Olive oil may help fight disease

Most health experts agree one of the best dietary fats to use regularly is extra-virgin olive oil. This oil, a mainstay in the Mediterranean Diet, is high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and also contains disease-fighting phytonutrients.

Scientific studies now indicate these properties of extra-virgin olive oil may provide protection against disease.

For example, researchers writing in Journal of Nutrition found two biophenols found in extra-virgin olive oil — protocatechuic acid and oleuropein — prevent oxidation of LDL cholesterol. LDL is known as the “bad” cholesterol because when it oxidizes it can deposit on artery walls.

Other research indicates olive oil may help fight breast cancer. Researchers reporting in Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention found that among residents of Northern Italy those who consumed higher amounts of raw salad vegetables and olive oil had significantly reduced risk of breast cancer. Other studies have indicated extra-virgin olive oil can reduce the risk of some cancers, such as colon cancer, by influencing the metabolism of the intestines.

Olive oil contains 77 percent monounsaturated fat with only 9 percent polyunsaturated fat. Other good sources of monounsaturated fat include almonds and avocados.

While most other dietary oils are virtually absent of phytonutrient phenols, extra-virgin olive oil, obtained from the whole fruit using the cold-press technique, is very high in phenols. Other sources include fruits, vegetables, cocoa, and red wine.

Extra-virgin also is the tastiest and has less than 1 percent natural acid. It is best consumed raw on salads or used in low-heat cooking. Though the polyunsaturated portion is relatively low, this fat is subject to oxidation at high heat, and heat also may destroy the valuable phytonutrients in the oil.

The unbearable lightness of lard

Here in the U.S., nutritionists warn against lard saying it is an “artery clogging saturated fat.” But lard or pork fat is a dietary mainstay in the country of Georgia and the Vilcabamba region of Ecuador where people are noted for their longevity.

Lard really should be classified as a monounsaturated fat because it contains more of this heart-healthy fat than saturated. Lard also is high in vitamin D and is preferred by chefs for its flavor.

In addition to its high monounsaturated content, lard contains less saturated fat and cholesterol than butter. Here’s the math on a tablespoon of lard:

  • 5.7 grams of monounsaturated fat compared to 3.3 for butter.
  • 5 grams of saturated fat compared to 7.1 for butter.
  • Less than half the cholesterol of butter — 12.1 mg compared to 31 mg.

Lard also stands up to heat well, with less polyunsaturated fat than olive oil — 1.4 grams compared to 2. Polyunsaturated fats oxidize easily in heat, creating free-radicals, which have been linked to cancer formation.

Many in the health field have urged people to substitute polyunsaturated fats (vegetable oils) for fats like lard. Meanwhile, rates of chronic illness have soared.

Of course there can be too much of a good thing, and you want to consume an appropriate amount of lard as part of a healthy diet including plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits. As with any high-fat food, it’s best to buy organic lard, as pesticides, heavy metals and other toxins tend to bind to fats. I recently purchased a quart of organic lard made from the fat of pasture-raised pigs from my friends at Larga Vista Ranch — it’s out of this world for scrambling eggs or sautéing greens.