Olive Oil 101

Olive oil is on the healthy fats list for a good reason:

Extra virgin olive oil has high levels of monounsaturated fats that help decrease blood cholesterol levels by reducing LDL—often considered the bad cholesterol—and increase HDL—the good cholesterol. Some research even shows healthy fats, like olive oil, protect your heart health and reduce your chances of developing Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Check out this 2014 study for more: (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4030221/). Finally, extra virgin olive oil is high in polyphenols (antioxidants that protect against inflammation), as well as Vitamin E.

Is all olive oil the same? Probably not, right? If it were, you wouldn’t be able to buy one brand of olive oil for $5.99 for a 500 mL bottle and another brand for more than $100. If you’re like me, something probably tells you to steer clear of the cheapest bottle, yet spending $50-plus on oil seems unjustifiable.

So, what are some of the key differences that distinguish one type of olive oil from another, and why is that something we would want to know?

Extra virgin:

Extra virgin olive oil is considered the highest grade of olive oil. It means the olive oil is mechanically pressed, as opposed to being chemically pressed or processed. No chemicals or extreme heat is used during this process. Also, it has an acidity level of less than 0.8% and it must be tasted for flavour and odor before it gets certified as extra virgin.

Virgin:

Virgin olive oil (as opposed to extra virgin) on the other hand, also means the oil was made by pressing the olives, and that it didn’t go through industrial processes often used to make more refined oils, such as canola and soybean oil. Virgin olive oil has a slightly higher acidity level than extra virgin—closer to 2 percent or less. Also, unlike extra virgin, virgin hasn’t gone through the same certification process, so there are likely defects in both aroma and flavor.

Pure:

While you might think “pure” olive oil sounds like a good choice, it’s a lower grade than both virgin and extra virgin. Also known as “classic olive oil,” or just “olive oil,” pure is but a marketing ploy to make it sound better than it probably is. While pure olive oil usually contains some extra-virgin or virgin olive oil, it is also generally mixed with refined olive oil, hence why it’s cheaper.

Refined olive oil:

When it comes to olive oil, being refined is not a compliment. Refined olive oil has a high level of acidity and must be processed to mask bad odours and flavours, often because questionable quality of olives were used to make it. So basically, refined means low quality because lots of processing had to happen to even make an edible oil. Steer clear.

Tips for selecting a good olive oil:

A reason to buy local: Though many people are tempted to buy extra virgin olive oil imported from Italy, the best health benefits from olive oil exist when the oil is fresh—ideally within 12 to 18 months of its harvest date—and it should be consumed within 6 months after opening. In fact, if olive oil sits for more than two years after it was bottled, chances are it’s rancid, and then all health benefits, such as its antioxidant qualities, no longer apply.

Harvest date: Look for the harvest date. Newer is better. If there’s no harvest date on the bottle, move along and find one that does.  

California Olive oil seal of approval: If you’re looking for California olive oil, many of them get sent to the Olive Oil Council’s panel of trained testers. If approved, they receive the COOC seal, which will be on the label. Select one of these brands.

Smell test: If it smells like wax or rotten salami or old peanut butter or sweaty socks, return it.

If you are serious about your olive oil, check out this website: https://bestoliveoils.com/. Like wine, there are olive oil competitions all over the world. It’s serious business for some, and there’s always something new to learn.