular olive oil or virgin olive oil, Fernández said it is always better to splurge and buy extra virgin oil.

Besides being tastier, extra virgin olive oil has higher levels of antioxidants and bioactive compounds from olives, he said, and thus are considered healthier than the more refined variety of olive oils.

Fernández said that extra virgin olive oil has antibacterial properties and has been shown to help eliminate helicobacter pylori infections that can cause stomach ulcers.

All Spanish olive oils are rated based on the quality of the olives, how they are pressed and how many times they are pressed, and like all fine European Union foods and drinks, extra virgin olive oils are strictly regulated, with Denomination of Origin Control (DOC) labels.

Extra virgin olive oil is the first oil extracted from freshly crushed olives.

Only the best olive oils get rated as extra virgin, and to quality, they must be pressed less than 24 hours after the olives are harvested, using either a traditional press or a centrifuge system.

Also, they can contain no chemicals or additives and a maximum acidity of 0.8 percent (although most are actually under 0.3 percent).

Still, there is at least one drawback to olive oil, especially extra virgin olive oil: It has a very short shelf life.

“Once you open a bottle of extra virgin olive oil, you should use it up within 20 days,” Fernández said.

“After that, it begins to lose its flavor and antioxidant qualities. It is still good for consuming for another 12 to 18 months, but it won’t be as tasty or healthy.”

Fernández’s solution: Use it every day, in every recipe, and that way it is always fresh.

“There are so many different ways to consume olive oil, so there really isn’t any excuse for not using up a bottle before it begins to lose flavor or healthy qualities,” he said.

“Olive oil is a golden elixir that tastes incredible and can help improve your health. What could be more perfect?”

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