MADRID--Thin potato slices cooked in woks of oil then encased in egg. Haplessly-formed balls of béchamel fried in pools of oil. Toast topped with squished and salted tomatoes, drizzled with oil. Tortilla española, croquetas and the Catalan breakfast favorite tomaca on toast are just a few recipes in the drenched-in-oil Spanish diet. It is no surprise that researchers looked to prove their fried way of life is heart-healthy, but it may be a surprise that they were right.
Researchers at the Autonomous University of Madrid have found that olive and sunflower oils are not linked to heart disease or premature death.
The research team studied 40,757 adults from ages 29 to 69 to learn about and monitor their eating habits over an 11-year period. Each adult did not have any heart problems at the start of the study. The participants were interviewed about their diet and cooking methods, and their health records were kept up-to-date. The follow-up interviews and research 11 years later revealed 606 events linked to heart disease, or less than 1.5-percent, but found that there was no direct or indirect link found between those that ate fried foods and those that suffered from coronary problems, like heart attacks.
"In a Mediterranean country where olive and sunflower oils are the most commonly used fats for frying, and where large amounts of fried foods are consumed both at and away from home, no association was observed between fried food consumption and the risk of coronary heart disease or death," said head of the project Professor Pillar Gullah-Castillo to the "British Medical Journal."
When SmartPlanet visited Carmencita Bar, whose closet-sized kitchen dishes up a fusion of traditional Spanish tostas and gourmet burgers, the chef/owner did not even consider losing the cooking fat, but just spoke of which kind is important. Yoel Gallego said that "Olive oil is the option with the lowest fat." He said that he must use butter, never margarine, for their weekend brunch's Hollandaise sauce, as well as when toasting bread, but that "Olive oil is the healthiest."
Spain produces about 45-percent of the world's olive oil. This statistic is subject to controversy and rumors, as the proud Spanish are known to claim that they produce even more oil and that other countries simply rebottle, relabel and raise the price. You can go to any grocery store in highest-cost-of-living Madrid and get a decent bottle of Extra Virgin for under three euros. It can be triple that in their oil-producing neighbor Italy.
Gullah-Castillo was very clear to emphasize that their findings only reflect Castellanos, as well as probably the kindred culinary spirits of Greece and Italy. There is no true data that olives grown around the Mediterranean are healthier or of a better quality than any place else in the world. In fact, only 3-percent of Spain's oil comes from organic olives. These Mediterranean countries simply have poor soil in mountainous regions that could not withstand other vegetation. For centuries now, farmers have found that this hearty, tiny fruit can easily tolerate these challenging conditions.
Gullah-Castillo shared her belief that the results would be completely different in other countries in which "solid" or "re-used" oils were used for frying. These kinds of oils remove water from food, making them more dense with fat. In 2003, the BMJ published Spanish research that re-used oils were directly correlated with "arterial hypertension." Gullah-Castillo also participated in a six-year study that concluded last year that eating foods fried in solid oils creates a higher risk of obesity or being overweight.
The places that rely on these less healthy, solid oils tend also to be Western nations where olive oil is much more expensive. In Spain, the olive oil is some of the least expensive in the world and, besides sunflower oil, it is very challenging to even find alternatives, like vegetable oil, in stores.
In fact, this week, thoracic and cardio surgeon Dr. Marc Gillinov at the Cleveland Clinic tweeted that "The best heart diet is a Mediterranean diet. We discourage fad diets and highly restricted diets." The average Spanish person drinks a glass of fresh-squeezed O.J. a day, with multiple cups of coffee and red wine and beer. The typical "menú del día" has a first dish of a salad (usually topped with canned tuna) or a puree of vegetable, while the second course features fish or the ubiquitous pork, often topped with a delicious fried egg. A basket of bread is always on the table next to a bottle of--you guessed it--olive oil.
The Spanish do not do low-carb and most of their food is "frito"--fried in either olive or sunflower oil, while they have one of the lowest levels of heart disease in the world.
Photo: Essential Experiences