Olive oil is a major component of the healthy, balanced Mediterranean diet. And most people, including some health experts, assume extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is better than regular olive oil.
But that’s simply not true. In fact, these labels are often misleading or downright fraudulent. So, in a moment, I’ll share with you three simple tips for how to pick a good, high-quality olive oil.
But first, let’s back up to talk about the many science-backed health benefits of this ancient oil…
Thousands of years of nutritional benefits
The use of olive oil in cooking and in medicine dates back thousands of years in modern-day Egypt, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Syria. And today, people all over the world enjoy its many nutritional benefits.
For one, unlike processed soybean oil, olive oil is naturally high in healthy, unsaturated fats, which your body uses to construct the membranes of all the cells in your body. The healthy fats also insulate brain and nerve cells so they can function and signal properly.
In addition, without some fat in your diet, you cannot absorb the critical, fat-soluble vitamins—A, D, E, and K—from your foods. Or even from supplements!
Eating foods with unsaturated fat also improves lipid levels and lowers blood pressure. It helps decrease your so-called “bad cholesterol” without using statin drugs. And it increases your “good cholesterol” at the same time.
Olive oil is also high in polyphenolic compounds that exhibit potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. In fact, evidence shows these compounds help flush out neurological toxins and keep brain cells communicating with each other. Plus, experimental studies show that one specific compound, a polyphenol called oleocanthal, reduces brain toxins associated with declines in language skills and memory in humans.
So, it’s really no wonder that mounds of research show consuming olive oil helps prevent against any number of chronic diseases—including Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, heart disease, and Type II diabetes.
Of course, Italians, who regularly consume olive oil, also enjoy a longer lifespan than Americans—by about four years. And in isolated, inland parts of Italy, where the way of life has remained largely unchanged over many centuries, people live to be over 100 years of age at a rate that is four times greater than the rest of Italy.
Since these so-called “super agers” are isolated from the sea, seafood isn’t as plentiful. So, they rely on dairy (including cheeses from goats and sheep) and some meat for protein, essential fats, and key micronutrients. And they snack on olives and nuts. All of which are key components of the healthy Mediterranean-style diet.
They also exhibit cardiovascular health typical of people 10 years younger. And in regions where olives are cultivated, rates of cancer, dementia, diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic disease are extremely low (which helps explain how people reach the advanced age of over 100 years).
Now—let’s turn our attention to where some people go wrong in their thinking about olive oil…
Debunking the mystique of “extra virgin” olive oil
Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is derived from first-pressed olives, which are said to contain higher amounts of certain healthy compounds than the remainder of the pressed olives that make oils.
So, manufacturers learned years ago that they could charge a premium for this supposedly “superior” EVOO…and consumers would pay for it!
But there’s no science—or historical evidence—to suggest that consuming EVOO is better for you than regular olive oil.
In fact, you can bet that the “super agers” in central Italy consume all of the olive oil from their presses—not just the limited amounts of EVOO.
Plus, most bottles labeled as EVOO aren’t as purified as they claim. In fact, according to a recent analysis conducted by the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC), more than half the products labeled as EVOO failed to meet quality and flavor standards. This can happen when an oil is mislabeled to begin with. Or—the oil can degrade during shipping and storage.
You can test for fake or low-grade oils yourself. Simply refrigerate the oil—and if it solidifies as it gets colder, that’s a sign that it contains mostly monounsaturated fat—a sign of high-quality olive oil. If your oil doesn’t become thick and cloudy in the refrigerator, you know it’s probably a fake or a lower grade.
Overall, I suggest you stick with trusted brands and products certified by the IOOC or the California Olive Oil Council (COOC). You can also save yourself a few bucks by skipping the “virgin” and “extra virgin” varieties. You will get the same health benefits from ANY grade of olive oil, as long as it’s a high-quality brand.
Here are some further guidelines to help you when buying olive oil:
- Look for a dark glass or metal bottle. A dark glass or metal bottle helps protect the oil from light, which causes the oil to decompose. (Never buy olive oil packaged in plastic.)
- Always check the date on the bottle. Some oils can have a shelf life up to three years. But often—it’s only six months. So, always check the date on the bottle.
- Buy only a three-month supply. Since olive oil begins to degrade as soon as you open the bottle and expose it to air, only buy a supply that will last you three months. Then once open, keep it in a cool, dark place.
In the end, strive to enjoy two tablespoons of olive oil every day. The simplest way to incorporate it into your daily diet is to use it as a dressing on salads and greens, as the Italians do. Simply combine it with a dash of red wine vinegar or fresh-squeezed lemon and top it with some fresh-grated pecorino, parmesan, or romano cheese.
Olive oil is also great for cooking because, unlike many other plant oils, it can be safely heated to 400 degrees or higher. Plus, sautéing vegetables and other foods in olive oil extracts much greater proportions of the healthy nutrients in these foods. That’s why we won’t cook with any other type of oil in our house. (To learn more, check out the current issue of my Insiders’ Cures monthly newsletter, [“The Sicilian villagers’ secret to living past 100”]. Not yet a subscriber? Become one today!)
“Olive Oil: Your Pantry’s Secret to a Longer Life.” AARP Bulletin, April 2020. (aarp.org/health/healthy-living/info-2020/olive-oil-benefits.html)