Putting together the post on monounsaturated fats for you all really underlined the vast wealth of information (and confusion) about olive oil. It’s a Super Food for a reason! I realized I needed a separate post to help you out, because you can really improve your health by including olive oil in your diet – correctly – but you can also create damaging free radicals and end up harming your body if you do a few key things incorrectly. Read on to unravel the tangled web of EVOO, dear readers!
UPDATE: New posts on the issue:
What do all the Olive Oil Labels Mean?
- Extra Virgin: first press, should be unrefined. All the nutrients are intact, the flavor is “delicate” (according to World’s Healthiest Foods), and it is as natural as you’re going to get it.
- Virgin: also from the first press, but more acidic, fewer health benefits and stronger taste.
- “Virgin“: as a term, it means that the oil came out of the olive without chemical treatment.
- “Refined“: the opposite of virgin, above. Chemicals are added to neutralize strong tastes and fatty acids. Refined oils will last longer and withstand heat, but their health benefits are drastically reduced.
- “Pure“: a marketing term. Simply means a mix of refined oil and virgin oils. Don’t bother with this one!
- “Olive oil“: another marketing term. Vague terms mean vague inside the bottle. Don’t bother.
- “Light olive oil“: Light = refined to lessen the strong flavor. Read: fewer health benefits, more oxidation. It may sound like this is a reduced fat/calorie oil, but it absolutely is not.
- Don’t be tricked by marketing techniques that sound so good to the ears: “100% Pure Olive Oil” is usually the lowest quality, refined oil you can find. !!
- Cold-Pressed: I am shocked by my research here. I had done research into the olive oil issue a few years back and came to the conclusion that “first cold-pressed” extra virgin olive oil was the best, the only way to go. Today I read three sources that dispel my previous research with the claim that “first cold press” is also a marketing term (drat!) and that it has little to no meaning in EVOO. Using heat to press olive oil would render the taste and acidity too low to obtain the label EVOO, so no one would do it. It is basically an archaic term from a hundred years ago when they actually used to press oil out of olives, then heat what was left and press it again for a poor-man’s olive oil. I learned something new this week to be sure! (Sources: Wiki, Olive Oil Source, Directory M articles)
The Bottom Line
For heaven’s sakes. That’s a ridiculous list of terms. No wonder no one can go shopping with a simple grocery list anymore; you need Wikipedia with you just to figure out what to buy!
What to buy: Extra Virgin olive oil is the way to go, although it may cost a bit more than the alternatives. You’re getting what you pay for in nutrition and health benefits. One caveat: if you’re going to cook a lot with your EVOO, you might consider another option…
The Heat Conundrum
Consider heat for a moment: It cooks food, kills bacteria, melts plastics, can burn skin, etc etc. Heat is a strong source of energy. It isn’t a huge leap of logic to realize that processing foods with heat will most certainly affect them more than without heat. In the case of oils, it can denature them (damage their nutrients, like Vitamin E in olive oil), reducing some of their health benefits (like polyphenols in olive oil), and, most importantly, begin the process of rancidity. That’s why you don’t want to buy refined oils, even if they’ll last longer and taste less intense. A rancid oil is not a healthy oil, and you cannot always tell by the smell if an oil has been damaged enough to become rancid.
Heat can create “free radicals” in oil, which is a result of oxidization. You’ve seen the word “antioxidants” a lot in the media around food: antioxidants fight free radicals, because free radicals cause cancer. Olive oil should help us fight cancer – unless we get the wrong stuff or overheat it, then it’s going to do the opposite. Yikes! Told you it was a tangled web!
How hot can olive oil get before it’s too hot? That depends on what kind of oil you have. An oil’s smoke point is the point at which it begins to break down (at the cellular level = free radicals), which causes health detriments and an unpleasant (burnt?) taste. The following are the Wikipedia smoke points for olive oil:
- Olive oil Extra virgin 375°F
- Olive oil Virgin 420°F
- Olive oil Extra light 468°F
You can imagine that much of the sautéing you do, and especially if you’re trying to sear meat in a hot pan, could easily get your EVOO over 375°F. For this reason, many sources recommend using virgin olive oil if you’re going to cook with it and EVOO for cold consumption, like in salad dressings. Real Age docs even list the smoke point at 320, and conservative recommendations say not to heat over 300.
How to Use EVOO Without so Much Heat
- Homemade salad dressings
- Dipping plate for breads (add herbs or a few drops of balsamic vinegar for a restaurant-style experience!)
- Add to mashed potatoes with garlic
- Spritz or drizzle on steamed veggies after cooking
- “Healthy Saute” in a bit of chicken stock, then add the oil right at the end of cooking
- Make pesto
- Make Bruschetta
- Drizzle on cooked pasta with herbs instead of sauce, or with tomatoes too
Important Notes on How to Store Olive Oil
Light damages oils just as heat does, so be sure to buy opaque containers. If you can only find clear glass containers of EVOO, at least grab it from the back of the shelf and shop at a store that is busy enough to be restocking often (from opaque cardboard boxes, right?).
Don’t put your oil in a fancy glass bottle on the counter, and be sure to store it away from heat sources. If you buy in bulk, store most of your oil in a cool, dark place (out of the kitchen if possible), and use it all up within a year. The antioxidants are reduced and Vitamins A and E drop off by 40-100% respectively after 12 months. Yikes! I have a gallon in my basement…better get moving on it!
After just two months’ exposure to light, peroxide (free radical) levels had increased so much that the olive oil could no longer be classified as extra virgin.
Tinted glass containers screen out some light, but non-reactive dark plastic or metal containers are the best choice for preserving olive oil’s beneficial compounds. (World’s Healthiest Foods)
One Small Step
One of the tiniest baby steps I took while preparing to begin this blog and drowning myself in research was to move my bottle of EVOO. Yes, I still cook with it, but I’m very careful about only using medium heat or lower. I’m still learning a lot and may get virgin oil next time around. I always stored my olive oil in the cupboard over my stove, a pretty convenient, but hot and happenin’ spot. I finally moved it to the ONLY other cupboard tall enough for the bottle: over the sink. It’s definitely less convenient, and my husband couldn’t find it for a few months, but I finally decided that the risk of creating rancid oil just wasn’t worth it! Simple, baby steps. Try it at your house.
Recipes in my “box” with olive oil:
Plus lots of my soup and bean recipes begin with a little saute in olive oil…over very low heat!…check out the Recipes tab for a list.
Good link for recipes and info: California Olive Ranch EVOO (although remember that this is a retail source trying to sell a product, and take their advice with that in mind.) The recipes are diverse and unique!
photos from Flickr
Other Super Food Health Benefits:
- Chicken Stock/Broth
- Cruciferous Vegetables
- Garlic and Onions
- Super Fruits
Looking for other Food for Thought?
- Antibacterial Soap
- Supermarkets’ waste of food
- America’s Food Waste
- Energy Use in the Kitchen
- Menu Planning
- Plastic Safety
- Hand Sanitizers in the Home