Ever since the 1980s when the benefits of the Mediterranean diet came to the fore, olive oil has made a place in the diet of health-conscious Americans. And increasing demand for the oil has flooded the market with multiple grades of olive oils, at various prices and for various types of cooking. However, not all olive oils you find on your supermarket shelves are healthy. Here’s a lowdown on all possible types you may find in the market and how to choose the healthiest olive oil.
1. Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
If you want the health benefits attributed to olive oil, extra-virgin is the way to go. It is the healthiest olive oil option because it retains the antioxidant polyphenols, such as oleuropein, hydroxytyrosol, and oleocanthal, that give olive oil its anti-inflammatory properties. Since heat or chemical processing or even multiple pressing removes these polyphenols, extra-virgin olive oil is derived from the first pressing of the fruit.
To be certified extra-virgin, the oil has to pass a number of stringent tests on polyphenol content, acidity, and flavor. A high-quality olive oil should contain over 220 mg/kg polyphenols. It should not contain more than 0.8% acidity – that is, 0.8 grams per 100 grams of free fatty acids, expressed as oleic acid. It should also have the green and peppery flavor of olives.1 If the oil’s bitter and pungent, that’s good news. Bitterness indicates the presence of oleuropein and pungency indicates the presence of oleocanthal.
- Labels on extra-virgin olive oil suggest using the oil on cold foods like salads or pastas. Recent research, however, claims that extra-virgin olive oil is a better cooking oil than most vegetable oils. It can withstand heat and is less likely to be oxidized because of the monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) and antioxidants. Use it to saute, lightly fry, and poach.
2. Virgin Olive Oil
Another category of virgin olive oil called ordinary virgin olive oil may also be available in some places, though the EU has eliminated the category. It has an acidity of 3.3%. It is an inferior oil with defects in flavor.2
Virgin olive oil is also an unrefined oil. Like extra-virgin oil, it comes from the first pressing, without chemicals and heat. While the antioxidant profile is similar to extra-virgin olive oil, it has a slightly lower flavor intensity. But the main difference between the two unrefined oils is the level of acidity. Virgin olive oil has an oleic acidity level of up to 2%, which increases its calorie value as well as the smoke point.3
- Use virgin olive oil to cook as well as in cold dishes. Since it has a higher smoke point than extra-virgin olive oil, it can be used to pan-fry as well.
3. Refined Olive Oil
Refined olive oil is made by further refining naturally extracted virgin olive oil. When it comes to cooking oils, refined does not mean better. While the fat structure is not affected, it does not have the antioxidant benefits of extra-virgin and virgin olive oil. This variety has an acidity of 0.3%. It does not have the flavor of olive oil, but has a long shelf life because of the absence of polyphenols. It may sometimes contain added vitamin E.
- Use refined olive oil for deep frying.
4. Olive Oil Or Pure/Classic Olive Oil
Don’t get misled by the terms “pure” or “classic” when purchasing olive oil. Oils marketed with the label “Olive oil” or “Pure olive oil” or “Classic olive oil” are actually blends of refined and virgin olive oils. Pure refers to the fact that it has not been mixed with other types of oils. This variety has an acidity of 1%. The flavor, aroma, and antioxidant levels depend on the amount in the virgin oil. Sometimes, extra vitamin E may be added to both pure olive oil too.
While refined olive oil and pure olive oil both are good for deep frying, the virgin olive oil blend in the latter can offer more protection against oxidation.
- Use it to deep-fry foods and to sear meats.
- Use it for external application, to moisturize the skin and control dandruff.
5. Lite/Light Olive Oil
When it comes to foods, the word lite or light usually refers to the calorific value. But equally misleading as the label “pure” in the case of olive oils is the word “light/lite.” Light is a reference to the amount of flavor in the oil and not the calories. The International Olive Council does not recognize light or lite olive oil as a separate category.
Don’t buy into ads that tell you that lite olive oil has the nutritional benefits of olive oil without the strong flavor. Since this variety is basically a mix of refined olive oil and other vegetable oils, it has none of the nutritional values of antioxidants that give olive oil its unique character. Moreover, its fatty acid composition may also not be ideal because of its blend with other oils.
- Since this olive oil has little to no flavor, you may use it to cook dishes where you do not want the flavor of the oil to dominate.
- It has a higher smoke point and can be used for grilling and frying.
6. Olive-Pomace Oil
Pomace is that part of the olive which remains after all the oil and water in it has been removed by pressuring or centrifuging processes. This oil is extracted using solvents and then refined, rendering it neutral in taste and color. Pomace oil is the lowest grade of olive-based oils, but to make it more marketable to customers, producers blend it with virgin olive oil, which gives it a mild flavor and aroma. The proportions may be different but the virgin olive oil content is generally low. Olive-pomace oil is inexpensive and doesn’t have significant amount of vitamins or polyphenols like virgin olive oil. It has an acidity of 1% and like pure olive oil, it’s used only for high-heat cooking. However, olive-pomace oil is best avoided. It has been found to have carcinogenic contaminants like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in high amounts.4
Which Olive Oil Should You Choose?
To sum it up, while all types of olive oil have a higher monounsaturated fat content than other vegetable oils, extra-virgin and virgin olive oils have the polyphenols that give olives their unique health benefits. So if you are switching to olive oil for health reasons, choose extra-virgin and virgin. You may choose pure olive oil for deep frying and baking over other PUFA-rich refined oils like soybean or sunflower. But try to avoid lite olive oil and olive-pomace oil.
While refined/pure olive oil is certainly inferior to extra-virgin and virgin olive oil, it might still be better than other refined vegetable oils. In one study, researchers deep-fried (160–190°C) and pan-fried (180°C) potatoes in 4 different refined oils – olive, corn, soybean, and sunflower – and used the same oil 10 times. Refined olive oil was found to be more heat-stable than the other seed oils during deep frying. It also underwent the least oxidative damage.5
How To Buy Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
- Look for extra-virgin olive oils in dark glass bottles. The polyphenols degrade when exposed to light.
- Check for the USDA organic seal. While it doesn’t speak to the quality, it assures pesticide-free oil.
- Check for a single country of origin, with a “Protected Designation of Origin” logo, and estate production. Both of these ensure better-quality oil.
- Most labels mention a best before date, but pick only those bottles that mention the harvest date. Buy an oil with a harvest date not more than 15–18 months back. Well-preserved extra-virgin olive oils can keep for 2 years. But use the oil within a couple of months.6 7
- Genuine extra-virgin olive oil is expensive. So don’t settle for a cheaper option.
How To Store
- Store in a cool and dry place. Heat and light break down the polyphenols.
- Keep the cap on when not using the oil.
- Use up extra-virgin and virgin olive oil within 2 months of opening the cap.
|↑1, ↑2, ↑3||TRADE STANDARD APPLYING TO OLIVE OILS AND OLIVE-POMACE OILS. International Olive Council.|
|↑4||Guillén, María D., Patricia Sopelana, and Gemma Palencia. “Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and olive pomace oil.” Journal of agricultural and food chemistry 52, no. 7 (2004): 2123-2132.|
|↑5||Zribi, Akram, Hazem Jabeur, Felix Aladedunye, Ahmed Rebai, Bertrand Matthäus, and Mohamed Bouaziz. “Monitoring of quality and stability characteristics and fatty acid compositions of refined olive and seed oils during repeated pan-and deep-frying using GC, FT-NIRS, and chemometrics.” Journal of agricultural and food chemistry 62, no. 42 (2014): 10357-10367.|
|↑6||Olive Oil: Desperately Seeking Quality. Berkeley Wellness, University of California.|
|↑7||Olive oil options can be dizzying. Which is best for you? The Washington Post.|