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Olive oil was Athena's gift to the Ancients, and she gave much better than we knew, as I discovered at a conference organized by Chianti Classico's olive oil producers: It turns out that extra virgin oil, that obtained by cold-pressing the olives and separating the oil from the paste via press or centrifuge, is quite healthy.
First, olive oil is a good source of omega-3 fatty acid, the acid one also finds in caught (as opposed to raised) oily fish such as salmon, which is important in preventing cardiovascular disease. Olive oil is also a good source of omega-6 fatty acid, which the body transforms into prostoglandins, substances that can block inflammation, and help regulate heart, liver and kidney function. Recent research has shown that for one to derive the maximum benefit from Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids, one has to ingest the proper ratio of the two acids, which is one part Omega 3 to ten parts Omega 6 -- what one finds in olive oil. By comparison, many other elements in the Western diet offer ratios between twenty and fifty to one.
Olive oil is also a powerful anti-irritant; according to an article published in the September 1 2005 issue of Nature (see the Editor's Summary), the oleocanthal olive oil contains is an anti-inflammatory compound "with a potency and profile very like that of ibuprofen." In other words, if you're feeling a little peaked, a dish with some olive oil in it could well help.
It could even do more; Giuseppe Caramia, an Italian clinician, notes that anti-inflammatory drugs as a whole have been shown to fight cancer, and in light of oleocanthal's similarity to ibuprofen he says it is reasonable to suppose that olive oil falls into this class of substances.
Finally, olive oil may contribute to well-being in old age: Antonio Capurso, Professor of Gerontology at the University of Bari, began his talk by noting that olive oil reduces LDL cholesterol -- what sticks to the arteries -- and raises HDL cholesterol, which is instead beneficial (the American Heart Association has a more detailed discussion of this), and that olive oil is a powerful antioxidant, which, in particular, appears to inhibit colorectal cancer.
I had heard about olive oil's effects on cholesterol and cancer before, but he also said that an ongoing study he and his staff are carrying out shows that olive oil helps preserve cognitive functions in the elderly (See the abstract of the article published in Neurology): They studied a group of people aged 65-85 over a period of 10 years, and found that those who consumed a third of a cup of olive oil per day tended to live longer and better than those who did not, while those who consumed a half cup per day were significantly less likely to develop dementia.
In short, the US FDA's statement, "Limited and not conclusive scientific evidence suggests that eating about 2 tablespoons (23 grams) of olive oil daily may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease due to the monounsaturated fat in olive oil. To achieve this possible benefit, olive oil is to replace a similar amount of saturated fat and not increase the total number of calories you eat in a day," is perhaps cautious. If you are in good health, 2 tablespoons per day will certainly do you good, in many ways.
And this brings us to what you should look for. Though the FDA says virgin olive oil, what you really want is extravirgin olive oil, which is higher quality and has higher concentrations of the anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds. The folks in Chianti who make olive oil would obviously want you to select theirs, but if you live nearer another area that produces quality oil, it will be fine.
The important thing is that you check the label to make certain the oil is estate pressed and bottled -- there is, alas, considerable fraud in the olive oil industry -- and only buy olive oil in non-opaque glass, which will allow you to see the oil. It should be green, though not too brilliant a green, and don't be put off by cloudiness, which means that it's unfiltered. Be wary, on the other hand, of oil in cans that you cannot see, and also of very pale oils, or yellow oils: Pale oils have certainly been filtered and may have been cut with other less healthy oils, whereas deep yellow oils could well be old.