By  Dr. VICTOR S. SIERPINA

As a child, I had a generally negative experience with olive oil. My mom, who mostly cooked with Crisco, lard, bacon fat, and butter had a tiny pyramid-shaped bottle of cheap Pompei olive oil in her pantry.

I don’t know what she used it for in the usual spectrum of Polish cooking like maybe frying kielbasa in it, but I know I tasted it straight a few times and found it atrocious. Olive Oyle was also cartoon character as Popeye’s less than attractive, scrawny, screechy girlfriend. Over the years, though, I have developed a love relationship with the health benefits of Olive Oil. Not Popeye’s girl lest I get socked in the eye by the spinach-fortified sailor!

I am not alone as the American public has turned on to olive oil using 10 times the amount we used just 30 years ago. A 9 percent increase in use was reported just in the past year. This growth has come largely as a replacement for margarine. Still, the average Italian or Spaniard downs 10 times the amount of olive oil in a year than the average American. They consume 8-9 liters annually compared to our measly 0.4-0.8 liters annually. The Greeks, despite the constant news of financial crisis, are guzzling almost 15 liters a person per year.

It turns out in a recent medical article that olive oil, as part of a healthy Mediterranean style diet, can be a factor in reducing Alzheimer’s. Rich in heart-healthy mono-unsaturated omega-9 fatty acids and antioxidants such as polyphenols, olive oil is anti-inflammatory and is healthier for us than other edible oils such as corn oil, safflower oil, margarine, or even butter. It has a high smoke point, which means you can heat it to a high temperature which is ideal for most cooking. I do so love the taste of butter thus I often mix some with my olive oil in cooking. Double-Yum.

Olive oil also has a high variety of flavors and makes a wonderful base for salad dressings, bread dips, drizzles over meats, fishes, and vegetables. I like to roll some broccolini, orange bell peppers, or asparagus in olive oil and char them briefly on the grill for a tasty vegetable dish. Olive oil adds a nice flavor when cooking eggs, mushrooms, or when added to the pot while cooking rice, farro, quinoa, or other whole grains.

It seems to be the “complete oil.” The key phrase to look for when buying olive oil is “cold pressed Extra-virgin olive oil” (EVO).

The date it was made, not best used by, should be used to determine freshness. Dark glass or tin containers are best as olive oil is sensitive to degradation by light and heat.

Like good wines, higher-priced olive oils are generally of higher quality. It takes about 10 pounds of olives to make a couple cups of olive oil so a good product takes a lot of work and loving attention. Adulterated olive oils of poorer qualities are on the market competing for your dollar and your health so beware of these.

According to some experts, the best advice is to buy small bottles of certified organic olive oil.

These have that peppery finish with the aroma of grass and artichokes with a greenish coloration. These oils may be more expensive than your budget allows for in routine cooking so shop around and find a brand you like and can afford. I get a large modestly priced bottle of EVO for routine cooking and another pricier, dark little bottle for dressings, drizzles, special recipes, and extra flavor. Like wine, the taste that you like is the final arbiter of the kinds of olive oil you should stock in your pantry.

If you have never been to an olive oil tasting, it is something to consider as an activity for your next social event.

There is a considerable range of colors, aromas, and flavors in olive oils that can surprise you. A peppery flavor is characteristic of quality EVO though there are very lightly flavored olive oils can even be used in baking. Like a wine tasting, olive oil tasting can be a lot of fun as an adventure into several types, brands, and countries of origin. Italy and Spain are the big producers but I have sampled great olive oils from Greece, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Tunisia, and even the far-out country of California. Cleanse the palate between oils with a bit of freshly baked bread and maybe a glass of white wine for a delightful culinary and aromatic experience. Healthy can and should taste good. Dip up!