In recent years, olive oil has caused quite the buzz — and for good reason. The golden liquid is a major part of the Mediterranean diet, which has repeatedly earned the title of “Best Diet Overall” by US News & World Report. But is it truly healthy? And what can it do for the body? Ahead, experts break down the health benefits of olive oil, plus how and when to use different types.
What is olive oil?
Olive oil is the thick liquid fat from olives, aka the small fruits from the olive tree, which, according to the University of Florida, is native to Africa, Asia, and the Mediterranean. There are also myriad types of olive oil, which vary in nutrition, colour, flavour, and smell, depending on the manufacturing process.
In general, however, the liquid is made by pressing olives to separate the pulp and oil, the latter of which might be further refined using heat or chemicals, thereby creating a lower-quality oil (ie fewer nutrients and altered appearance), explains Traci Weintraub, chef and founder of Gracefully Fed, an LA-based meal delivery service. That said, unrefined oil — or extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) — is the MVP of all versions of the golden elixir, as it contains the most nutrients and, thus, the most health benefits. So, for the sake of simplicity, let’s mainly focus on EVOO from here on out.
Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fat, a “good” fat that can help lower blood cholesterol, says Annamaria Louloudis, MS, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian at Culina Health. Most of this fat is in the form of oleic acid, a monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acid “which makes up to 83 percent of olive oil,” adds Louloudis. What’s more, the liquid is loaded with nutrients such as vitamin E, iron, zinc, and polyphenols (aka disease-fighting antioxidants), according to a 2019 scientific article. This is great and all, but remember that the exact nutrient content and its benefits depends on the type of olive oil you use.
Here’s the nutritional profile of 1 tablespoon of olive oil, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. The type isn’t indicated on the USDA page, but these stats can give you a general idea of what’s in it:
- 119 calories
- 0 grams protein
- 13.5 grams fat
- 0 grams carbohydrate
- 0 grams fibre
- 0 grams sugar
Okay, but how do these general nutrition facts compare to those of EVOO? Turns out they’re pretty similar (more on the difference between, below). Case in point: the nutritional profile of 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil:
- 120 calories
- 0 grams protein
- 14 grams fat
- 0 grams carbohydrate
Olive oil is the main source of fat in the Mediterranean diet, and one of the many reasons why the eating plan is considered so healthy, according to a 2019 article in Frontiers in Nutrition. Not convinced? Keep reading to explore the health benefits of olive oil, according to scientific research and dietitians.
One more time for the folks in the back: The main fat in olive oil is oleic acid, which has the ability to reduce inflammation by making anti-inflammatory cytokines (aka proteins), according to a 2014 scientific review. Olive oil also contains oleocanthal, a polyphenol that “shares anti-inflammatory characteristics with the [over-the-counter pain reliever] ibuprofen,” says Valerie Agyeman, RD, founder of Flourish Heights.
In fact, according to Agyeman, oleocanthal is considered to be a natural substance that works similarly to ibuprofen. Together the oleic acid and oleocanthal in olive oil make the ingredient an anti-inflammatory powerhouse that can help reduce chronic inflammation and, in turn, the risk of developing inflammation-induced diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and arthritis. And on that note…
Wards Off Disease
Chronic disease is no match for polyphenols, such as those found in EVOO. As antioxidants, “polyphenols have the ability to neutralise free radicals [or molecules] that cause inflammation and potentially damage cells,” explains Louloudis. This damage, called oxidative stress, can be at the root of myriad chronic diseases (think: diabetes and cancer), according to a 2016 article. What’s more, polyphenols also activate immune cells, such as germ-fighting lymphocytes, which help the body fight disease and infection, according to a 2019 scientific article.
Protects the Brain
As the polyphenols in olive oil combat oxidative stress, they also protect the brain. That’s because oxidative stress can damage nerve cells, or neurons, potentially causing cognitive decline and paving the way for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, according to a 2019 scientific article in the journal Molecules. The most abundant polyphenol in olive oil is oleuropein, which is primarily found in olives (vs. other foods) and therefore, olive oil, says Agyeman. And that’s good news because oleuropein has a neuroprotective effect — meaning it can protect neurons from damage — thanks to its antioxidant properties. But take note: EVOO has more polyphenols than its refined counterpart, as the latter is more processed, according to a 2018 scientific article.
Promotes Bone Health
When you think of bone health, odds are that olive oil isn’t one of the first ingredients that comes to mind — but it should. “Olive polyphenols may increase the production of osteoblasts (bone-building cells) and decrease the formation of osteoclasts (bone-dissolving cells),” explains Agyeman.
In healthy bone, the activity of these cells is balanced, meaning old bone cells are continuously replaced by new ones. But as you age, the activity of osteoclasts naturally increases, according to a 2020 article in Bone Research. This ups the risk of developing osteoporosis, a condition characterised by weak and brittle bones.
That said, by boosting the production of bone-forming cells through, say, consumption of olive oil, “the polyphenols in olives and olive oil work to preserve bone mass and bone mineral density,” says Agyeman, thereby lending benefits like helping to stave off osteoporosis or any weakening of the bones. (BTW, making sure to get your fill of fungi, err, mushrooms can also benefit your bones as all that vitamin D in ‘shrooms can support the absorption of calcium.)
Supports Heart Health
The Mediterranean diet has also received a seal of approval from the American Heart Association. This is partly due to the eating style’s focus on olive oil, which is packed with heart-friendly nutrients such as monounsaturated fat. This type of “good” fat is olive oil can promote healthy heart rhythms and blood cholesterol levels, according to Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. Specifically, monounsaturated fat helps lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, says Louloudis. This is noteworthy because high levels of LDL cholesterol increase the risk of heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Need more reasons to ~heart~ olive oil? “The polyphenols in olive oil [help protect] LDL cholesterol from oxidative stress,” says Louloudis. Now, I know what you’re thinking: Didn’t you just say that LDL cholesterol is considered “bad?” Yes, yes, I did. See, the aim isn’t to totally get rid of LDL cholesterol, but to keep your levels of it low and within recommended limits. It’s also important to take care of the LDL cholesterol that you do have to maintain a healthy ticker — and that’s where olive oil comes in.
As Louloudis mentioned, the antioxidants in olive oil fend off oxidative stress. This is key because LDL cholesterol that’s been exposed to oxidative damage can increase inflammation and promote atherosclerosis (clogged arteries), according to a 2021 scientific review. TG for olive oil, am I right?
Potential risks of olive oil
In general, there are no major risks associated with olive oil except if you have a fat malabsorption issue, says Louloudis. Fat malabsorption — which means that you’re unable to properly digest fat — results in steatorrhea (oily stools) when you eat fatty foods such as, yup, olive oil.
Potential causes of fat malabsorption include liver disease, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), or pancreatic disease, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. In this case, you’ll want to chat with your doc to determine how much, if any, olive oil you can consume.
Types of olive oil
In the supermarket, you’ll find many types of olive oil. The best option depends on what you’re looking for in terms of nutrition, flavour, and colour as well as how you plan to use it.
Extra-virgin olive oil. “[EVOO] is unrefined [and] made from pure, cold-pressed olives,” says Louloudis. Meaning, it hasn’t been exposed to chemicals or heat during processing, resulting in an oil that has more nutrients and flavour as well as a darker colour, says Weintraub. It also burns at a lower temp than other types of olive oil also due to its unrefined nature, notes Weintraub. However, its smoke point is about 190-207° C — and most cooking methods, including sautéing, never reach that temperature, says Louloudis. Translation: It’s okay to use EVOO in cooking methods that don’t use high heat. (For high heat cooking, like roasting, choose something with a higher smoke point, such as avocado or grapeseed oil. Pure olive oil is also ideal, as mentioned below.)
All that said, EVOO is a stellar choice for no-cook recipes, such as homemade salad dressing or bread dipping oil, notes Weintraub.
Refined olive oil. This version involves pressing olives to release the oil, which is further refined with heat or chemicals, says Weintraub. “This results in a lower quality olive oil without a distinctive taste, smell, or colour,” she explains. The extra processing step also reduces its vitamins and polyphenols, according to a 2018 article in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences. However, since it has a neutral flavour, it is ideal for recipes such as those for baked goods, says Weintraub. Refined olive oil is often labelled as “light” olive oil.
Pure olive oil. Don’t let the word “pure” fool you. “Pure olive oil is typically a combination of refined and cold-pressed olive oil [EVOO],” says Weintraub. This produces a liquid that’s lighter and more neutral-tasting than EVOO. It’s also easier to cook with, she adds, as it has a higher smoke point than other types of olive oil.
How to choose, store and use olive oil
Once you’ve decided the type of olive to use, head to the store (IRL or online) and “look for a dark bottle instead of a clear bottle,” says Weintraub. The nutrients in olive oil are sensitive to light, which causes oxidation, a series of chemical processes that breaks down fat molecules and promotes spoiling, explains Agyeman. The same can be said for heat and air, she adds. For that reason (and, ya know, overall safety), “always check for signs of leaking or a broken seal,” suggests Weintraub.
At home, “store [olive oil] in a cool, dark place like a closed pantry, cabinet, or refrigerator,” recommends Agyeman. While you’re at it, make sure the container is tightly sealed when you’re done using it to further reduce air exposure, she adds. If your olive oil is fresh and good to use, it should smell peppery, fruity, or bitter, says Weintraub.
On the other hand, spoiled olive oil may smell sour or nutty and simply taste “off.” And while an opened bottle of olive oil can last up to a year or longer, “you’ll get the best taste within the first few months,” notes Weintraub. This is especially important when using EVOO in things such as salad dressing, which work best with a recently opened bottle. “However, when baking or sautéing, you can be a bit more liberal,” says Weintraub.
Olive Oil Recipes
Ready to add olive oil to your menu? Check out these delicious ways to use the powerhouse ingredient at home:
To cook food. Perhaps the easiest way to enjoy olive oil is to use it to cook food. To sauté with EVOO, Weintraub recommends using, at most, 1-2 tablespoons of the liquid, though she notes that you likely don’t need as much oil as you think. For example, if you’re sautéing veggies, she suggests using just under 1 tablespoon. However, if you’re cooking something such as ground meat, you might need to periodically add more oil throughout the cooking process, she notes. That’s because such ingredients generally take longer to cook, so you may need to replenish the oil as it cooks off. Similarly, when roasting with pure olive oil, use just enough to coat the food.
Infuse it with herbs. Since extra-virgin olive oil is best for a DIY dressing or marinade, it’s the perfect candidate for a herb-infused oil. Try the rosemary olive oil recipe, which can be adapted with other herbs such as thyme or oregano.
In vinaigrettes. For a quick and easy vinaigrette, Louloudis recommends mixing 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, and 1 teaspoon mustard vinaigrette. Wanna switch it up? Use apple cider vinegar or balsamic vinegar in place of lemon juice.
In oatmeal. Yes, really! Turn your oats into a savoury dish by replacing sugary toppings with olive oil, almonds, and orange slices. (EVOO is best for the job, as making oatmeal doesn’t require high heat.) See you never, boring breakfast.
In baked goods. Thanks to olive oil, you can have your cake and eat it too. Just remember to use 25 percent less oil than butter listed in the recipe, according to the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. (Think: Replace one cup butter with ¾ cup olive oil). Again, for baked goods such as this fruity olive oil cake, refined olive oil is the way to go.
This story first appeared on www.shape.com.
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