Certified California olive oils offer real health benefits and don't threaten the environment the way some European brands do.

In the confusing world of dietary health, olive oil remains a no-brainer: it's delicious, abundant, reduces cholesterol and fights cancer. But lately the benefits of olive oil have come under greater scrutiny. It turns out that not all olive oils are created equal, and some manufacturing processes even harm the environment.

A recent report by the European Forum on Nature Conservation warns that mass production on olive plantations threatens to turn parts of Spain, Italy and Greece into lifeless deserts. In addition, the oils produced by these large, mechanized plantations lack many of the antioxidants that give extra virgin olive oil its remarkable health benefits.

Luckily, the olive oil industry in California offers terrific alternatives. The most local of these oils also happens to be one of the best: Olio delle Colline di Santa Cruz. Produced by Valencia Creek Farms in Aptos, the extra virgin olive oil won "Best of Class" in the 2008 International Olive Oil Competition. The oil is harvested by hand and created without the use of heat or chemicals, which remove important antioxidants. That's why extra virgin olive oil should be kept away from light and heat and consumed within one year.

To be sure you are getting the real thing, look for extra virgin olive oils that are certified by the California Olive Oil Council.

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Valencia Creek Farms: www.valenciacreekfarms.com

California Olive Oil Council: www.cooc.com