Is Olive Oil Healthy? Learn All About it in This Info-Packed Guide.

by | Updated: October 23rd, 2020 | Read time: 7 minutes

I remember the first time I tasted really good olive oil. I was dining at an upscale restaurant and the waiter drizzled olive oil on a small plate for dipping crusty bread. With just one bite, my taste buds lit up. I didn’t realize olive oil could taste so amazing.

Though olive oil is a relatively simple ingredient, many factors can impact its quality and flavor. Choosing the best olive oil that fits your budget and intended use requires a little know-how.

Heart-Shaped Bowl of Olive Oil Beside Bottle & Olives on Branches to Represent Olive Oil Nutrition | of olive oil                                             

Joseph R. Profaci, executive director of the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA), explains the main types of olive oil as follows:

  • Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) — This is the highest grade of olive oil, though the quality, flavor and price vary with the brand. It is produced through natural mechanical extraction of olive oil without the use of heat or chemical solvents.
  • Virgin olive oil — It is produced the same way as EVOO but has some minor taste defects. Virgin olive oil isn’t typically sold at retail stores in the United States, but it is sold in Europe.
  • Olive oil — This is made from virgin olive oil that had an undesirable flavor or other defects and so is refined (without solvents), making it odorless, tasteless and colorless. Then, a small amount of quality virgin or extra virgin olive oil is added for the desired flavor and color.
  • Light tasting olive oil — “Light” refers to a lighter tasting (not lower calorie) olive oil. This is achieved by adding less virgin or extra virgin olive oil to refined olive oil.

“EVOO is the crème de la crème,” says Alina Lawrence, a specialty food consultant certified in olive oil sensory analysis. “To be labeled extra virgin, the olive oil must pass internationally accepted chemical analysis standards. It must also be judged free of taste defects by an internationally accredited tasting panel.”

Some EVOO may be labeled “first cold pressed.” This is largely marketing lingo. “Regardless if a bottle of EVOO says ‘first’ or not, all EVOO is from the first extraction of the oil from the olives,” Profaci says. “Similarly, to make any EVOO, the temperature has to be strictly controlled.”

Is olive oil healthy?

“All olive oils are healthy, but the more flavor, the more potential health benefits,” Profaci says. The nutritional value of olive oil is primarily attributed to the type of fats in it and the presence of beneficial plant-based compounds, primarily polyphenols.

Olive oil contains 70–85% oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat associated with cardiovascular benefits. In addition, all kinds of olive oil (as well as other varieties of oil) have around 120 calories and 14 grams of fat per one-tablespoon serving.

EVOO is the type of olive oil highest in polyphenols and therefore offers superior olive oil nutrition. Polyphenols provide antioxidant protection and are strongly linked with supporting heart health and cognitive function.

The flavor of olive oil is also largely due to its polyphenols. “Don’t be put off by the bitterness, pungency or slight burning sensation of EVOO when you taste it,” Lawrence says. “These characteristics are associated with the presence of oleocanthal, a high-powered polyphenol that has tremendous antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.”

Olive oil shopping tips

Though color is the first feature you’ll notice as you drizzle olive oil on your food, color generally isn’t an indicator of quality. Good olive oil can range from light yellow to dark green. The color is impacted by the variety of olives used, where they’re grown and when they’re harvested. These factors also impact the flavor, which is important to assess.

Ideally, you should taste olive oil before purchasing it, especially if it’s an EVOO brand that is new to you. If sampling the oil before purchase isn’t possible, try it soon after buying it and return products that taste defective to you.

Lawrence recommends looking for the following aspects when buying olive oil:

  • Dark glass bottle or container — Ultraviolet (UV) rays, fluorescent light and heat proliferation cause olive oil to go rancid faster. Clear glass and plastic bottles intensify this process, whereas dark containers help protect the oil.
  • Vibrant aroma and flavor — Avoid oils that smell or taste musty, rancid, greasy or metallic. The oils should have a “fruity” or “green” aroma profile, such as like fresh cut grass, apples, bananas, almonds or artichokes. The oil should feel “crisp and clean” in your mouth rather than leave a fatty coating.
  • Harvest date — A crush date or harvest date on the label is the clearest indicator of freshness. Olive oil is most flavorful near the time it is harvested and milled, though it generally should remain flavorful for 18 to 24 months in a sealed, properly stored bottle. A “best by” date, which is often two years from filling the bottle, is not as clear an indicator of the product’s freshness but tells you the expected shelf life.
  • Country of origin — Federal law requires this to be included on the label. If only one country of origin is listed, there may be a greater likelihood the oil is fresh and of high quality.

Profaci adds that sometimes olive oils from different countries are blended in order to create a certain flavor to meet consumer taste preferences. Moreover, a well-produced multi-country blend from a reputable company could very well be fresher and have higher quality than a single-origin oil from a company that doesn’t follow good manufacturing practices. So, don’t pass up an oil with more than one country of origin on that basis alone.

More than one olive oil source could also be the reason for using a “best by” date rather than a harvest date since multiple dates on the label could be confusing. In any case, buy only the amount of olive oil you can use within about three months of opening the bottle. Once opened, the quality can degrade relatively quickly, especially if not protected from heat, air (oxygen) and light.

Lastly, don’t write off olive oil just because it’s not labeled organic. “A lot of small producers follow organic practices, but they don’t necessarily go through the organic certification process,” Lawrence says. Get to know the brand and their practices by visiting their website.

Olive oil purity

You may have heard that olive oil is often adulterated by replacing some olive oil with inexpensive oil like canola. Profaci says this notion comes from misunderstanding and misquoting of research conducted at the University of California at Davis a decade ago.

That research primarily found that some imported olive oils were virgin rather than extra virgin due to flavor defects based on taste testing, not by objective chemical analysis. “Those studies have been largely discredited,” Profaci says. “And they don’t reflect the quality of oil in today’s marketplace.” The U.C. Davis Olive Center now notes this on its research report.

For more than two decades, the NAOOA has been testing around 200 samples of olive oil from U.S. retailers annually. More than 98% of olive oils they’ve tested proved to be authentic.

Similarly, the U.S. FDA reviewed 88 samples of EVOO from stores in Washington D.C. and found that less than 5% were adulterated. This research is reassuring, plus periodic testing of olive oil discourages fraud.

The NAOOA offers fee-based quality testing to brands using standards set by the International Olive Council. Qualifying brands can include a quality seal on their label. The NAOOA is also collecting signatures for its petition to the FDA to set mandatory, enforceable national standards of identity for olive oil.

Cooking with olive oil

Despite what you may hear from some sources, you can cook with EVOO, as well as regular (refined) olive oil. That includes sauteing, grilling, roasting, baking and pan frying.

Part of the misconception about not cooking with EVOO stems from its smoke point, which ranges from 350 to 410 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the smoke point is higher than most cooking temperatures.

Profaci says it’s important to realize that the temperature of the food and the cooking pan don’t get as high as the temperature on your oven dial. “If your food actually got to 450 degrees Fahrenheit in an oven set to that temperature, the food would be completely burned,” he says.

In addition, Profaci says newer research shows the smoke point isn’t the best indicator of an oil’s performance when heated. More important is the stability of the oil against free radical damage, also known as oxidation. The oleic acid and antioxidants in EVOO promote its stability.

Recently, scientists tested EVOO against several common cooking oils, including canola oil. EVOO was the most stable against oxidation when heated for six hours at 356 degrees Fahrenheit. EVOO retained a high level of antioxidants and was the least prone to developing harmful byproducts when heated. Regular olive oil was also quite stable.

Get creative with olive oil

Olive oil can be used pretty much any way you’d use other common cooking oils. “Drizzle EVOO on everything from salads, vegetables and meats to ice cream,” Lawrence says.

For cooking, Lawrence recommends matching the flavor intensity of the oil to the dish. She suggests more strongly flavored (robust) EVOO for dishes like lamb, beef, roasted vegetables or a caprese salad. The labels of some EVOO brands include flavor descriptors like “robust” and best uses like “for sauteing or grilling.”

For milder dishes like fish, chicken and baked goods, Lawrence recommends a mildly flavored EVOO. She notes that olive oil cake recipes have become popular. “If the olive oil is very good quality, it will actually enhance the flavor of the cake,” Lawrence says.

Ice cream may seem like an unusual pairing for olive oil. But Lawrence says a robustly flavored EVOO can help bring out the sweetness of the ice cream. Ice cream with olive oil and sea salt is a classic Italian dessert known as “gelato con olio e sale.” Sounds like an interesting one to try, doesn’t it?