Over the last couple of years, there has been a lot written about the many health benefits of coconut and avocado oil. While these fats are indeed healthy, another fat that’s been praised for thousands of years seems to have been relegated to second-class status. That fat is extra virgin olive oil (EVOO).
This is unfortunate because EVOO may have a superior taste to the other oils, can also be used for cooking in certain situations, and might be one of the healthiest fats on the earth. It’s a fat that everyone should consider including in their diet.
Personally, I love the taste of olive oil. I never miss a chance to pour it over some sautéed veggies, drizzle it on some slices of a ripe tomato, or splash it on my daily salad greens.
My fondness for olive oil probably has something to do with my Mediterranean heritage. Whenever I visited the kitchen of my dad’s Italian restaurant, the scent of olive oil was heavy in the air. I loved that aroma. It was one of those smells you remember as a kid and carry well into adulthood.
It was my grandmother, though, who was always telling me to include more olive oil in my diet because it was good for me. She couldn’t tell me exactly why, but she knew it was. My dad remembers her literally drinking a teaspoon a day and even putting it on her face at night as a moisturizer. She didn’t have a wrinkle on her face when she passed at 83. No kidding.
My grandmother was correct in her reason for telling me to consume more olive oil. Research today has shown that it’s a tremendously healthy fat that aids in the prevention of numerous chronic diseases.
Let’s take a look at how EVOO is beneficial in fighting disease and producing well-being.
What Is Extra Virgin Olive Oil?
People have been mechanically pressing the fat out of olives to produce olive oil for about 8000 years.
It has been used for food, religious rituals, medicines, as a fuel in oil lamps, for soap-making, and cosmetics. Traditionally olive trees were grown around the Mediterranean basin; however, today they are grown all over the world.
Virgin olive oil is produced solely by the use of mechanical means with no chemical treatment. EVOO is the highest quality virgin olive oil. It has a superior taste, is rated by certain sensory qualities like taste and smell, and contains no more than 0.8% free acidity. An acidity over 0.8% means that there has been damage to the olives. In 2014, the state of California lowered the acceptable acidity level for EVOO to 0.5%.
Most Americans usually aren’t aware of the nuances of EVOO. We usually just grab a bottle of EVOO off our market shelf and assume just because it’s labeled EVOO it’s okay to use. However, most commercial brands of EVOO don’t measure up to a high-quality EVOO. And not getting a high-quality EVOO means you could be missing out on a real culinary delight.
There are almost a thousand varieties of olives. You can enjoy an EVOO made from Picual olives from Spain, Koroneiki olives from Crete, Lastovka olives from Croatia, Azeitoneira olives from Chile, Frantoio from Italy and varieties from many more countries including the U.S.A.
Each EVOO will have a unique flavor depending upon the type of olives used, their ripeness at harvest, and how they were grown and handled.
Since EVOO’s have different flavors, they pair differently with different foods just like wine. For example, an olive oil from the Koroneiki olive (my particular favorite) would pair well with a Greek salad, and an oil from the Frantoio olive would pair better with broiled salmon.
Okay, you get the idea. I love the taste of EVOO. Remember though that food is to be enjoyed. Too often we eat to alleviate hunger and forget that food has also been given to us to savor and enjoy. Joy is an important part of well-being.
But EVOO is one of those foods that not only tastes great but is super healthy too. Let’s take a look and see why.
EVOO And The Mediterranean Diet
This past August a study was released showing the extraordinary health benefits the Mediterranean Diet offers for people suffering from heart disease. The study examined almost 1200 people with a history of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and found that people who adhered closely to the Mediterranean diet had a 37% reduction in death from any cause than those who poorly adhered to the diet.
This result was so impressive that it prompted CNN’s health editor to suggest that the diet may actually be more helpful for people with heart problems than prescribing cholesterol-lowering statin drugs.
This study seems to confirm what many similar studies have previously found. The Mediterranean diet can have a profound positive effect on your health.
What intrigued me about the study was one of the foods researchers believed was responsible for longevity.
Dr. Marialaura Bonaccio, lead author of the above study, noted,
“The major contributors to mortality risk reduction were a higher consumption of vegetables, fish, fruits, nuts and monounsaturated fatty acids – that means olive oil,”
Okay, 4 of the foods mentioned here are no surprise. Health practitioners have advocated a diet higher in vegetables, fish, fruits, and nuts for years. (Celiac disease sufferers should notice that there are no gluten-containing foods on that list.)
However, what intrigued me most was the inclusion of olive oil as a healthy and healing food. It’s so healthy in fact that according to Dr. Bonaccio if you want to increase your odds of living longer, you should consume more of it.
What is it though that makes olive oil so important for your health?
C0-researcher Dr. Giovanni de Gaetano offered a possible answer. He explained that though the study was observational and did not identify a cause for the results, he and the other researchers expected that the,
“… dietary effects on mediators common to chronic diseases such as inflammation might result in the reduction of mortality from any cause but further research is needed.”
This means that the main foods, including olive oil, listed by the researchers might have the ability to heal or prevent chronic disease by reducing the inflammation associated with them and thus reducing mortality.
Dr. de Gaetano was not merely speculating. Research has shown that EVOO is packed with fatty acids and phytonutrients that have been shown to confer positive anti-inflammatory effects upon systemic chronic diseases. In other words, EVOO contains some strong medicine.
Let’s look at this in more detail.
EVOO And The Anti-inflammatory Effect Of Oleic Acid
One thing common to chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, degenerative joint diseases and Alzheimer’s disease, is that they all appear to be driven by low level, sometimes imperceptible, chronic inflammation.
This type of chronic inflammation can often be identified by an increase in a non-specific biomarker called C-reactive protein (CRP).
This means that oleic acid found in EVOO can be an important aid in reducing the chronic inflammation associated with many diseases.
However, where EVOO’s anti-inflammatory potential really shines is in its antioxidant content.
Olive Oil And Anti-inflammatory Polyphenols
Grandma: “Johnny, you should eat more olive oil. It’s good for you.”
Johnny: “Why, Grandma?”
My grandma couldn’t answer that question, but if she could have, she would have told me about polyphenols.
EVOO is packed with antioxidant compounds known as polyphenols.
Polyphenols have been proven to:
- Reduce systemic inflammation at the cell level
- Protect cellular DNA damage
- Prevent cell death
- Suppress oxidative stress on cells (this limits the risk of various degenerative diseases)
- Boost the immune system by inducing the production of macrophages (Macrophages are a type of white blood cell that devour all kinds of unhealthy stuff like pathogenic microbes and cancer cells)
- Induce the production of detoxification enzymes
Polyphenols are valuable micronutrients. If you want these super-heroes defending your body, then consider adding blueberries, strawberries, dark chocolate (always in moderation, right), spinach, green tea, and of course EVOO in your diet. See here.
The polyphenol in olive oil that seems to have the biggest effect on inflammation is oleocanthal. Let’s see what it does.
EVOO And Oleocanthal
Oleocanthal, a major polyphenol in EVOO has been shown to have significant anti-inflammatory properties. Researchers have demonstrated that it has a similar mode of action as the popular non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug ibuprofen. See here and here. One study concluded that a daily dose of 50g or 4 tablespoons of olive oil confers the equivalent of around 10% of the recommended dose of ibuprofen for adult pain relief.
This means that naturally occurring NSAID such as oleocanthal may lessen inflammation over time, and like oleic acid, contribute to a significant reduction in the development of chronic inflammation.
Oleocanthal has also been shown to induce cancer cell death, act as a potential neuroprotective mechanism against Alzheimer’s Disease, and reduce inflammation in degenerative joint diseases such as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Both oleic acid and oleocanthal found in EVOO offer some potent anti-inflammatory benefits.
However, the health benefits of EVOO don’t stop there.
EVOO And Cardiovascular Disease Prevention
We have seen that there are observational studies showing that olive oil can lower the risk of developing certain diseases. We have also seen that two compounds in EVOO work to reduce chronic inflammation associated with disease.
Other mechanisms by which EVOO can lower the risk of CVD are as follows:
3. Protection LDL particles from oxidative damage – a key step in the heart disease process
4. Reduction of thrombosis formation by reduction of platelet aggregation
I have yet to mention whether EVOO is helpful in preventing the 5th leading cause of death in the U.S. Let’s take a look.
EVOO And Stroke Prevention
A stroke is the interruption of blood to the brain. Every year, more than 795,000 people in the United States suffer a stroke and more than 133,000 Americans die from one annually.
Again these studies are observational, correlation does not mean causation, but these studies are large and are only the tip of the iceberg. There are many more studies confirming these results.
So far we’ve seen that EVOO can reduce systemic inflammation associated with chronic disease, is heart healthy, and can reduce the chance of a stroke.
What about cancer? Is there evidence that EVOO is protective against cancer?
EVOO And Cancer Prevention
We have already seen that oleic acid found in EVOO can suppress a gene responsible for breast cancer. However, it has also been shown that populations that consume a higher amount of olive oil have a lower incidence of breast cancer in general. See here and here.
Further, a 2011 meta-analysis of 13,800 cancer patients and 23340 controls found that, overall, olive oil consumption was associated with lower odds of cancer development. The researchers stated that
“the most prominent results were observed for breast cancer and cancers of the digestive system.”
Once again it should be noted that these were observational studies that did not reveal specific protective effects of olive oil. However, the researchers were clear about their findings,
“The strength and consistency of the findings states a hypothesis about the protective role of olive oil intake on cancer risk.”
Ok, that’s a lot of health information to digest, but I think you get the picture. EVOO is just an enormously healthy food. Is it the ultimate elixir of life? Probably not. Do you have to eat it to be healthy? Probably not. If you want more polyphenols can you just eat more blueberries or drink more green tea? Probably.
However, considering the observational and scientific evidence for its health benefits, EVOO is definitely a food you want to consume more of. People who consume it as a major fat in their diet do seem to live longer.
EVOO And Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Some people have criticized EVOO for its high omega-6 fatty (linoleic acid) content. An excess of linoleic acid in your diet will tend to increase unwanted inflammation. See here. Since EVOO can contain up to 20% omega-6, making EVOO your only oil could be problematic. However, most EVOOs contain on average about 10% omega-6.
Two tablespoons of the average EVOO yields about 2.7 grams of linoleic acid which is about the same as lard. So if you’re not abusing EVOO, omegas-6s in EVOO shouldn’t be a problem, especially if you’re using it just for drizzling on salads and veggies.
Cooking With EVOO
High-quality EVOO has a smoke point of between 350˚F to 405˚F. The smoke point is where the oil breaks down and begins to oxidize. An EVOO of higher quality and lower acidity will have a higher smoke point.
This relatively high smoke point makes EVOO quite stable for cooking. Research seems to confirm this. One studied heated olive oil at 350˚F for 36 hours and another at 410˚F for 8 hours and both showed that olive oil was resistant to oxidation.
However, EVOO may suffer some decrease in polyphenol content due to heating.
Personally, for deep frying, I believe that avocado oil may be a better choice than EVOO. It has a smoke point around 500˚F. However, you might sacrifice some taste.
Also, remember in order to prevent oxidation of EVOO, it must be handled properly. Make sure you store it in a cool place, keep the cap on, keep it out of the light, buy an oil that comes in a dark bottle, and use it within months after purchasing. All of these steps help prevent oxidation.
To receive the best health result from olive oil, you must be sure you’re consuming a high-quality EVOO. The problem, though, is that EVOO like all prized commodities tend to be susceptible to counterfeiting.
Last January, 60 Minutes aired an exposé on olive oil fraud in Italy. Olive oil expert Tom Mueller revealed,
“You in many cases are getting lower grade olive oil that has been blended with some good extra virgin olive oil…you’re sometimes getting deodorized oil.”
The 60 Minutes report went on to reveal that up to 75% to 80% of EVOO from Italy is not EVOO. It appears that often Italian olive oil sold as EVOO is blended with a lower grade oil such as canola, soybean oil, or sunflower oil. Other times some chlorophyll or beta-carotene is added to a lower grade oil to make it appear as EVOO. See here.
Of course, this is fraud. But there is a health aspect to this as well. If you’re on a healing diet, you definitely want to avoid these lesser grade oils. They are unhealthy and can increase inflammatory in your body.
The 60 Minutes report seemed to verify a 2010 study from the University of California-Davis that found that 69% of imported olive oil samples and 10% of California olive oil samples labeled as extra virgin failed to meet the IOC/USDA standards for extra virgin olive oil.
Some of the brands that failed were Pompeian, Filippo Berio, Bertolli, Star, Colavita, Newman’s Own Organic, and Rachael Ray. Those that passed with perfect scores on both tests? California Olive Ranch, Cobram Estate, Kirkland Organic, Corto Olive, McEvoy Ranch Organic, and Lucero.
Also in September 2012, Consumer Reports published its results from testing 23 olive oils from Italy, Spain, and California, and found that only 9 passed the test as actually being EVOO, as claimed on the label. Two that failed the test were the popular brands Bertolli and Goya.
These reports tell us that buying EVOO in our local markets is not always as simple as grabbing a bottle off the shelf.
How To Buy Olive Oil
Buying high-quality EVOO can be a daunting task. Here are some tips you can use to make sure you are getting the best EVOO.
- Make sure its has EVOO certification
In the United States, the California Olive Oil Council certifies EVOO. You can find their certification right on the bottle. Check out their website to find a high-quality California EVOO.
- Make sure it’s fresh
Often EVOO found in supermarkets has been lying around for years. Don’t trust “best by” dates. You want to purchase an oil that has a harvest date on it. Try to purchase an oil that is within one year of harvest.
- Purchase award-winning oils
There are several EVOO competitions held around the world. These oils have been judged by experts and are considered the best oils available. One of the biggest competitions is the New York International Olive Oil Competition. See a list of the winners here. This is a good way to find the best non-American EVOOs. Caveat: it’s not always easy to get a particular oil in the States.
- Visit an EVOO store near you
Some communities have shops where they specialize in EVOO. Often the retailer will allow you to taste various oils so you can experience different varieties of olives.
- Look for a peppery taste
Most high-quality EVOO’s will have a slight peppery or bitter taste as it passes down the back of your throat. This is indicative of the polyphenols present in the oil. Be careful. You might be forced to cough. If it tastes greasy, moldy, rancid or reminiscent of cardboard, it’s no good. Throw it out.
- Buy EVOO in a dark colored bottle
Light can cause oxidation of the oil. A dark colored bottle can prevent this. Remember to store your EVOO in a cool, dark dry place.
- Be prepared to spend a little extra
High-quality EVOO’s are not cheap. But you pay for what you get.
My Favorite EVOO’s
I am currently enjoying Kasandrinos Greek extra virgin olive oil. It’s made from Koroneiki olives and always fresh.
If you’re in the grocery store and don’t know what to buy but you want an EVOO to sauté with, try California Olive Ranch. Most stores carry it, it’s COOC certified, and reasonably priced.
There you have it. The ultimate EVOO post. Do you have a favorite EVOO? Tell us about it. We’d love to hear from you.
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