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updated: 11/7/2012 12:02 PM

Ask the Nutritionist: Make infused oils in small batches for best flavor, food safety

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Q. I've been seeing flavored olive oil infused with herbs at gourmet shops, but it's very expensive. Can I make my own?

A. Yes, you can. The procedure for making it safely depends on how long you want to keep your flavored oil. Either way, you need to start with a clean bottle or jar with a tightfitting lid to store it.

If you are going to use up your flavored oil within a week you can use any fresh herb or mixture of herbs that you like. The moisture in fresh herbs, garlic and citrus support the growth of deadly Clostridium botulinum bacteria, which can cause botulism so you should date your oil and use or throw it away within seven days of making. These bacteria can grow rapidly in an oxygen-free environment like oil.

If using fresh herbs, wash thoroughly before combining with oil, and store the mixture in the refrigerator. Try adding other ingredients, too, such as garlic and lemon or orange peel, to these oils you'll use up quickly.

If you want to make homemade herb-infused olive oil that you can store up to three months unrefrigerated in your cabinet, it's important that you use only dried herbs. You can use commercial dried herbs you buy in jars, or fresh herbs that you have washed and then dried to remove all their natural moisture. These must be thoroughly dried in a food dehydrator or by leaving them in the sun; then you can add them to the olive oil.

All you need to do is mix this pre-flavored oil with lemon juice or the vinegar of your choice, and you'll have a delicious, practically zero-sodium salad dressing.

Q. I've been hearing that excess fat in the liver is a serious health problem becoming more common. How do I know if I've got it, and what can I do to avoid it?

A. Studies suggest that 20 to 30 percent of adults in the U.S. and Europe may have this unhealthy accumulation of fat in the liver known as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). The risk is that it can progress to further, very serious liver damage. Some evidence suggests it may contribute to heart disease risk independently of its tie to metabolic syndrome, which signals increased risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and possibly some types of cancer.

Doctors can screen people for NAFLD by looking for elevation of a certain liver enzyme, alanine aminotransferase, (known as ALT or SGPT) from a blood test. They may also use ultrasound for screening. The "gold standard" for diagnosing NAFLD is a liver biopsy.

This fat accumulation in the liver seems to occur because of insulin resistance, in which the body produces plenty of insulin but cannot use it effectively, resulting in abnormal metabolism of both carbohydrate and fat. NAFLD is linked with chronic, low-grade inflammation, which may also be indicated in lab tests.

To avoid or resolve this excess fat in the liver, the most important steps are to lose excess weight (or at least some of it) and to get daily moderate physical activity to help bring insulin function back to normal. At this time, no specific food choices or eating patterns have been identified to reduce or avoid NAFLD, but because of its link to insulin resistance, a predominantly plant-based diet with plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans is likely to help.

• Provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research.

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