Is Olive Oil Really King?
It’s healthy and versatile, but it does have some competition in the kitchen
Who would have thought one day there would be entire stores devoted to olive oil, where you could sample dozens of varieties straight-up from tiny paper cups?
By one estimate, there are 1,000 such establishments in the United States — stand-alone shops that sell only olive oil (and sometimes its companion, balsamic vinegar). Not quite Starbucks, but getting there.
One reason? Decades of research have found that olive oil may be the secret behind the Mediterranean diet’s health-promoting benefits. “Hundreds of studies have linked the Mediterranean diet to reduced risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and neurodegenerative diseases,” says Sharon Palmer, RDN, author of “Plant-Powered For Life.”
“Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fatty acids, which have been linked with lower risk of heart disease,” Palmer adds. “And extra-virgin olive oil — made famous as ‘EVOO’ by TV chef Rachel Ray — contains oleocanthal, a naturally occurring plant compound that has potent anti-inflammatory benefits.”
Other research has found a link between EVOO and reduced risk of cancer and even weight loss. And a promising new study, just published in the journal Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, reports that components of extra-virgin olive oil — extracted from the first, fruitiest and most potent press of the olive — prevent the accumulation and toxicity of proteins known to cause Alzheimer’s disease.
If you’d like to reap the benefits of extra-virgin olive oil, but you’re an EVOO virgin, there are a few things you need to know about choosing and using the right stuff, as well as when to reach for another healthy oil.
Make sure it’s the real deal
In 2011, a major study by researchers at the University of California at Davis found that as many as 73 percent of olive oil samples didn’t pass the international standard for being labeled “extra virgin.” Many of the oils were very poor quality and some contained other kinds of oils. In fact, quite a few major brands failed.
The label of an authentic EVOO will list the region the oil came from and what it’s composed of. Be wary if the label says the oil comes from several places or that it’s “light,” which usually means it’s a poor quality oil. One shortcut: Look for California-grown oils — they did well in the UC-Davis study, says Palmer. The California Olive Oil Council gives a certified extra-virgin seal to oils that pass their rigorous requirements. (Photo: California Olive Oil Council)
“A really good EVOO leaves a peppery finish at the back of the throat,” says Palmer. That peppery, stinging sensation comes from the oleocanthal in EVOO — that’s the chemical that acts as an anti-inflammatory. It’s how you know you’ve got the good stuff. “When you dress a salad and pasta with good olive oil, it’s an amazing experience,” says Palmer.
Use it for just about everything
Olive oil’s smoke point — the temperature at which it starts to break down and literally give off smoke — is fairly low, about 320 degrees F. What that means is that it’s not the oil to use to stir-fry chicken or other foods at high temps.
“A recent study found that the normal cooking temperatures one would use at home to sauté, pan-fry or roast do not exceed the smoke point of olive oil. So you can use it for those purposes when cooking at home,” says Palmer. “I use EVOO — which still has its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds intact — for everything.”
“Studies show that oleocanthal is fairly heat stable, although the biological activity can be reduced,” adds Palmer. You can even bake with it.
Store it correctly
There’s a reason olive oil is usually sold in dark glass bottles. It can break down and become rancid if exposed to too much light and heat. “Buy EVOO in small quantities and store it in a dark, cool place,” advises Palmer.
Experiment with other oils
Olive oil may be the gold standard of culinary oils, but other vegetable oils, such as canola, soy and corn oil, are no slouches in the health department either. For one thing, they’re rich in linoleic acid, which helps reduce cholesterol levels. And, according to a 2012 study from researchers at the University of Missouri and the University of Illinois, these polyunsaturated veggie oils don’t contribute to inflammation as previously thought.
Related: Soybean Oil: Good or Bad for You?
If you love stir-fries, use stock oils that can stand up to high heat, such as vegetable, sesame or peanut oil. Peanut oil has its own health benefits: It contains phytosterols, which prevent cholesterol absorption in the intestines.
Sesame oil has a distinctive flavor that marries well with Asian dishes. Like olive oil, canola is a good source of monounsaturated fat, but its lighter flavor may make it better for baking, salad dressings, sautéing and stir-frying for people who don’t like the strong olive taste of EVOO.
Walnut oil, too fragile for heating, is a flavorful accompaniment to pasta and salads. And coconut oil lends a flavorful, fruity, tropical flavor, but it is a saturated fat. Use coconut oil in moderation and look for jars labeled “virgin.”
Don't overdo it
No matter what oil you use, or how healthy it is, remember that oil is a fat and contains roughly 120 calories per tablespoon. According to USDA guidelines, the daily recommended allowance for fat is between 5 and 7 teaspoons for older kids and adults, and 3 to 4 teaspoons for toddlers and younger children.