You want to use olive oil for its health benefits and high polyphenols are being touted across the web as being THE healthy thing. So what does this mean to the eaters of the world?
For many years talk of the health benefits of olive oil centered around the fats—primarily the monounsaturated fat—it contains. But over the past 15 years, the role of the “minor components” in virgin olive oil has become a focus first of research and, perhaps inevitably, of marketing. This is not surprising given a substantial and growing literature suggesting polyphenols reduce morbidity, slow down the development of cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases, and may also have anticancer activity. As a result, more and more consumers are looking for “high polyphenols” as a sign of a healthful olive oil.
The term polyphenols is used to describe a variety of chemicals—both simple phenols and polyphenols—with a broad range of biochemical activities. Because polyphenols are removed by the refining process, virgin—and especially extra virgin—olive oil is the go-to choice when you are looking for polyphenols. "Regular" or "extra light" olive oil is made by adding some virgin to refined olive oil, so those products do contain some polyphenols from that virgin oil component.
Polyphenols are also responsible for some aspects of the flavor of olive oil: primarily pepperiness (known as “pungency” in olive oil jargon), astringency and bitterness. In broad terms, the higher the level of polyphenols in an extra virgin olive oil, the more pungent, bitter and astringent you would expect the oil to be. It sounds off-putting when we say it like that, but let’s look at this a bit more closely.
Most often pungency or pepperiness in olive oil appears in the throat as anything from a slight tickle to a cough-worthy burn. It can also be chili-like, causing a sensation of heat in the mouth. If you enjoy hot peppers, pungent olive oil will suit you just fine. If you are the culinary equivalent of a tenderfoot, don’t worry! The pungency of olive oil is tempered by food, just like the heat of chilis. You might notice it when you taste it with plain bread, but the burn will be much less evident on a dish of pasta.
Astringency is recognizable as the “grippy” sensation of tannins in strong black tea or some red wines. In some olive oils made from early harvest fruit, the astringency might be noticeable with bread or a very mild food, but it too mellows when mixed with other ingredients.
The attribute that seems the most problematic for a lot of people is bitterness. Bitterness is an acquired taste for humans, and for a good reason. Thinking back to our hunter-gatherer days when we were munching our way through the landscape, bitterness was often a sign of the presence of toxic compounds in plants. But bitterness is also a feature of many incredibly healthful foods like various leafy greens, and olives. Bitter flavors in food have been embraced for years in many countries, and now Americans are catching up. The popularity of things like IPA, espresso coffee and dark chocolate are good examples. Robust extra virgin olive oils fit in this mix—the inherent bitterness in these oils is part of their charm and value in the kitchen.
But it is important to use these higher polyphenol, earlier harvest oils in the right way. If you are new to olive oil and you taste a robust oil on a piece of white bread, there is a good chance you will be… surprised. Shocked even. The bitterness will probably seem overwhelming and you may not like it at all. Similarly, if you put this same robust oil on a salad of butter lettuce and mushrooms, the bitterness will dominate.
Instead, try pouring that same robust oil on a plate of hot beans (try cannellini or a puree of garbanzos cooked simply with a little salt) and you will have a completely different experience. The heat will release wonderful aromas of green olive fruit and your palate will be delighted by beans that taste, well, just delicious. The bitterness that was overwhelming on a cold delicate salad perfectly complements (and enhances) the flavor of the hot beans. Try a robust oil on tomatoes and tomato-based dishes. On hearty soups and stews. Grilled meat or mushrooms. You get the idea…
Think of these robust oils as the olive oil equivalent of a tannic red wine. Just as a Cabernet Sauvignon would likely not be the right choice to accompany a shrimp salad, a robust green Coratina is probably not the oil you will want to drizzle on a poached white fish.
As over time your extra virgin olive oil explorations continue, your taste will probably broaden to include robust choices that you might not have enjoyed in the early days. To use the wine analogy, this is completely natural: most people start exploring wine with fruitier, sweeter choices, and with time learn to love the more astringent and acidic options.
The bottom line is this: Don’t let your desire for the healthiest olive oil drive you away from eating something that you enjoy. Choose extra virgin for the healthiest choice, but don’t feel like the only healthful choice is something that tastes unpleasantly bitter and peppery to you. If you are new to olive oil, it's fine to start with a mild extra virgin (or even a regular olive oil if you want something ultra mild to start with). You don't need to use a super high polyphenol oil to get health benefits. Unlike a medicine that is something to gulp down, inject or otherwise introduce into our bodies with as little notice as possible, extra virgin olive oil is a source of pleasure and should be savored. Yes, it is healthy, but it’s also tasty—and it makes other healthy foods more delicious. Find an extra virgin olive oil that you enjoy, and eat it at every meal, replacing other fats. In fact, get two: one affordable EVOO for cooking and a higher-priced better-quality choice for raw use. You may find that olive oil makes healthy vegetables and legumes so tasty that “Eat your vegetables!” will be replaced by “Can I finish the kale?”