Arguably the healthiest oil, olive oil is a staple of the Mediterranean diet thanks to its abundance of heart-healthy fats. Read on to get the low down on this all-star oil, including nutritional highlights, how to select and store, and ways to incorporate it into your diet.
A staple in Mediterranean cooking for thousands of years, olive oil is made by crushing fresh olives into a paste and then pressing the paste to extract the oil (some companies use a centrifuge instead to obtain the oil).
Olive oil that is bottled immediately after pressing is the most valuable type of oil and is usually only obtained by buying directly from the source or from boutique stores.
Extra-virgin olive oil is the purest form of olive oil that you’re likely to find in large supermarkets. It’s usually filtered and then bottled in green glass. Olive oil that’s doesn’t say extra-virgin has gone through processing and is considered a refined oil.
Pure, unrefined olive oil has a deep golden color and a rich, savory flavor that varies by the type of olives used. Everything from the climate that the olives were grown in to the degree of ripeness when picked will affect the flavor and color.
While many of us think of Italy (or California in the US), Spain is actually the leading producer olive oil in the world.
As with any oil, olive oil is 100% fat, with approximately 75% of that fat being heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. As for the other 25%, 15% is saturated fatty acids and 10% polyunsaturated (just 1% of which are omega-3’s).
Olive oil also contains vitamins E and K as well as powerful antioxidants that help protect against chronic disease.
The combination of antioxidants and healthy fats makes extra-virgin olive oil an essential component of a healthy diet, with studies showing decreased risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and chronic inflammation. There’s also ongoing research into its potential role in reducing risk of alzheimer’s.
Of course, we couldn’t talk about olive oil and not mention the Mediterranean Diet. As one of the most researched healthy eating patterns, the Mediterranean Diet is high in extra-virgin olive oil. Strong adherence to this pattern of eating has been associated with significantly decreased risk of overall mortality, as well as significantly decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative diseases, diabetes, and overall cancer incidence.
How to select
As mentioned above, for the purest, best tasting oil, look for extra-virgin olive oil. You also want to steer clear of any olive oils sold in clear containers, as sunlight can rapidly start degrading the fat, causing the oil to go rancid quickly.
As extra-virgin olive oil only lasts about 3-6 months once opened, avoid buying huge containers unless your family goes through a lot of olive oil.
You also need to be savvy when buying olive oil, as a 2010 study found that 69% of the extra-virgin olive oils tested in US supermarkets were found to be lower quality olive oil. So how can you know that you’re getting the real stuff? Afterall, it isn’t cheap.
The best way is to buy from an oil shop where you can try the oil beforehand. As mentioned above, refined olive oil will be duller in color, flavor and smell than real extra-virgin olive oil.
When you can’t smell or taste the oil beforehand, look for a harvest date, estate name or mill name. If a bottle contains one or more of these, it’s likely that it’s the real-deal.
Another sign that you’re getting a good oil is if it has a third-party certification seal. For California olive oil, look for “COOC Certified Extra Virgin” seal. For European oils, look for a PDO stamp (Protected Designation of Origin) or Italy’s DOP seal.
The final tip is to look for extra-virgin olive oil from Australia, as it has the most stringent standards for olive oils.
How to store
Now that you have your bottle, make sure you store it properly. As sunlight and heat can spoil olive oil, make sure to keep it off your counter and in a dark pantry or cupboard.
Unopened olive oil will keep for 1 year when stored properly. Once opened you have about 3-6 months depending on the freshness of the oil before it goes bad.
How to use in cooking/baking
While olive oil is usually thought of as an oil to only use raw due to its lower smoke point, extra-virgin oil can hold up to temperatures of up to 375oF (some sources say that it’s even safe up to 400oF).
As a result, olive oil can be an easy way to add healthy fats to stir-frys, savory baked goods, sauces, soups, and sauteed vegetables.
However, given it’s rich flavor, extra-virgin olive oil shines in raw dishes, such as salads, pesto, hummus, and drizzled over grain bowls. Oh, and don’t forget the best use of olive oil (in my opinion): drizzled with balsamic vinegar to be dipped into with a crusty piece of bread.
While I use olive oil quite a bit on the blog, here are a few recipes to show how versatile this oil can be:
- Addicting Mediterranean Freekeh Salad with Roasted Chickpeas
- Healthy Cowboy Caviar
- Cheesy Peach Quesadillas
- Toasted Orange and Vanilla Oatmeal