Because olive oil is so rich in good fats, as we discussed on the previous page, and those fats are so good for cholesterol levels, it should come as no surprise that olive oil is healthy for your heart.
Studies suggesting that olive oil can reduce a person's chances of developing heart disease led the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) in 2004 to allow manufacturers to boast such on their olive oil labels. However, it's best to use olive oil as a replacement for oils and butter that are high in saturated fats instead of simply adding olive oil to your diet.
The oleic acid we discussed on the last page, in addition to certain compounds also found in olive oil (squalene and terpenoids), are also believed to be effective in preventing cancer, according to 2004 study in the European Journal of Cancer Prevention.
Cooks may choose higher quality olive oil because it tastes better, but higher quality olive oil is also generally healthier because it is richer in vitamin E and antioxidants, which are believed to help protect cells from damage caused by free radicals -- unstable atoms or molecules.
The highest quality comes from the first pressing of the olives and is known as "extra virgin." The next, known as "fine virgin" (or simply "virgin"), comes from the second pressing. Lower-quality olive oils, including "pure" and "light" (the lowest quality) involve processing and refining.
Another piece of good news is that olive oil has no trans fats, which are unhealthy fats developed by a manufacturing process known as hydrogenation. However, we must caveat that with this point: If you cook olive oil beyond its smoke point, its chemical structure will change and it will partially hydrogenate. This process could produce trans fats.
Olive oil's specific smoke point can vary greatly -- anywhere between 200 and 468 degrees Fahrenheit (104 to 242 degrees Celsius). Generally, the higher the quality of olive oil the lower the smoke point. Too get all the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil, you shouldn't cook beyond 200 degrees F (104 degrees Celsius). However, Dr. David Katz reassures cooks that cooking up to 340 degrees Fahrenheit (171 degrees Celsius) will only minimally damage flavonoids and shouldn't damage the healthy fats.
So as long as you keep an eye on the temperature, olive oil is one of those rare guilt-free pleasures.