It is nearly impossible for me to imagine my kitchen without extra-virgin olive oil within reach of the stove-top. I have other oils, but, honestly, they are for occasional usage. I can do almost all my cooking, from sautéing to baking, with olive oil. Since I started my foray into self-taught, gourmet cooking by way of Italian cuisine, my reliance on -- and love for – olive oil makes sense.
So, imagine my dismay when a group of friends at a wild plant foraging workshop discussed casually the carcinogenic dangers of cooking olive oil at high temperatures. Canola oil, they claimed, was the high heat oil of choice. Really? Considering both the presence of olive oil in the typical Mediterranean diet and the famously low instances of cancer among eaters of said diet, I was highly skeptical. According to The Olive Oil Source, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are released when petroleum, petroleum products, coal, wood, oil and other substances are burned. Exposure to PAHs is pretty widespread, too. We breathe them in pretty much any time there’s smoke (including tobacco smoke), and we are exposed to them through asphalt, agricultural burning, waste incineration, creosote-treated wood products, cereals, grains, flour, bread, vegetables, fruits, meat, processed or pickled foods. Of the over 100 PAHs identified by the EPA and The Department of Health and Human Services, a few of them have been found to be carcinogenic to lab animals with the assumption being made that they are probably (but not definitively) carcinogenic to humans. The same risk exists in eating charred meat as with eating burned oils. The fear is that heating oil above its smoke point could release PAHs that cause cancer. However, the studies show that the potential risks posed by PAHs in olive oil are no more than many other oils and foods. Since olive oil (and many other foods) contain antioxidants, the release of PAHs is somewhat compensated for until the oil is burned or spoiled.
The studies mentioned above show that links between PAHs and cancer are not conclusive (and, in fact, do not isolate olive oil as more or less dangerous than any other oil or food). So, where did this olive oil scare come from? The simple answer seems to be Sheryl Crow. While there have been no studies to link cancer to olive oil, the singer claims that in her battle with breast cancer, her nutritionist warned her of the “danger.” Apparently, the authority of this “expert” was enough to set off a slight media panic, getting people all worked up about olive oil.
Now, I’m not going to tell ANY cancer patient or survivor that the steps they take to ensure their health are in vain. It could be, that in being vigilant about her exposure to PAHs, Crow was able to boost her body’s immunity . . . but there is just no way to know for sure, and there seems to be no reason, in my mind, to stop cooking with olive oil. The only reasonable advice seems to be to avoid heating olive oil (or ANY oil) past its smoke point. For olive oil, some sources say the smoke point is around 375 degrees F, others, 400. All I know is, if my oil starts smoking, it’s going to taste bad, burn the garlic, etc. Most people would not be so silly/extravagant as to try to deep fry with olive oil, but sautéing your veggies on the stove-top is not likely to burn the oil unless you’re not being careful.
So, how does a food myth like this one become sanctified wisdom repeated by well-meaning, health-conscious folks? I blame “nutritionism” – a term coined by Senator George McGovern in 1982 – and recently made (in)famous by Michael Pollan in his most recent book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. Pollan describes nutritionism as the belief that eating is for purposes of nutrition, and that the nutrients in our food are what’s important. As benign as this belief may appear at first, it’s actually reductionist . . . and wrong. In truth, we eat for a whole bunch of reasons, not just in order to obtain “nutrients” – taste, pleasure, social interaction, community, celebration, seduction, emotional soothing – all are reasons to eat.
But, according to nutritionism, we’re supposed to avoid certain nutrients (such as saturated fats) and chug others (antioxidants, omega-3s) . . . right? Well, maybe.
When we look at traditional cuisines, such as those of the French or Italians, we see the presence of all manner of foods that have been demonized by food science – fatty meats, cheese, butter, sugar, bread. If we were to trust nutritionism and its adherents and flame-fanners, then the French should have gone extinct years ago.
Miraculously, the French survive . . . and so does their food. The same is true for Italians and their cuisine as well as those of many other Mediterranean cultures.
Pollan and I concur: maybe it’s not the food scientists, nutritionists and celebrities we should be relying upon for our food wisdom, but upon, rather, the grandmothers – the memeres and the nonas – and other traditional cooks who have been feeding, and not killing, their families for years.