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Cooking with Diabetes Tip: Use Olive Oil

Olive oil is an excellent way to add flavor to a dish while watching the nutritional content (important for people with diabetes).  As a cook and cookbook author, I have a lot of experience with olive oils, so I thought I'd share some of this with you as you strive to eat well with diabetes.

Several years ago when I was serving on the board of directors of the Connecticut Women's Culinary Alliance, I hosted an olive oil tasting party for fellow food writers, food editors, chefs, and others interested in networking and learning more about food and its presentation.

Since it was in the dead of winter and a major snowstorm was brewing, I doubted if we'd have a great attendance at the early evening tasting.

I collected 35 bottles of olive oil, priced from $2.49 a bottle to $38.99, that would encompass a wide range of flavor from fruity to peppery, mild to intensely strong.

More than 40 women showed up that snowy evening.

As you've likely found yourself, there's a dazzling array of olive oils available from Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Morocco, Turkey, Tunisia, and California. Since most of us only have one or two bottles of olive oil in our kitchen at any given time, this was a chance to try many olive oils at one time and was worth braving the elements.

After spending an hour or so dipping small squares of bread into dishes of extra-virgin olive oil, then lettuce leaves, we found some old and some new favorites.

But before you run to the store to buy new olive oils to try, take a few moments to learn about olive oil.

When olives ripen, they change colors from green to violet and then to black, and can be pressed for their oil at any stage of the ripening process. This is why olive oils have differences in flavor, viscosity, and color.

Virgin olive oil is the most sought after, and the most expensive. Some people say virgin olive oil (extra-virgin means that the acidity is naturally less than 1%) is wasted for cooking.

We don't agree. We learned from the fabulous chefs who participated in creating one of our cookbooks, The Joslin Diabetes Great Chefs Cook Healthy Cookbook, that the right extra-virgin olive oil complements a cooked dish. So we no longer restrict its use to uncooked foods such as salads.

If the recipe says "olive oil" without mention of "virgin" or "extra-virgin," you can be assured that it has been heated or changed with chemical influence or both. These oils are still fine to use, but they are a bit dull in taste.

"Light olive oil" means that it has been filtered, giving it the pale color and flavor that comes from taking out some of what makes olive oils taste so good. If you're cooking with it, that won't matter so much; but if you're wanting to dress a salad, mix it with some extra-virgin olive oil to give it back some of its integrity.

Where Olive Oil Is Produced
Italy leads the world in olive oil production, ranging in flavor from fruity to nearly throat-catching peppery (a quality much prized by Italians).

It was in Sicily that I was introduced to Ravida, a vibrant green colored olive oil whose pungent taste stands up well to the robust flavor of Sicilian cooking.

Spain holds second place in olive oil production-known for their rich, slightly nutty, and fruity oils, grown mainly in the regions of Cordoba and Jaen in the southern part of Spain. Ones to try are Unió, mild and fruity with soft peppery finish, and Badia, a great, inexpensive well-rounded oil found in many supermarkets.

Greece is the world's third largest producer of olive oil; theirs are easy to find and inexpensive.

I particularly love the Terra Medi, for which we watched the beginning of the annual harvest in the Peloponnese region. It's smooth, well-rounded, and not too heavy.

That still leaves olive oils produced in Morocco, Turkey, Tunisia, and the Napa Valley region of California. Although we've tried several varieties from each country and will continue to do so (especially when we're in the area), but we still favor the oils previously described.

Whether you choose an imported or domestic olive oil is a matter of taste. Picking an olive oil is much like choosing a cheese:  some are strong, others are mild, some are peppery in taste, others are buttery and sweet, some are grassy and citrusy while yet others are fruity. Some are just exquisite.

The best way to choose an olive oil is to taste. Second best way:  ask questions and buy a small bottle the first time to make sure it's what you want.

At home, store the olive oil away from heat and light. Use within a year.

Updated on: October 25, 2012
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