The ancient Greeks were on to something when they referred to olive oil as an “elixir of youth and health.” This oil is derived from the fruit of the olive tree, cultivated mainly in the Mediterranean for over 5,000 years. A few millennia later, research continues to untangle all the potential health benefits of making liberal use of this culinary grease in our diets. Time to strike oil, indeed.
But you may have noticed that with a dizzying array of options available now on store shelves choosing one to use on your salad is no easy task. So many labels on bottles from so many different places. If only we all had an Italian grandma to send us on the correct path to bliss.
Here’s everything you need to know about the olive oil in your kitchen so that you can benefit more from this phat fat.
Olive Oil is Amazing For Your Health
There is a reason why olive oil is a hallmark of the ultra-healthy Mediterranean diet. Analysis of data from more than 90,000 American men and women in two longitudinal studies published in Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that those with higher olive oil consumption had a 14% reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and an 18% reduced risk of coronary heart disease. This 2022 study in the journal Clinical Nutrition found enough evidence from about 60,000 participants to conclude that consuming 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil daily can lower the chances for heart disease and stroke.
There could be a few reasons why consuming olive oil can be good news for your ticker. Low in saturated fat, it is one of the best sources of monounsaturated fat around, about 10 grams in a tablespoon. This fat may have some heart-benefiting properties such as improving cholesterol numbers, especially when consumed as a replacement for an execessive amount of saturated fat in the diet. It’s also a source of polyphenol compounds that act as antioxidants in the body to lower the burden of oxidative stress. One polyphenol in olive oil called oleocanthal appears to have strong anti-inflammatory powers. And research suggests Olive oil is also a valuable source of fat-soluble vitamin E, an essential nutrient that can also act as an antioxidant in the body offering additional heart protection. Emerging research suggests that compounds in the oil everyone in Europe loves can exert beneficial effects on our gut microbiome which, in turn, can bring on improvements in heart and brain health.
And…who knew?…tossing your salad greens with olive oil could be good for your complexion. That’s because eating monounsaturated fatty acids from this oil may protect your skin, according to a study published in PloS One. Men who consumed more than 2 teaspoons of olive oil each day showed fewer signs of sun-related aging than men who consumed less, the research found. The researchers say the MUFAs in olive oil are especially beneficial because they contain squalene, a compound that may protect against free radical damage in the skin.
Shall we declare olive oil the gold standard for healthy culinary grease?
No, You Should Not Drink Olive Oil
Yes, olive oil can be considered a health-hiking food but that should not motivate you to pass shooters around the table. It’s important to remember that as a pure fat it is a very calorie dense with each tablespoon supplying 120 calories. So using it too liberally can send your diet into calorie excess which could be bad news for your six-pack pursuit. As a general recommendation, it’s probably a good idea to limit your total portion of liquid oils including olive to 2 tablespoons daily.
You Need to Know the Label Lingo
For as many different olive oils there are nowadays, it seems there are just as many confusing and at times misleading terms plastered on labels. Here’s how to decipher the verbiage so you know what you are getting.
- Extra-virgin: Oil from the first cold pressing of the olives without chemical extraction giving it lower acidity and richer color, aroma and flavor. In other words, the highest-grade olive oil you can buy. To date, there is no industry standard for other oils such as avocado or coconut that state “extra-virgin” on their labels.
- Virgin: Also the result of the first pressing of the olives, but it is more acidic and the flavor is less robust than extra-virgin because late-season or overripe olives are often used. Defects that earn these oils a grade below “extra-virgin.” Not as common on store shelves.
- Refined: Oil that goes through secondary processing which strips it of flavor and aroma rendering the oil tasteless, odorless, more transparent and less nutritious but with a higher smoke point for cooking.
- Pure: Typically a blend of refined and unrefined oil. If a product is simply labeled “olive oil” it is often pure. Generally costs much less than extra-virgin.
- Light: All oil has 120 calories and 14 grams of fat per tablespoon. So “light” just means a refined oil that is lighter in color and flavor, not something that has fewer calories.
- Cold-pressed: Oil that is extracted using a mechanical, hydraulic, or centrifugal press in a low-heat environment, which preserves nutrients, antioxidants, flavor and aroma. Using hot water during pressing extracts more oil from the olives but it’s the oil industry’s version of cheating. In order to be considered truly extra-virgin, olive oil must be cold-pressed. Not all extra-virgin oils will state they are cold-pressed on the label, but they very likely are.
- First-pressed: Implies that the oil is extracted from fresh olives only—never a second extraction from an unappetizing sounding olive pomace. EVOO is always first-pressed.
- Imported from: This, along with “bottled in” means only that the oil was bottled in a certain location such as Italy, but the source of the oil is likely somewhere else. Manufacturers may slap this on their bottles because countries like Italy and France have cachet with olive oil consumers. Mass market olive oils may use olives from more than one farm or even two or more different countries. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing or an indication of an inferior product, just something to be aware of if you want to know the source of your oil. Often, you can check the back label for sourced countries. Olive oils that say they’re a “product of” a particular region means the olives used to make the oil were grown there.
- Organic: The olive fruit that the oil comes from was grown without pesticides or herbicides and no chemicals were used during processing. Different countries have different requirements for organic labeling. To date, we don’t have any data to show that organic olive oil is healthier than non-organic.
Extra is Worth Paying Extra For
If you want to maximize the health benefits gleaned from olive oil you’ll want to use mostly extra-virgin or virgin. That’s because research shows they contain significantly higher levels of polyphenol compounds that improve heart health. Minimal processing during extraction allows more of these antioxidants to end up in your body making extra virgin extra healthy.
But since the refined versions still contain just as much monounsaturated fat they are hardly junk food.
It’s a Good Idea to Have Two Different Olive Oil in Your Pantry
The light (refined) variety of olive oil has a more neutral flavor and greater heat tolerance (higher smoke point) than extra-virgin or virgin so it’s a better choice for high-heat cooking such as grilling your steak or for use in baked goods when you don’t want a strong olive oil flavor to come through. Besides, an investigation in the journal Food Research International found that heating extra-virgin olive oil can cause some of its antioxidant potency to go downhill.
The upshot is that you are best served using much less expensive refined (light) olive oil for cooking purposes and saving that bottle of pricey extra-virgin for unheated applications such as salad dressings and dips when you can better take advantage of its robust flavor and health-hiking nutrition.
You Don’t Have to Spend a Fortune
It’s a fallacy that you need to hand over your paycheck to score a worthy bottle of extra-virgin olive oil. Sure, there are some exquisite bottles of oil from estates in France and Italy that cost a small fortune, but there are also plenty of options on the market that ring in at less than $20 a bottle that still bring to the table wonderful flavor nuances. It might just be a matter of trying out a few brands to see which one pleases you most.
Expect Lots of Flavor Variability
The flavor is influenced by the growing region and type of olive tree it is extracted from. While one oil can be peppery and assertive, another will taste fruity or grassy. Again, use your taste buds to determine which one you want in your kitchen.
It’s Total BS that American Olive Oil is Inferior
The vast majority of the estimated 750 million olive trees cultivated for olive oil production are found in the Mediterranean, mainly Spain, Greece and Italy. But that does not mean these regions have a patent on making great olive oil. Truth be told, some of the best olive oil I’ve doused my salad greens in have hailed from the U.S., with budget-friendly prices. In the 18th century, Spanish missionaries brought olives to California and planted them along the coast. But today, just about 5% of the estimated 90 million gallons of olive oil consumed annually in the U.S. are produced here. Which is a shame, because of what is outlined below.
Strict production regulations including outlawing chemical extraction, testing for defects, and allowing a very low content of free fatty acids – an indicator of freshness – means extra virgin olive oils bearing the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) or Olive Oil Commission of California (OOCC) seal have a leg up on many of their European counterparts. Georgia is also producing quality oils under the guidance of the Georgia Olive Growers Association. Some people are spurred on to buy closer to home by quality concerns of extra-virgin olive oil hailing from Europe where some extra-virgin products are cut with low-grade oils or mislabeled. Yes, olive oil fraud is sadly not uncommon.
And American producers can often take their product from harvest to store shelves quicker than products from Europe helping assure a fresher tasting oil.
So go ahead and practice some gastronomic patriotism with these three stand-out American oils.
Try to Be Fresh Obsessed
Like lettuce and berries, olive oil is a perishable food and several factors can affect its quality and freshness—from temperature and light to how long it’s been sitting on the supermarket store shelve. Pouring rancid oil on your spinach is never a good thing.
Extra-virgin is best consumed within two years of the olive harvest date. Unfortunately, many olive oils don’t provide their harvest dates (likely because they’re combining a blend of oils from different countries with differing harvest dates). But several oils do provide these dates somewhere on the label and you can look for the most recent harvest date you can find. When purchasing online, try to pick a product where the harvest date is listed on the site somewhere.
Avoid buying olive oils in clear glass bottles, which increase the likelihood of light damage which hastens rancidity. Instead, look for bottles that are packaged in tinted glass or tins. If your oil does not come in a dark bottle make sure to store it in a cool, dark area. Oil’s enemies are oxygen, heat, and light. Plastic is permeable which can cause the oil to oxidize and degrade faster than oils stored in glass or tin—though a plastic bottle is likely fine if the oil is used up within a couple of months.