Since it dates back to 6000 BC, extra virgin olive oil predates modern history.
Over the years, the debate has raged over the potential health benefits of this dietary fat.
Is it healthy and is it a good cooking oil?
This article takes an evidence-based look at the full nutrition profile, fatty acid composition, and health benefits.
What Is Extra Virgin Olive Oil?
Extra virgin olive oil is made by cold-pressing olives to extract the olive’s juice (fat).
The oil contains a range of healthy fats and phenolic compounds, and it enjoys popularity as a salad dressing and for cooking.
Sometimes people refer to extra virgin olive oil by the acronym of EVOO.
A Brief History
Extra virgin olive oil has been around for thousands of years.
While numerous records of the oil predate biblical times, the earliest origins go all the way back to the year 6000 BC.
During 2014, archaeologists found remains of several clay vessels containing olive oil dating back to this time.
Over recent centuries, the Mediterranean region has been the biggest exporter of olive oil, and it plays a key role in Greek, Italian and Spanish cuisine, among others.
What is the Difference Between Extra Virgin and Other Olive Oils?
Firstly, there are several key differences between extra virgin olive oil and other varieties.
Here is a quick rundown;
- The production of extra virgin olive oil (highest quality) or virgin olive oil (lesser quality) relies on cold-pressing techniques. In contrast, refined ‘light’ and ‘pomace’ olive oils use an industrial extraction process that makes use of solvents, bleach and deodorizers (1, 2).
- Genuine extra virgin olive oils from good olive producers contain a large number of polyphenolic compounds, but refined olive oils lose (most of) these during manufacture (3).
- Compared to refined olive oils, EVOO has a much stronger flavor and a darker color. Refined oils are very light.
- Refined oils are almost tasteless, but a high-quality extra virgin olive oil should cause a peppery burning feeling in the back of the throat. This is due to the presence of an anti-inflammatory compound called oleocanthal.
- Refined olive oils are much cheaper than extra virgin olive oil, but when it comes to health… you get what you pay for.
See this guide to the best extra virgin olive oil brands for more information.
Let’s now analyze the nutritional value of extra virgin olive oil per 100 ml (4).
Calories and Macronutrients
|Calories / Macronutrient||Amount|
|Saturated Fat||13.8 g|
|Monounsaturated Fat||73 g|
|Polyunsaturated Fat||10.5 g|
|Omega-3 fatty acids||761 mg|
|Omega-6 fatty acids||9763 mg|
Firstly, as an isolated fat, extra virgin olive oil does not provide any carbohydrate or protein.
Regarding the fatty acid profile, the oil mainly supplies monounsaturated fat, followed by saturated fatty acids and then polyunsaturated fat.
The predominant fatty acid is the monounsaturated oleic acid.
Vitamins and Minerals
Here is the micronutrient profile and how it relates to the recommended daily allowance;
|Micronutrient||Amount (% RDA)|
Not surprisingly, extra virgin olive oil does not contain a wide range of vitamins and minerals.
However, this is not unusual for an oil. After all, oils are an isolated source of fat rather than a whole food.
However, EVOO offers much more than highly-processed vegetable oils do, and it contains a decent source of two major micronutrients; vitamins E and K.
Polyphenols and Bioactive Compounds
Perhaps the most beneficial point about using extra virgin olive oil is the polyphenols that it contains.
Among all food, this healthy oil contains one of the broadest range of polyphenolic compounds.
This range includes various types of flavonoids, phenolic acids, lignans and tyrosols (5).
These polyphenols are part of the reason why the oil has good oxidative stability, and they may potentially have additional health benefits.
Perhaps the most interesting compounds in EVOO are oleuropein and oleocanthal, two polyphenols with purported anti-inflammatory properties.
We will discuss these two in more detail in the benefits section.
Health Benefits of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
In nutrition, there are many alternate ideas, thoughts, and opinions on a whole range of topics.
Take veganism and red meat for example; some people believe one is harmful and the other is perfectly healthy, and some people believe vice-versa.
When it comes to extra virgin olive oil though, there is a near complete consensus.
The reason why is because the available research on this oil is unanimous; extra virgin olive oil is good for you.
In fact, it is the most research-backed cooking oil out there.
Let’s now take a look at some of the benefits.
1. Oxidative Stability: the Best Cooking Oil?
It is easy to hear the question “can you fry with olive oil?”
Over the years, there has been a widespread myth that olive oil is not safe for cooking and that it is unstable at high heat.
However, yes, that is a myth.
There have been numerous studies showing the opposite for a long time, with one, in particular, demonstrating that “extra virgin olive oil is clearly resistant to deep frying conditions” (6).
If oil can stand up to deep frying conditions for over 24 hours with “minimal oxidation”, then it can certainly cope with a bit of pan-frying.
Furthermore, a new recent study compared the heat stability of common cooking oils.
Notably, one of the most respected laboratories in the world conducted this study (7).
What did the study show?
As shown in figure 1, researchers heated a range of cooking oils to a temperature of 240°C.
From left to right, these oils were extra virgin olive oil, virgin olive oil, olive oil, avocado oil, grapeseed oil, sunflower oil, rice oil, peanut oil, canola, and coconut oil.
Heating these cooking oils to a temperature of 240°C resulted in the formation of trans fats in every single oil.
However, the fruit (avocado, coconut and olive) oils all performed much better than the “vegetable” (seed) oils.
The amount of trans fats created in the extra virgin olive oil was one of the lowest at 0.2%.
Figure 2 shows the amount of toxic polar compounds created when the oils were continuously heated at 180°C for 6 hours.
Once again, extra virgin olive oil was one of the best-performing oils alongside coconut oil.
As we can see from the final results, extra virgin olive oil contained the least polar compounds after heating, closely followed by coconut oil.
It would have been interesting if this study had also included animal fats such as butter, ghee, lard and tallow.
2. A Healthy Fatty Acid Profile
One of the main positive points about this oil is the fatty profile that it has.
Extra virgin olive oil has a fatty acid composition full of healthy fats.
The table below shows the primary fatty acids and in what proportion they occur (4);
As shown, we can see that these five fatty acids provide more than 95% of extra virgin olive oil’s fat content.
The other fatty acids that make up olive oil’s composition have mixed evidence behind them.
However, it is worth remembering that a variety of fatty acids occur in all foods.
When we see studies that claim a specific fatty acid causes benefit or harm, we have to realize that in isolation, it will have a much different effect to the one it has when combined with other fatty acids as part of a food matrix.
For this reason, we should look at what the studies say about olive oil as a whole rather than a particular fatty acid.
Also, as we will soon see, the studies are very positive.
3. Extra Virgin Olive Oil’s Polyphenols Fight Inflammation?
As we discussed earlier, extra virgin olive oil contains a wide variety of polyphenols.
Are polyphenols magical antioxidants that directly fight free radicals in our body?
No, that hypothesis is pretty much dead right now.
However, research demonstrates some beneficial things that polyphenols can do in – and out – of our body (10).
Firstly, the polyphenols in extra virgin olive oil help to prevent the fats from oxidizing during high-heat cooking.
One major point that demonstrates this is that refined olive oil and extra virgin olive oil have the same fatty acid profiles, but the latter is much more resistant to oxidation at high temperatures. Researchers hypothesize that this is due to the high polyphenol count (11).
Additionally, recent research suggests that polyphenols assist with cellular signaling and play a role in anti-inflammatory processes inside the body (12).
On this note, several human randomized trials show that olive oil polyphenols help to reduce oxidized LDL cholesterol. Also, they appear to enhance the functionality of HDL “good” cholesterol (13, 14).
4. Cardiovascular Protection
Regular intake of extra virgin olive oil appears to have cardiovascular benefits.
For instance, several recent systematic reviews show that greater consumption of the oil has a positive effect on cardiovascular risk;
- In a systematic review of randomized, controlled intervention trials, higher intake of high-phenolic olive oils correlated with lower systolic blood pressure and levels of oxidized LDL cholesterol. The researchers commented that the oil should be viewed as a “neutraceutical in cardiovascular prevention” (15).
- A very recent (March 2018) systematic review demonstrated that greater high-phenolic extra virgin olive oil consumption led to lower blood pressure as well as reduced markers of inflammation and oxidative stress (16).
- A randomized trial separated 7216 individuals with high cardiovascular risk into three groups; a low-fat group, a group supplemented with nuts, and one supplemented with extra virgin olive oil. During the follow-up period 323 deaths occurred, but interestingly the extra virgin olive oil group had the least risk of mortality. In fact, the results showed that for each 10 g increase in olive oil, mortality risk fell by 10% (17).
5. A Source of Oleocanthal
Oleocanthal is an exciting compound with some potentially impressive health benefits.
Firstly, oleocanthal is a phenol that occurs in olive oil, and research suggests it has anti-inflammatory properties.
Try a good quality extra virgin olive oil in its cold state and you should feel a burning feeling in the back of your throat a few seconds after consumption. This taste is the oleocanthal; a peppery-tasting compound that shows an effect similar to ibuprofen in in vitro studies.
In vitro refers to tests done outside of the body such as in test tubes. However, the effects in the study were only seen in dosages of 50 grams, which is a substantial amount of oil to consume.
Additionally, there is no current research to confirm that the anti-inflammatory effects occur inside the body (18).
As a result, we should take the potential health benefits of oleocanthal with a pinch of salt. It may have health benefits, but we don’t know. Currently, researchers view the compound as having potential, but they are still trying to ascertain the digestive bioavailability (19).
Lastly, oleocanthal isn’t the only interesting compound contained within extra virgin olive oil. There is a wide range of other polyphenols that may also have benefit, such as oleuropein, caffeic acid and luteolin.
6. Rich in Vitamin E
Not many foods in the modern diet consist of vitamin E in high amounts.
The most significant providers of this essential vitamin are nuts, seeds and plant oils.
Fortunately, extra virgin olive oil provides this vitamin in large amounts; 72% of the RDA per 100 grams. That said, most people should not be consuming anywhere near such a high amount of oil.
However, extra virgin is still a decent source of vitamin E and provides approximately 10% of the RDA per tablespoon. Vitamin E functions as an antioxidant in the body, and likely plays a role in strengthening the immune system and anti-inflammatory processes (20).
Researchers have recognized vitamin E as potentially having anti-cancer properties, although the data is quite mixed (21).
There are possibly some anti-cancer benefits of extra virgin olive oil too.
A large-scale systematic review (13,800 patients across 19 observational studies) found that olive oil consumption is associated with a reduced risk for cancer development (22).
How Is Extra Virgin Olive Oil Made?
Now that we have looked into the nutrition profile and health benefits, let’s take a look at how to make extra virgin olive oil.
Step 1: Picking
First, once the olives are fully-grown and ready for production, the olive farmers pick them.
This picking can either be mechanically or by hand, depending on the specific farm and olive oil product.
For instance, the highest quality extra-virgin olive oils are hand-picked as gentler treatment is said to preserve the delicate flavor notes of the olives.
Step 2: Crushing
Next, the olives move to the mechanical press for “cold-pressing”.
Here, the olives are crushed with such a great force that the fruit becomes a kind of sludgy paste.
Step 3: Centrifugation
This olive paste will then go into a centrifuge.
A centrifuge is a large machine that can separate fat/oil from water and it is used in the production of products like skim milk.
In the case of olive oil, the centrifuge will separate the sediment and bits of skin and water from the pure olive oil.
This pure olive oil will be stored in the centrifuge ready for quality checking.
A genuine extra virgin olive oil is usually tested to ensure it meets international standards for the “extra virgin” tag.
These checks are especially important these days after recent scandals involving fake extra virgin olive oil.
There are also several independent olive oil testing labs, such as Modern Olives Laboratory Services, so it is essential for producers to supply the genuine thing.
Once the producers are satisfied that their oil meets the extra-virgin standards, it is ready for bottling and distribution.
Extra virgin olive oil has a whole range of benefits.
It is very heat-stable, it contains a range of bioactive compounds that confer health benefits, and it has substantial amounts of positive research behind it.
Finally, it is time to forget the myth.
Extra virgin olive oil is not just suitable for cooking; it is probably the safest cooking oil there is.