Oil boom — Americans catching on to health ingredient's benefits, versatility

Published: Wednesday, May 16 2007 12:00 a.m. MDT

Tuna & Tomato Pasta Salad

August Miller, Deseret Morning News

Olive oil has become the fat of choice for health-conscious cooks. Long a staple in Mediterranean countries, Americans are catching on to the fact that olive oil is more versatile than salad dressing and bread-dipping.

Canned tuna, when packed in olive oil, has elevated its prestige among foodies. And on the baking front, olive oil has found its way into cakes, cookies and pies. Utahn Micki Sannar of Highland recently self-published a book called "Olive Oil Desserts," which contains 52 recipes with favorites such as chocolate chip cookies, cheesecake and brownies.

Sannar said she started baking with olive oil for her family about five years ago, when she and her husband were diagnosed with high LDL (low-density lipoprotein, or "bad") cholesterol. Switching from butter, margarine and shortening to olive oil is part of what she calls "stealth nutrition."

"When people have to change their diets, it's easier to just change it slightly," she said. "People still want dessert. If the taste and texture is off, nobody is going to eat it."

She credits the monounsaturated fat in olive oil for lowering her LDL cholesterol and raising her HDL (high-density lipoprotein, or "good") cholesterol. Butter contains saturated fat, and margarine and shortening contain hydrogenated oils, or trans fats, which studies have linked to added risk of heart disease.

In addition to the monounsaturated fat, numerous studies have lauded the health benefits of antioxidants and phenolic compounds found in olive oil.

Sannar's recipes required some experimentation, because butter or shortening give baked goods a tender and flaky texture. Sannar found you need one-fourth to one-third less olive oil than shortening or butter, "Otherwise the recipe will be too greasy," she said. She was also able to adapt many recipes to whole-wheat pastry flour, another nutrition bonus.

Still, one should keep in mind that these desserts are not fat- or calorie-free.

Olive oil — like all oils — has 120 calories per tablespoon (butter and regular margarine have 100 calories per tablespoon).

However, many of the cakes in the cookbook are unfrosted, because "They're so rich and good they don't need frosting. I just do a dusting with powdered sugar or a glaze. That cuts a lot of calories. I tried to cut back on sugar, but I had to use enough to keep the taste and texture. It's still dessert, and you need those fats and sugar to fix the cravings," Sannar said.

"The biggest challenge I had was getting a pie crust," she said. "I thought I wouldn't be able to get a pie crust in my cookbook because it was so hard. But I finally got it, and the texture is amazing. It really is flaky. One of the secrets is that I use buttermilk in it."

When she decided to publish her book, she invited friends and neighbors to a tasting of 26 recipes. "Anything rated below an 8 was taken out," she said. "I had such great reviews on the pie crust, and people were surprised that it all tasted so good."

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Then there's the tuna-in-olive-oil phenomenon. Long a staple in Mediterranean countries, tuna packed in olive oil now has Americans coughing up as much as $10 for a 7-ounce jar. Why? Connoisseurs say the tuna has a better flavor and texture when packed in olive oil.

"Olive oil is a better preservative, due to all the polyphenols it contains," said Matt Caputo of Caputo's Market & Deli, where the demand for the tuna has surged over the past five years. "But it's also better for you, and it's a nicer flavor."