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If you’re anything like my husband, then olive oil may be your go-to oil for all things cooking. But if you’re not of Italian descent like me, you may wonder if olive oil is as healthy as some claim it is.
While olive oil is considered a highly nutritious and healthy oil due to its high levels of monounsaturated fatty acids and vitamins A and K (unlike oils like canola, soybean, and vegetable oil, which are problematic), it also has many lesser known benefits that are worth talking about.
Let’s dive in and take a look at what the science says, and why the quality of your olive oil makes all the difference.
The Many Benefits of Olive Oil
This staple of the Mediterranean diet is commonly consumed in so-called “blue zones.” (Blue zones are places where a higher percentage of people live past 100 years old. This fascinating book analyzes the trends they have in common and how we can imitate them). True, olive oil is one of the healthiest oils available. It contains an abundance of monounsaturated fat and other beneficial properties, including:
Olive oil is naturally high in antioxidants like oleocanthal and oleuropein. In studies, these reduce dangerous LDL levels and improve cholesterol ratios. Oleocanthal reduces inflammation and seems to work much like ibuprofen without the side effects.
Quick Tip: This is the reason I often shoot a tablespoon of olive oil if I get a headache. It almost always works to reduce pain. I found this especially helpful during pregnancy when I was even less likely to take any kind of pain medication, but more likely to have headaches.
Heart-Smart Fatty Acid Profile
There is also some research that the fatty acid profile of this nutritious oil makes it beneficial to the heart and that it can help reduce C-reactive protein (CRP) levels. For this reason, consumption of quality olive oil is often recommended for helping reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
It is one of the few oils that is generally regarded as beneficial across all sources, including the American Heart Association.
Cancer Risk Reduction
New research even suggests that olive oil may be a good choice for helping the body protect itself from cancer. This stemmed from data showing that people in Mediterranean countries have a lower risk of cancer and speculation that consumption of this oil may be a reason.
The theory is that oxidative damage due to free radicals contributes to cancer risk. Since extra virgin olive oil is high in potent antioxidants, it may reduce oxidative damage and thus cancer risk. Research is still emerging, but all data seems to point to olive oil being an important part of a low-inflammation diet.
Additionally, the oleic acid makes this oil resistant to oxidation in tests. For this reason, preliminary research shows that it is beneficial to protecting genes linked to cancer.
Is It Safe to Cook With Olive Oil?
Olive oil is an excellent choice for cool uses like homemade salad dressings and mayo, but many debate whether it should be used for cooking or not. To understand why and determine safety, we must answer two questions:
1. Does Olive Oil Oxidize When Heated?
I’ve talked before about why it is never a good idea to cook with (or consume) vegetable oils, since they are largely polyunsaturated fats, they are unstable and can break down when heated.
Olive oil, on the other hand, being largely monounsaturated, does not break down as easily. It is still less stable than saturated fats like tallow or coconut oil, but Mediterranean cultures have been cooking with it for centuries.
Also, the antioxidants provide natural protection against oxidation, making it one of the safer oils to cook with. Recent research (and generations of healthy elderly populations in Mediterranean countries) can verify this.
The controversy arises in the debate about whether oil oxidizes at high heat and loses its nutritional value. Some sources even claim that it easily turns into trans fat when heated.
What does the research say? In one study, researchers heated olive oil to over 350 degrees for 36 hours and showed little signs of damage. In another study, they used it for deep frying. It took over 36 hours to oxidize and become harmful.
Smoke Point of Olive Oil
Smoke point is the other consideration for cooking, and olive oil fares well here too. The smoke point varies greatly depending on type, but for the most part, it ranges from 325 degrees to over 400 degrees. This is pretty average for an oil that could be used in cooking.
Verdict: Olive Oil Is Safe for Cooking in Most Cases
This delicious oil doesn’t deserve the bad rap it has gotten for cooking. At the same time, quality olive oil that isn’t adulterated with vegetable oils (which are dangerous for cooking) is expensive and can be hard to find. For this reason, this oil isn’t one of the most cost-effective options for regular cooking.
That said, unless you’re frying something for over 36 hours (which I wouldn’t recommend for a variety of reasons!) you’re probably fine using high-quality olive oil to cook.
So… how to tell if your olive oil is quality? Or even olive oil at all? Read on…
The Great Olive Oil Scandal: Not Virgin After All?
Extra virgin olive oil is generally considered to be the highest quality olive oil available. It is what our family uses and what research points to as the healthiest option.
Unfortunately, while a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, olive oil is sometimes not actually from olives after all!
Several investigations in the last decade reveal that many of these olive oils can be adulterated with cheaper oils or are rancid.
Extra virgin olive oil is produced from the first pressing of the olives and creates an extremely high quality oil with a great nutritional profile. For highest potency and lowest acidity, olives should be pressed shortly after picking.
With the growing global demand, some companies have cut corners and passed lower quality oils as extra virgin or adulterated the olive oil by adding vegetable oils.
Original reports were that the main oils affected were in Italy. More recent investigations revealed that these problems occurred in oils from around the world and that it is important to verify the quality of olive oil from any source.
Investigations, Raids, Arrests, and… Olive Oil?
In 2008 much of this research came to a head with “Operation Golden Oil” in Italy. Food Renegade reports that this
led to the arrest of 23 people and the confiscation of 85 farms. It was quickly followed up by another investigation in which more than 40 additional people were arrested for for adding chlorophyll to sunflower and soybean oil and selling it as extra virgin olive oil, both in Italy and abroad.
If you’re interested, a great book with more information and specifics on how oils have been modified and mislabeled is Extra Virginity by Tom Mueller.
Who knew a simple cold pressed oil could cause so much controversy!
How to Find Quality Olive Oil
As you might imagine, all of the fraud in this industry can make it hard to find a good source or know if you are getting a quality product. Even the best food critics couldn’t tell from a taste test which olive oils were high quality and many selected the lowest quality ones as their top choice.
There are anecdotal home tests that many people use to tell the quality of oil. Unfortunately, these home tests (like keeping it in the fridge to see if it turns solid or trying to burn it as fuel for a lantern) are unreliable at determining if the oil is of high quality or not, and taste tests can be even less reliable.
The best way is to find a company that you trust to order from and that provides lab testing of their oil. Look for a PGI certification, which identifies oils with exceptional properties because it demands that the product be produced in a specific geographical region and tested for quality.
Olive Oil: What I Use
I recently found a company called Kasandrinos that produces a high-quality Greek olive oil. They publish all of their testing and certification data and source their olives from family farms. They also have the PGI certification and make organic, non-GMO extra virgin oil. We’ve tried many great brands over the years, but this is our current favorite based on testing, price, and sourcing. Take a listen to my podcast with the founder to find out why this brand is so different (and delicious!).
And did I mention it’s delicious? Pour it over a giant salad and raise your fork to your health!
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Scott Soerries, MD, Family Physician and Medical Director of SteadyMD. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Do you love olive oil? What brand(s) have you found to be the most pure? Please share with me below in the comments!
Olives and olive oil in cancer prevention
The antioxidant/anticancer potential of phenolic compounds isolated from olive oil.
Cancer and Mediterranean dietary traditions.
Dietary Factors That Promote or Retard Inflammation
Olive oil stability under deep frying conditions.
How heating affects extra virgin olive oil quality indexes and chemical composition.