Here's hoping America's love affair with lowfat food is over. Avocado, olive oil, and other oils just got much healthier for your heart, given the new Food and Drug Administration (FDA) designation last month for oils high in oleic acid. Oleic acid happens to be found in many foods that are part of the Mediterranean pattern of eating for better heart health and reduced cancer risk.
One of the highest sources of oleic acid is olive oil, which contains up to 80% oleic acid. That may be good news for women, as one study suggests eating extra virgin olive oil as part of a Mediterranean diet led to a 62% relatively lower risk of breast cancer, compared to the control group. The study compared those who ate a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil, to those who ate a lowfat Mediterranean diet. Note that the study specified extra virgin olive oil.
Avocados in the market
The FDA found "credible evidence" linking oleic acid and reduced risk of coronary heart disease. Oleic oil may reduce cholesterol and blood pressure. Coronary heart disease (CAD) is caused by a narrowing of the arteries, usually due to fatty plaques from cholesterol. Plaques can reduce, and sometimes block (by a blood clot) the flow of blood to the heart. Heart disease surpasses cancer as the number one cause of death in most states, and CAD is the most common form of heart disease, according to the CDC.
Besides olive oil, the FDA included sunflower oil, canola, or any oil containing at least 70% of oleic acid per serving. A serving is 1½ tablespoons (20 grams) of oil. A qualified health claim is backed up by evidence, but does not meet the stronger standard of an authorized health claim, which requires significant scientific agreement. A qualified health claim must contain a disclaimer on the product label.
The qualified health claim for oleic acid will read:
"Supportive but not conclusive scientific evidence suggests that daily consumption of about 1½ tablespoons (20 grams) of oils containing high levels of oleic acid, when replaced for fats and oils higher in saturated fat, may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. To achieve this possible benefit, oleic acid-containing oils should not increase the total number of calories you eat in a day. One serving of [x] oil provides [x] grams of oleic acid (which is [x] grams of monounsaturated fatty acid).”
“Supportive but not conclusive scientific evidence suggests that daily consumption of about 1½ tablespoons (20 grams) of oils containing high levels of oleic acid, may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. To achieve this possible benefit, oleic acid-containing oils should replace fats and oils higher in saturated fat and not increase the total number of calories you eat in a day. One serving of [x] oil provides [x] grams of oleic acid (which is [x] grams of monounsaturated fatty acid.”
Note that this qualified health claim for reducing heart disease only applies when oleic acid is "replaced for fats and oils higher in saturated fat." The oils carrying this label are high oleic sunflower oil, high oleic safflower oil (another type of safflower is not high oleic), and high oleic canola oil. Good news for vegans, as high oleic algal oil is also included in this qualified health claim.
Oleic acid is a monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acid found in abundance in nature and the diet of most Americans. Aside from high oleic oils, plant sources of oleic acid are nuts such as almonds, sunflower seeds, pasta, the beloved avocado, and olives. In fact, oleic oil is named for olive oil, as it refers to "related to" olive and olive oil, which are highest in oleic acid. Olive oil and almond oil are naturally high in oleic acid (80%). These types of oils are characterized by appearance. They are liquid at room temperature, and cloudy when chilled.
The body makes it own oleic acid as needed, so it's not considered an essential nutrient, compared to the nutrients we need directly from food. The majority of the American diet is based on other foods rich in oleic acid, such as soybean, palm, and corn oils. Thus, oleic-derived foods make up about 12% or our calories, which is more than enough to meet nutritional needs. Most nutrition experts agree the type of fat and the amount are important considerations for disease prevention. It might be higher or lower, depending on an individual's genetics, heart disease risk, or certain types of cancer.
A plant plate high in avocado-derived oleic acid.
All fats are a mixture of different types of fat, with their own unique health benefits, whether saturated, such as coconut oil, or unsaturated, such as olive oil. In fact, the nutritional profile of oil is highly dependent on where it's grown. In a report by the The UC Davis Olive Center, 4 of 38 samples of olive oil from olives grown in the US failed the USDA standard for oleic acid, or a total of 11%. The 2014 report, however, notes seasonal variations and further research for olive oils produced in the US.
Fats devoid of nutrients, such as those found in most packaged foods and shortening, may contribute to heart disease and other chronic diseases. These foods can still be enjoyed, but most diseases attributed to food fats are not from reasonable amounts of plant fats such as avocados, nuts, olives, and olive oil.
So go ahead and enjoy a favorite pasta dish, your guacamole, make a salad dressing from avocado or olive oil, and throw some almonds in your desserts.
Avocados in the farmers market