One of the healthiest foods you can eat, thanks to its ties to the Mediterranean diet.
For each 10 g of extra-virgin olive oil (nearly 1 tbsp) eaten a day, risk of cardiovascular disease fell by 10 percent and death from cardiovascular disease fell by 7 percent. *
Improve blood vessel function
Improve insulin sensitivity
Lower high blood pressure
A Detailed Guide to Olive Oil: Why It’s Good for You, What’s in It, Whether You Should Use It on Your Skin, and More
Olive oil and its trendy moniker EVOO (extra-virgin olive oil) is known as one of the healthiest foods you can eat, thanks to its ties to the Mediterranean diet. Here’s what you need to know about its place in your everyday routine.
What Is Olive Oil and What Is Its History?
Olive oil is oil pressed from olives. Its use dates back 6,000 years, originating in Iran, Syria, and Palestine, before making its way to the Mediterranean, where its olive groves are most well known. Historically, olive oil has been used in religious ceremonies and medicine, and it’s become an important source of food for many cultures.
Today, you can buy three types of olive oil: extra-virgin olive oil, olive oil, and light-tasting olive oil. Regular olive oil can be used in a variety of cooking styles, while extra-virgin (which makes up 60 percent of all the olive oil sold in North America) can be used for both cold or finishing preparations as well as in cooking. Light-tasting olive oil has a neutral flavor, so you can use it in cooking and baking when you don’t want the characteristic peppery taste of olive oil.
How Olive Oil Is Made
Olive oil is made from olives that grow on olive trees, most often those in the Mediterranean region. After harvest, olives are crushed into a paste and then decanted and put through a centrifugation process to separate the oil. The final product is then stored in stainless steel tanks that are protected from oxygen. When bottled, the oil should go into a dark glass bottle to keep it fresh.
You can also buy extra-virgin olive oil (dubbed EVOO), which is cold-pressed from ripe olives mechanically without using high heat or chemicals, per standards set forth by the International Olive Council. This is said to preserve chemicals in the olives called phenols, which are one reason olive oil is thought to have such powerful health properties. On the other hand, refined olive oil uses heat or solvents, resulting in a tasteless oil that can then be blended with other oils.
Olive oil is a pure fat, but according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate guidelines, a healthy fat, meaning it contains no protein or carbohydrates (including fiber or sugar). Most of its fat is made up of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, with a small amount of polyunsaturated fat and saturated fat. One plus of using fat in your cooking — particularly with vegetables — is that the fat helps your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins, like A, D, E, and K, from the meal.
How Olive Oil Compares With Other Popular Oils
You have a choice for what oil you use to cook with, but know that each oil has about the same number of calories (around 120) and fat (around 14 g) per tablespoon (tbsp); it’s their fat make-up that differs. Here’s how olive oil stacks up against other culinary oils:
Avocado Oil Because avocados are mostly made up of MUFAs, avocado oil is the most similar to olive oil nutritionally. It contains 1.6g of saturated fat, 9.9g of MUFA, and 1.9g of polyunsaturated fat.
Canola Oil A mostly unsaturated fat, canola oil is pretty similar to olive oil, particularly because it has 8.9g of MUFA. Where it differs is the polyunsaturated fat content, with canola oil packing 3.9g. It also contains 1g of saturated fat.
Grapeseed Oil This oil is mainly made up of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) (9.5g), with 2.2g of MUFA and just 1.3g of saturated fat. (Both MUFAs and PUFAs have been linked to heart health by helping to improve blood cholesterol levels.)
Coconut Oil The tropical oil differs vastly from olive oil. Most of its fats (11g, or about 83 percent) are saturated, and it has less than 1g of MUFA and a scant amount (0.2g) of polyunsaturated fat.
One study, published in March 2018 in the journal BMJ Open, comparing middle-aged adults who consumed about 3 tbsp of coconut oil, butter, or olive oil for four weeks found that butter increased levels of LDL, or “bad” cholesterol more so than coconut or olive oil. Both coconut and olive oil surprisingly didn’t change LDL levels, but coconut oil did boost HDL, or “good” cholesterol concentration more than olive oil. (12,13) The jury is still out on the overall healthfulness of coconut oil.
What Studies Suggest About the Health Benefits of Olive Oil
Olive oil is largely known as one of the best fats you can eat, particularly for heart health. In a study published in May 2014 in the journal BMC Medicine that looked at more than 7,200 women over age 55 who were at a high risk of heart disease, those who consumed the most olive oil of any kind in the context of a Mediterranean diet had as much as a 35 percent and 48 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality, respectively, compared with those who consumed the least amount of the oil. For each 10 g of extra-virgin olive oil (nearly 1 tbsp) eaten a day, risk of cardiovascular disease fell by 10 percent and death from cardiovascular disease fell by 7 percent.
MORE ON PREVENTING HEART DISEASE
It may be that the MUFAs, chemicals called phenols, and vitamin E in olive oil are heart protective. The oil is also known to be anti-inflammatory and may improve blood vessel function and improve cholesterol, insulin sensitivity, and lower high blood pressure, the researchers point out. But some perspective: Olive oil is just one component of a healthy Mediterranean diet. Other foods consumed heavily on the diet, including fruits and vegetables, nuts, and legumes, are known to boost heart health as well.
Can Adding Olive Oil to Your Diet Help With Weight Loss or Not?
Maybe — but you need to eat it in the context of a healthy diet. And you can’t overdo it. Olive oil is a healthy fat, but it’s still a fat, so moderation is key to avoid weight gain.
One study, published in August 2016 in the journal The Lancet, looked at the effects of a high-fat Mediterranean diet on weight and belly fat in older, mostly overweight adults at risk for heart disease. After about five years, those who ate a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil lost about a pound compared with those who ate the diet supplemented with nuts and a low-fat diet, which acted as a control.
More important, those in the olive oil group trimmed one-quarter of an inch more off their waists compared with the control group. Those eating nuts lost 0.37 inches more than the control group. While those results may be significant, it’s easy to see that they’re incredibly modest. Clearly, as far as this study shows, adding olive oil to your diet isn’t an automatic way to lose weight.
But there are possible weight loss benefits to eating a diet rich in MUFAs, research suggests. In one small study published in November 2015 in the journal Diabetology & Metabolic Syndrome, of 32 obese women, those who consumed 15 to 20 percent of their total calories from MUFAs (olive oil) moderately reduced their weight, body mass index (BMI), waist circumference, and body fat compared with a control group that ate a similar number of calories and macronutrients.
Another possible benefit: Olive oil’s peppery smell. In a small study published in November 2013 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, men ate either a plain low-fat yogurt or a low-fat yogurt that contained an olive oil extract (which had no fat). Researchers measured participants’ brain flow 30 minutes and two hours after they ate the yogurt. They found that the yogurt with the olive oil extract could activate areas of the brain that are normally triggered by fat. The thought is that it may “trick” your brain into thinking that you’ve consumed a higher-calorie food, possibly boosting satiation and decreasing hunger. So don’t be afraid to take a whiff while you’re cooking.
How to Pick a Good Olive Oil
To avoid getting duped, the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) recommends checking the label and reading the ingredient statement (what it contains), country of origin, looking for authenticity seals (like USDA Organic or NAOOA Quality Seal), and following the “best by” date. Don’t buy dusty bottles or use oil that has an orange tint to it, which can indicate damage. Also, use within 8 to 10 weeks of opening. An unopened bottle can last for two years if stored properly.
When storing, it’s best to keep it in a cool, dark place, according to NAOOA. Though it may be tempting to keep it next to your stove for easy access, the heat can turn the oils rancid quickly. That’s why the pantry is an ideal spot. Also, ensure that the bottles are sealed, as oxygen exposure also degrades the oil. If you’re going to keep it in a decanter to keep on a table, NAOOA advises using small bottles. This will ensure that you use up the oil while it’s fresh.
Other Surprising Uses of Olive Oil:
Can You Use It on Your Skin, Hair, and More?
Unfortunately, you might not want to turn to olive oil as a beauty booster. While it seems as if it would make for a great natural moisturizer, research suggests it may do more harm than good. In a small study published in the January–February 2013 issue of the journal Pediatric Dermatology, 19 adults without atopic dermatitis (inflammatory skin conditions like eczema) applied six drops of olive oil to their forearms twice daily for five weeks and found that it actually broke down the skin’s protective barrier and caused mild redness. That said, when formulated into skin products and soaps, olive oil as an ingredient can moisturize in similar ways to hyaluronic acid (a known skin plumper in anti-aging products) and provide protective, anti-aging antioxidants, according to research published in August 2016 in the journal Nanomaterials and Nanotechnology.
Likewise, applying olive oil straight on your hair may leave a thin oily coating on strands, according to an overview published in the January–March 2015 issue of The International Journal of Trichology. If you’re interested in using olive oil on your hair, it’s best to buy hair products containing the oil rather than using it straight from your pantry.
One surprising use: as an ear wax softener. If you have an ongoing problem with ear wax buildup, you can put a few drops of olive oil into each ear for a few minutes, and then let it naturally drip out.
Are There Any Health Risks or Side Effects of Olive Oil?
One problem you may run into with olive oil is weight gain if you were to eat too much. Because olive oil comes with so many health benefits, it can be easy to assume that the more you eat, the better you’ll feel. But be sure to remember that it is an oil with about 120 calories per tablespoon, so overeating it can lead to weight gain. Because it’s so calorie-dense for such a small amount, it can also be easy to overuse.
Another concern is cooking with olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil has a smoke point of 350 to 410 degrees F. Higher temps will break down the free fatty acid content of the oil, producing free radicals. But the good news is that stove-top cooking hovers about 350 degrees F. For higher temps (like higher-heat oven roasting), consider avocado oil, as it has a higher smoke point.
Answers to Frequently Asked Questions About Olive Oil
Q: Can you put olive oil on your body?
A: Research suggests it may actually aggravate your skin. If you want to use olive oil, look to products and soaps formulated with olive oil, rather than using it straight from a bottle.
Q: Can you drink olive oil?
A: It’s not recommended. While it’s not unsafe, 1 tbsp contains 120 calories. If you were to have a 1-ounce shot of olive oil, you’d be eating 240 calories in one gulp. On a 2,000-calorie diet, that’s more than 10 percent of your daily calories right there. Keep your daily goals in mind as you’re determining how much olive oil to use.
Q: Can I use olive oil for cooking?
A: Yes, absolutely. The smoke point for extra-virgin olive oil is between 350 and 400 degrees F. That’s high enough where you can safely sauté with EVOO. (23) For higher heat uses, grab an oil with a higher smoke point. For cold uses (salad dressings, a finishing drizzle on dishes), it’s fine to add a splash of olive oil straight from the bottle.
Q: What are the benefits of olive oil?
A: Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids. Replacing foods high in saturated fat (like butter) with MUFAs can help lower risk of heart disease by way of lowering cholesterol, as well as improve blood sugar control. (27)
Q: What are the side effects of olive oil?
A: You can safely eat olive oil in moderation; because 1 tbsp contains 120 calories, eating it in excess can cause weight gain. High heat can oxidize olive oil, creating free radicals, so only use it when cooking in temperatures under 400 degrees F.
By Jessica Migala
Medically Reviewed by Kelly Kennedy, RD
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