The Problem with Olive Oil
Is olive oil healthy? It is considered a highly nutritious and healthy oil due to its high levels of monounsaturated fatty acids and Vitamins A and K (unlike oils like canola, soybean and vegetable oil, which are problematic). It is also an excellent source of certain antioxidants.
“Some of the main antioxidants are the anti-inflammatory oleocanthal, as well as oleuropein, a substance that protects LDL cholesterol from oxidation..
But the main anti-inflammatory effects seem to be mediated by the antioxidants in olive oil, primarily oleocanthal, which has been shown to work like ibuprofen, a popular anti-inflammatory drug.”
There is also some research that the fatty acid profile of olive oil makes it beneficial to the heart and that it can help reduce c-reactive protein levels. For this reason, consumption of quality olive oil is often recommended for helping reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
New research even suggests that olive oil may be a good choice for helping the body protect itself from cancer. From the same article:
“Studies have shown that people in the Mediterranean countries have a fairly low risk of cancer and some have speculated that olive oil has something to do with it.
One potential contributor to cancer is oxidative damage due to free radicals, but extra virgin olive oil is high in antioxidants that reduce oxidative damage.
The oleic acid in olive oil is also highly resistant to oxidation and has been shown to have beneficial effects on genes linked to cancer”
Your Olive Oil may not be Virgin after all
Extra Virgin Olive Oil is generally considered to be the highest quality olive oil available, but several investigations in the last few years reveal that many of these olive oils can be adulterated.
Extra virgin olive oil is produced from the first pressing of the olives and creates an extremely high quality oil with a great nutritional profile. With the growing global demand, some companies have cut corners and passed lower quality oils as extra virgin or adulterated the olive oil by adding vegetable oils.
Many reports were that the main oils affected were in Italy, but more recent investigations revealed that these problems occurred in olive oils from around the world and that it is important to verify the quality of olive oil from any source.
A great book with more information and specifics on how olive oils have been modified and mislabeled is Extra Virginity by Tom Mueller.
Cooking with Olive Oil
Olive oil is an excellent choice for cool uses like homemade salad dressings and mayo, but it’s controversial if it should be used for cooking or not.
I’ve talked before about why it is never a good idea to cook with (or consume) vegetable oils, since they are largely polyunsaturated fats, they are unstable and can break down when heated. From Authority Nutrition again:
“This is particularly true of oils that are high in polyunsaturated fats, including most vegetable oils like soybean and canola.
When overheated, they can form various harmful compounds… including lipid peroxides and aldehydes, which can contribute to cancer.
When cooking with these oils, some of the carcinogenic compounds actually vaporize and may contribute to lung cancer when inhaled. Therefore, just being present in a kitchen where these oils are used can cause harm.”
Saturated fats, on the other hand, are highly stable and safe for cooking, but olive oil is a different animal and there are several considerations.
The smoke point of olive oil varies greatly depending on type, but for the most part, it ranges from 325 degrees to over 400 degrees, which is pretty average for an oil that could be used in cooking. The controversy arises in the debate about if olive oil oxidizes at high heat and loses its nutritional value. Some sources even claim that it easily turns in to trans fat when heated.
What does the research say? In one study, olive oil was heated to over 350 degrees for 36 hours and showed little signs of damage. In another study, it was used for deep frying and it took over 36 hours to oxidize and become harmful.
Bottom line? Olive oil doesn’t deserve the bad rap it has gotten for cooking. At the same time, quality olive oil that isn’t adulterated with vegetable oils (which are dangerous for cooking) are expensive and can be hard to find, which means olive oil isn’t one of the most cost effective options for regular cooking.
At our house, I stick to high quality olive oil and use it for topping already cooked veggies and in salad dressings and use tallow, lard or coconut oil for high heat cooking.
Where to Find Good Olive Oil?
All of the fraud in the olive oil industry can make it hard to find a good source or know if you are getting a quality product. The most common at home tests (like keeping it in the fridge to see if it turns solid or trying to burn it as fuel for a lantern) are unreliable at determining if the oil is of high quality or not, and taste tests can be even less reliable.
The best way is to find a company that you trust to order from or (even better) find a local source where you can verify the quality if you live in an area where this is possible. I’m currently researching and critiquing several sources of high quality olive oil, but so far, this is my favorite option.
Ref: Wellness Mama