Olive oil has become the darling of culinary personalities and health-conscious cooks alike in the United States, experiencing major market growth--57% in the years from 1983 to 1987. During the same time period, sales of most other cooking oils remained flat or even declined.
Although the final figures aren't in yet, industry sources place sales growth in 1988 at between 23% and 35%.
For years, gourmets have been using olive oil. Explained Waverley Root in "Food," "The function of most oils is mechanical rather than gastronomic. Olive oil, on the contrary, contributes both flavor and nutrition to any dish anointed by it or cooked in it and becomes a full-fledged ingredient on its own."
Health reasons, however, have sold this once gourmet-only item to the masses. When research disclosed that monounsaturated fats have benefits equal to, and perhaps greater than, polyunsaturates when it comes to lowering blood cholesterol levels, olive oil was on its way.
The November, 1988, issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Assn. noted, "The effects of other dietary constituents in the management of plasma lipid levels have been established. In particular, monounsaturated fatty acids (the kind found in olive oil), soluble fiber and vegetarian diets have a favorable effect on plasma lipid levels."
Noted Jean Minskoff, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant: "The article also lends credence to the American Heart Assn.'s recommendation that 10% to 15% of the calories in the American diet be in the form of monounsaturated fats.
"Indications are that monounsaturates like olive oil not only lower serum cholesterol levels and preserve high-density lipoproteins (HDL, the good cholesterol) but also lower the low-density lipoproteins (LDL or bad cholesterol) more than polyunsaturates."
Dr. Stanley Banach, a physician and nutrition advocate, said, "The nice part about monounsaturated fats like olive oil and fish oil (a super-polyunsaturated fat) is that they also lower triglyceride levels, which is important for many people."
Although olive oil probably should be the oil of choice when some must be used, this does not mean anyone should start dosing himself with olive oil or using an overabundance of olive or any other oil.
Dr. Scott Grundy (who has researched the role and effects of monounsaturated fatty acids on serum lipid levels) and the American Heart Assn., recommend that Americans reduce their fat calories to less than 30% of their total calorie intake.
The American Dietetic Assn. wants to see the figure between 20% and 30%. Banach suggests that total fat intake be no more than 20% of total caloric intake.
Canola oil, which has less monounsaturated and saturated fat and more polyunsaturated fat than olive oil, is olive oil's closest competitor for the dollars of health conscious consumers.
However, Banach said, if given a choice, he would still choose olive oil. He explained, "You may not want the increase in polyunsaturated fat. Although it has the potential for lowering the LDL cholesterol level, it also tends to lower the beneficial HDL level, too."
He added, "Some animal studies have shown that both fish oil and olive oil might have protective effects against certain types of cancer while polyunsaturates may promote certain kinds of cancers."
Additional claims, resulting from research, link olive oil to a reduction in blood glucose levels among some diabetics (those contracting the disease later in life) and to a possible lowering of blood pressure.
Mona Sutnick, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Assn., mentioned a new type of olive oil on the market. She said, "These brands that are labeled 'light' are nutritionally the same as regular olive oil but are lighter in color and taste. I tell my clients that they're the monounsaturates for people who don't like olive oil."
Health considerations aside, many chefs, such as Italian cooking expert Giuliano Bugialli, simply love olive oil. "Butter does not exist for me. What is butter? It is easy for me to cook with olive oil because that's all I use," Bugialli said.
He continued, obviously sensitive to the thought that the Italian Trade Commission's Italian Olive Oil Center was sponsoring his appearance, "Olive oil really doesn't need to be promoted. It is well known when it is well used."
Insists on Authenticity
Bugialli, whose books, articles and cooking classes have helped revolutionize the way Americans view Italian cuisine, insists on authenticity in reproducing his country's recipes.
A no-nonsense cook who despised nouvelle cuisine from the start, Bugialli said, "Our food is wonderful as it is. When I want to eat, I eat. If I want food that's pretty to look at, I'll buy a nice painting and go out for pizza. I hate the idea of food being touched by 40 hands just so it could be made to look like the shape of a carnation."