PhotoTo hear enthusiastic foodies tell it, olive oil is the nectar of the gods, able to cure what ails you and keep your taste buds working overtime.

Well, OK, extra virgin, first-press olive oil does have a distinctive taste but as for the health benefits, most of them are lost when olive oil is heated and used in cooking. That's according to a new study by researchers from Portugal’s University of Porto.

It's the antioxidants and phenolic compounds in olive oil that are thought to help ward off cancer and other diseases. But it's also those very elements that are degraded when they're heated, the researchers found. 

Too much heat

PhotoWriting in the journal Food Research International, they said their research showed that any kind of heating reduced the power of the phenolic compounds in the oil.

"Virgin olive oil consumption, as final seasoning or within cooked foods, is increasing worldwide, mainly due to its recognized nutritional benefits," the researchers wrote. "However, different cooking practices, from common frying, to boiling and microwave cooking, undoubtedly modify the olive oil chemical profile."

Note that no one is saying you shouldn't use olive oil. Even after it's heated it is still just as healthy as vegetable oil. And using it as salad dressing or adding it to food that has just been served is fine, since it preserves the healthful compounds.

To be a true Italiano, put a small serving of olive oil on the bread plate and dip your bread in it instead of using butter or margarine. Much tastier, and much healthier as well. 

In Italy, some people actually drink olive oil, often with a "chaser" of Chianti. That's fine too but keep an eye on the calories, dieticians caution.   

But as far as saving money, the Portuguese researchers say you might as well use vegetable oil for cooking. It does the job and costs less than olive oil. If you really value the taste of olive oil, just keep adding a dab or two during the cooking process, so it doesn't get too hot for too long. That will help preserve the healthful elements.

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