What is ”Extra Virgin?”

When I was younger, I was convinced that I wanted to live to be 100 years old. Just a few years back, I remember flipping through the channels on TV when a sound bite caught my attention: a woman half a world away proclaimed to be the oldest person ever, at 120 years old. The child in me was immediately captivated, and put down the remote to hear the rest of the story.
How did this woman do it? I wondered with the rest of the viewers what her secret could be to such an extraordinarily long life. Turns out, it wasn’t a magical concoction, no mysterious potion to which the woman attributed her longevity. No, the “secret” was much simpler than that – in fact, one of the most basic, natural ingredients in Mediterranean foods: olive oil.
Olive oil?! Forget the old adage of “an apple a day will keep the doctor away” – a half-cup of olive oil a day is what this extremely elderly woman was crediting her incredible age to.
A favorite dipping oil for bread among a slew of Italian restaurants, a cherished ingredient of chefs everywhere, olive oil has been extracted from the olive trees native to Mediterranean countries for thousands of years. Whether served as a companion to bread or salad, an integral component to a favorite dish, or used to sauté tasty veggies, extra virgin olive oil is an absolute must-have in every Italian kitchen.
Similar to judging the clarity of a diamond, extra virgin olive oil is categorized as such based on its purity. Oil worthy enough of receiving the coveted “extra virgin” label is extracted from olives that are perfectly ripe. Because extra virgin and virgin olive oils are less processed than other forms of the oil, they contain a greater amount of monounsaturated fatty acids, as well as an increased amount of polyphenols. Both monounsaturated fatty acid and polyphenols have proven health benefits. Known as a “healthy fat,” olive oil (particularly extra virgin oil) reduces blood cholesterol and decreases risk of colon cancer. Lesser known medical benefits include the application of oil to soothe diaper rash for babies, or used on a cotton swab to eliminate ear wax.

Health benefits can be seen, literally, on the exterior of the body as well: olive oil penetrates deep in to the layers of the skin and is a natural moisturizer. It comes as no surprise that this fact makes it an important ingredient, not only in the foods we eat, but in skin care as well. Check your favorite moisturizing and make-up products to see if they contain olive oil. It is also thought to prevent skin cancers when applied after UV exposure. In addition to the skin, olive oil is an amazing conditioner for hair – not only does it make hair soft and full of nourishment, but it can strengthen your strands far greater than other oils. Hair care gurus insist that olive oil promotes a healthy scalp and that regular users will never have to worry about embarrassing dandruff flakes. Manicurists use the oil to soak hands prior to treatment and to moisturize cuticles. The next time you’re looking for a fabulous all-in-one skin and hair care product, consider this culinary ingredient. All you need for your at-home spa may be found in the aisle of your local grocery store.
For the true Italian, it is plausible that olive oil can be used in numerous ways throughout your daily routine. Imagine waking up and attending church services. Olive oil is used for various blessings, including baptism, anointing of the sick, confirmation, in addition to consecrations of altars and churches. After mass, you indulge in a meal that begins with breaking bread and dipping the slices in a generous, thick coat of extra virgin olive oil. Your salad arrives with the lettuce leaves drizzled with the same glimmering oil. Your pasta is tossed with olive oil, and the oil lamp glowing over your table is fueled with the same ingredient. When in your own kitchen, you use olive oil to lubricate your cookware, measuring cups, blenders, and other appliances. You move from the kitchen to the dining room, bringing your olive oil and a cloth along to polish your wood furniture. You go a step further and move to your closet, where you use the olive oil to polish your shoes. Olive oil can be used outside the home as well, applying it to yard tools to prevent dirt build up during long days in the gardens. As you end your day, you moisturize with this natural oil. Before you slip in to bed, you sip a bit of this magic and allow it to lubricate your throat muscles to give you a snore-less, peaceful night’s sleep. One ingredient, yet there are seemingly limitless “recipes.”
Olive oil, so simple and basic, often regarded as just a liquid on a small plate to dip bread in before a meal, or another item in a long list of ingredients in a recipe, contains so much more vitality than meets the eye. Just as it has the ability to deeply penetrate skin, olive oil trickles its way into many aspects of every-day living and serves a wide variety of purposes. I use it nearly every time I cook, as I have for many years – except now, I am reminded of the 120 year old woman thousands of miles away who has convinced me that olive oil may be one of life’s great “secret” after all.