By Sasha Papovich

The Greek poet Homer called it "liquid gold." It's mentioned in the Bible, the Talmud, and the Koran. Greek mythology includes the story of the goddess Athena winning great praise from Zeus for her useful invention of the olive tree. For millennia, the olive tree has been a symbol of peace, purification, and good health. And in recent years, we've all heard the good news that the high-fat oil of the olive fruit is actually good for you. Is it possible that olive oil merits the reverence of ancient Mediterranean culture and the respect of the medical establishment of the West? And if so, what's the real scoop on how to get the most benefit and enjoyment from it?

Olive oil is the only vegetable oil that is created simply by pressing the raw material—in this case, olives. Extra virgin is the best quality because it comes from the first pressing of the olives and is therefore the least processed, which matters to those of us interested in olive oil for its health benefits.

Recent research does indeed show that olive oil is a medicinal powerhouse. More than just an improvement over animal-fat-based oils, antioxidant-rich olive oil can actually protect against degenerative diseases like heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer. The FDA has officially credited olive oil with decreasing the risk of coronary heart disease. Olive oil's role in the prevention of bone density loss, diabetes, and obesity is being explored.

And now a little more about those health benefits . . .

Olive oil is composed largely of monounsaturated fatty acids—sometimes called good fats. Monounsaturated fatty acids keep HDL—the so-called good cholesterol—levels up and LDL, the so-called bad cholesterol, levels down. LDL is the main source of cholesterol buildup in the arteries, and HDL actually works to clear cholesterol from the blood.

The nutrition community is somewhat divided right now as to whether saturated fat and its effect on cholesterol is truly an issue. If you happen to be on the pro-saturated-fat side, olive oil still offers you a host of benefits, primarily because it contains natural antioxidants—polyphenols—which prevent the formation of certain free radicals that cause cell destruction within the body. Free radicals are linked to heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and the general degenerative process of aging.

Recent studies show that olive oil's polyphenols also inhibit another one of the processes that contribute to heart disease. This means that not only do the monounsaturated fats in olive oil resist the plaque-forming process that leads to heart disease, but the antioxidants actually help to inhibit that process as well. When people with high cholesterol levels removed the saturated fat from their diets and replaced it with olive oil, their LDL cholesterol levels dropped by 18 percent. Another study reported that 2 tablespoons a day of olive oil added to an otherwise unchanged diet resulted in significant drops in total and LDL cholesterol. These impressive results can be understood as a by-product of the monounsaturated fats AND of the high levels of polyphenols that are present in olive oil.

But wait, there's more!

Research on olive oil and the symptoms of diabetes has also shown that a diet rich in olive oil helps to prevent belly-fat accumulation and the insulin resistance seen after the high-carbohydrate meals. Anti-inflammatory substances linked to the monounsaturated fats in olive oil can help reduce the severity of arthritis symptoms, and may be able to prevent or reduce the severity of asthma. And early studies reveal that the phenols in olive oil can lessen the inflammation-mediated bone loss involved in osteoporosis.

How much is enough?

So now that we're confident that olive oil is good for the heart and is likely good for many other degenerative or inflammatory conditions, we can look at how to go about adding this nutritional elixir to our diets. Experts agree that at least 2 tablespoons (23 grams) of olive oil a day is needed for any of these preventive purposes. While it's true that olive oil adds great benefit regardless of what else you're eating, you can benefit most by substituting olive oil for less healthy fats, rather than just adding more olive oil to your diet.

The most important point about usage, however, is not how much olive oil we consume a day, but what kind of olive oil we use and how we store it.

Olive oil shopping

All olive oil contains monounsaturated fat and phenols, but the amounts vary wildly depending upon the type of olive oil and how it is handled. Simply put: If you're interested in the health benefits of olive oil, don't buy anything less than extra virgin olive oil! All types of olive oil contain monounsaturated fat, but extra virgin olive oils are the least processed forms, which means that their phenol (antioxidant) content is the highest.

Just as important as the purity of the olive oil you buy is its storage both before and after you get it home. Olive oil can become rancid from exposure to light and heat, but even low levels of light and heat exposure that don't cause rancidity can cause the breakdown of phenols, thereby canceling out many of the health-enhancing benefits. Research has shown that consuming olive oil that has been degraded by light and heat is simply not as beneficial, so do your best to control for light and heat both before and after you buy the olive oil.

Look for olive oil that is sold in dark-tinted bottles, since the packaging will help protect the purity and nutritional value of the oil. (Research shows that after just 2 months' exposure to light, antioxidant levels had dropped so much the olive oil could no longer be classified as extra virgin.)

Ask your grocer how long the olive oil has been out; purchase olive oil that has spent the minimum time sitting on the shelf by checking the expiration date or by choosing the bottles at the back of the shelf, as the newest ones often reside there.

Buy your olive oil in smaller containers and store it in the dark.

How to care for and cook with your olive oil

Once you get it home, make sure the oil is stored in a cool area, away from any direct or indirect contact with heat. You can leave a small bottle out at room temperature, refrigerating the rest and refilling your daily-use bottle every week or so. (Refrigerated olive oil will solidify and turn slightly cloudy, but will become clear and liquid as it returns to room temperature.)

Add olive oil to foods immediately after cooking to get the most nutritional benefit. All cooking oils have a "smoke point" at which they begin to break down, thereby compromising taste and, in the case of olive oil, phenols. Although different sources report various grades of olive oil as having various smoke points, it's generally accepted that extra virgin olive oil has a much lower smoke point (anywhere from 200 degrees to the high 300s). If you do want to cook with olive oil (which is perfectly fine and, if done right, delicious), buy a separate bottle of regular or "light" oil, which has a much higher smoke point, upward of 400 degrees.

Instead of serving butter, fill a small condiment dish with extra virgin olive oil for use on bread, rolls, potatoes, or other vegetables. For more flavor, try adding a few drops of balsamic vinegar or a sprinkling of your favorite spices to the olive oil. You can also drizzle your daily serving of 2 tablespoons of olive oil over just about anything after it's been cooked: a morning frittata, your lunchtime salad (mixed with balsamic or a flavored vinegar), or your dinner vegetables, pasta, fish, or chicken.

Trendy superfoods may come and go, but olive oil has been here since the days of the ancient Greeks, and today's medical research validates its long-lived reputation. Whether you're primarily interested in cardiovascular health or protection against degenerative diseases, adding olive oil to your daily diet is delicious and healthful, so drizzle it into your nutrition plan today.