By Daniel Williams
Olive Oil Times Contributor | Reporting from Barcelona
Gastronomically speaking, it’s no secret that the Spanish are a bit olive oil obsessed. Here in Spain, extra virgin olive oil is used by professional and amateur chefs as the go-to cooking agent in Spanish cuisine. Whether you’re dining at a tapas bar or at a Spaniard’s dinner table, olive oil is always found at a meal in one form or another. Despite being used to cook meats and vegetables, it is drizzled on bread as a healthy substitute for butter or used as a standard Spanish salad dressing when coupled with vinegar. The ubiquitous oil, sold cheaply in a number of subtle variations, is a defining characteristic of the Spanish menu along with fruit, vegetables and fish in what is known collectively as the “Mediterranean diet.” As part of this diet, the average Spaniard consumes (in various forms) a whopping 13.62 kg of olive oil each year, almost 25 times more than their American counterparts. And so as an American ex-pat in Spain who is now very much a part of this olive oil obsessed population, I couldn’t help but wonder– what kind of effect does this olive oil intake have on the overall health of the Spanish population?
According to researchers and avid proponents of the olive oil rich Mediterranean diet, the effects of this consumption are overwhelmingly positive. Despite a far-from-perfect health system and some of the world’s highest rates of tobacco and alcohol consumption, Spaniards still show low incidences of cirrhosis, strokes, various cancers, and heart disease. Spaniards also boast the 3rd longest life expectancy in the world, trailing only the Italians and Swedes, and live a stunning 3 years longer than the average American. Researchers agree that the secret to Spanish health can be largely attributed to their olive oil obsessed diet.
To satisfy ever-increasing demands for this “liquid gold”, olive oil production in Spain has become as widespread as its consumption. The olive arrived to the coasts of the Iberian Peninsula some 6,000 years ago via the Phoenicians and the Greeks and remains one of Spain’s most prized commodities and an integral part of both its national and international economies. Olive groves currently dominate an estimated 6 million acres of the country with some 80 percent of the crop grown in the southern region of Andalucía, known for its favorable, sun-soaked climate. With help from various government subsidies, Spain stands as the leading exporter and producer of olive oil in the world and despite shipping hundreds of thousands of barrels of Spanish olive oil around the globe, a large percentage stays local where it is consumed by Spaniards themselves. This huge internal demand for local olive oil combined with large-scale methods of production result in a high quality, inexpensive olive oil available to the Spanish consumer regardless of economic status.
So exactly how cheap is olive oil in Spain? When compared to similar grade olive oils in leading United States supermarkets, I found that the olive oil in Spain (specifically that of my home town, Barcelona) was consistently over 4 times cheaper than what was available in the US – roughly $3 per liter vs. $13 per liter. The affordability of Spanish olive oil comes from the country’s self-perpetuating cycle of supply and demand; people consume olive oil because it is affordable and it is affordable because people consume it. Conversely, in the United States the high prices of imported olive oil seem to have cemented low levels of consumption. In the calorie-conscious US, olive oil is often either passed over altogether for its high caloric content or substituted for cheaper cooking oils like Canola or Sunflower. And while these oils may not be as detrimental to one’s health as margarine or butter, they still lack the powerful concentration of vitamins and anti-inflammatory properties of olive oil which researchers have attributed to significant long term health benefits.
Countless studies have shown olive oil to be rich in the kind of anti-hypertensive antioxidants that fight against clogged arteries while also containing high levels of polyphenol antioxidants- a chemical substance found in plants hailed for its anti-aging properties in the prevention of various cancers. And unlike many of the cooking agents used in the United States, olive oil has a higher proportion of monounsaturated fats like oleic acid, known in health circles as “the good fat” for reducing the risk of coronary heart disease by regulating and reducing LDL cholesterol in the body. Nutritionally speaking, olive oil is also jam-packed with essential vitamins A, B-1, B-2, C, D, E and K and when used as a cooking oil, as it is throughout the entirety of Spain, it has been found to increase the potency of vitamins and minerals in the very food it cooks.
So is olive oil the key to Spanish longevity? Despite undisputed evidence of its healthful properties, some epidemiologists say that it’s difficult to point to olive oil as the singular contributor to the prevention of disease and long-life promises of the Mediterranean diet. What is undeniable however is that a diet rich in olive oil has a definite collective benefit when combined with a menu of fruit, vegetables and fish. We can see this benefit in a quantifiable way in our statistical assessment of the Spanish population: together with their Mediterranean cousins, Spaniards are living longer with lower incidences of cancer and disease. Olive oil is a key ingredient in this healthy dietary equation together with regular exercise and responsible lifestyle choices. So regardless of whether you are here in Spain or back in the United States, whether you like it intenso or suave, olive oil offers you flavorful food and long-life in each and every drop. Salud!
1. UC Davis “California and World Olive Oil Statistics”.
2. Spanish Health Ministry “Health in the Spanish population”.