by Dr Simon Poole and Judy Ridgway

Published September 2016 by Robinson, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group.

On my first reading of this book on ‘the original superfood’, I confess to feeling a sense of frustration. I was reminded, in parts, of a sixth-former’s essay written at midnight (I remember them well!) with sweeping, unsubstantiated statements such as ‘Numerous studies attest to the health benefits of this kind of diet, cutting the risks of many chronic diseases by quite substantial percentages’ (p54). However, on subsequent readings, I have found more to appreciate and applaud, and indeed it is important at the outset to note that this is one of the first books to attempt to gather together scientific evidence as to the benefits of olive oil and to present it in terms that the lay person can easily access. It deserves to be commended on that basis alone. And it does not attempt to preach or convert by any means other than information and evident enthusiasm. Both Dr Poole and Ms Ridgway are passionate and long-serving devotees to olive oil and they both have a genuine desire to communicate its many benefits.

The book is made up of four parts: Discovering the Secrets of Olive Oil; Choosing and Using Olive Oils; the Seven Pillars of the Olive Oil Diet; and Recipes for Well-Being using olive oil in each.

The first part tries to explain the differences between fats (the saturated, and mono-, poly- and even trans-saturated fats), and outline the benefits of antioxidants, specifically polyphenols which are only found in extra virgin and virgin olive oil (as opposed to other oils). It seems these can vary from less than 50mg/kg in refined oils to 700mg/kg in many quality extra virgin olive oils. The benefits to be derived from these polyphenolic antioxidants are many and varied, including protection agains cardiovascular diorders, Type 2 Diabetes, prevention of certain cancers especially bowel, throat and skin cancers, and even dementia, especially Alzheimer’s.

In Part 2 – Choosing and Using Olive Oils – the authors actually give useful guidelines about how to identify an olive oil high in polyphenols. For example, certain olives such as the Kouroneiki olive of Greece or the Coratina from Italy, are naturally high in polyphenols whereas the widely planted Arbequina from Spain is notably low in polyphenols. In addition, olives that are harvested ‘early’ – rather than ‘late’ when yields might be greater – tend to be higher in polyphenols so, if buying an artisan olive oil, check the actual date of harvest on the bottle. Many producers are even beginning to add ‘Early Harvest’ to their label. Later in this section, methods of harvesting, milling, filtering and bottling are all clearly described, and useful information about containers and storage are also provided.

Part 3: The Seven Pillars of the Olive Oil Diet is where the authors gain credit first of all for not pedalling a diet that excludes certain foods such as fats, sugars, or carbohydrates, but rather one that is an ‘inclusive diet based on getting the best out of all that is eaten’. Additionally, they do not try to put olive oil on an unrealistic pedestal as the all-encompassing Super Food but instead are at pains to underline olive oil as an ingredient that helps to change ‘the way in which foods are absorbed, thereby increasing the availability of other beneficial ingredients’.

The last half of this 294 page book is made up of recipes. There are not many cook books these days that can get away with not having any photographs but ‘The Olive Oil Diet’ has a decent layout and, by Part 4, has managed to convince you that you are dealing with a reference book more than a cook book. This is underlined by the occasional additional Healthy Highlight comment, which draws attention to specific nutritional benefits of the dish (which is high in Omega 3 for example or that Rosemary and Ginger each contain anti-inflammatory properties).

As an introduction to the increasingly popular and important subject of the health aspects of the Mediterranean Diet in general and the benefits of olive oil in particular, this is a very welcome publication. If one bears in mind that it is intended for the lay-reader then its initial shortcomings recede and the positive aspects of accessibility, clarity and practicality come to the fore. I regret the absence of any footnotes, references or bibliography. And that only three scientific studies are referred to specifically (namely The EPIC Study of 40,000 Spaniards; the Predimed (Prevencioncon Dieta Mediterranea) Study also based in Spain, involving over 7,000 participants; and the University of Bordeaux study involving 7,500 individuals) was disappointing. There is, however, a useful glossary and a passable index.

In a mark of great modesty, neither author provides a link to their own websites but I would recommend pursuing them. Judy Ridgway has an informative site which includes links to her many other books, and Dr Simon Poole has a not for profit site where you can even download free, his book on the Mediterranean Diet called ‘Positively Good for You’.

What is not in doubt is the desire of both Poole and Ridgway to further our knowledge of olive oil and, by taking a sensible, balanced approach, to improve our general health as well.