What's in Your Olive Oil?

What you should know about some extra virgin olive oils.
WebMD Feature

Olive oil is touted for its health benefits in many diet books and recipes. But is it really the nectar of the gods that it’s made out to be — and is the olive oil in your pantry as healthy as you think it is?

In his book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, author Tom Mueller claims that much of the olive oil sold in the U.S. as "extra-virgin" is really adulterated in some way and lacks the health and the taste benefits of real “extra virgin” olive oil.

Does this ever happen to you?: You're interested in trying a new recipe, but then you notice that it calls for a long list of 15 or more ingredients. And suddenly, you’re just not that into it anymore. For everyday cooking, most of us (even those who like to cook) have an unspoken limit on the number of ingredients we're willing to hunt down for a recipe. Five seems to be the magic number for many people. So I've come up with a few 5-ingredient recipes, plus some tips on how to keep your recipes…

So what can you believe, and what's hype? Here are answers.

What Makes a Good Olive Oil?

Olive oils are graded based on their extraction process and on the acidity of the pressed oil, says Timothy Harlan, MD, assistant professor of clinical medicine at Tulane University and the author of Just Tell Me What To Eat! A former restaurateur, Harlan runs the web site DrGourmet.com.

True extra virgin olive oil — or "EVOO" as TV's Rachael Ray calls it — is extracted from olives using only pressure, a process known as cold pressing. "Extra virgin olive oil has just 1% acid. It is the oil that comes from the first pressing of the olives, and is considered the finest, having the freshest, fruitiest flavor," Harlan says. "Virgin olive oil also comes from the first pressing, and has about 3% acid."

Olive oil labels sport many other designations as well.

  • Fino: a blend of extra virgin and virgin oil
  • Light: an oil that has been filtered to remove much of the sediment ("Light," in this case, has nothing to do with fat or calories. It only refers to color.)
  • Pure: a combination of refined virgin and extra virgin oils

Unfortunately, you can’t always rely on those labels. The U.S. government doesn’t regulate the labeling of extra virgin olive oil, says Ruth Mercurio, a board member of the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) and managing partner of We Olive, LLC, a specialty retailer offering only true extra-virgin oils from about 200 California growers.

"With no regulation in the U.S. regarding the labeling of extra virgin olive oil, many imported — as well as domestic — olive oils claim to be virgin olive oils, 'extra extra' virgin olive oil, or light extra virgin olive oil, but they don't in fact meet the standards of a true extra virgin olive oil," Mercurio tells WebMD in an email.

There are other pitfalls as well, Mercurio adds:

  • No harvest date on the label means you run the risk of purchasing an old, possibly rancid oil. (True EVOO has a shelf life of only 18-24 months.)
  • If the label says "Packaged in [name of a country]" (such as Spain or Greece), then more than likely the oil wasn’t grown in that country, just bottled there to give it more cachet.

Like a Virgin?

How can you tell if the olive oil on your shelf is really extra virgin?

The North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA), a trade group promoting olive oil, advises consumers to look for their label on the bottle

"A stipulation of membership in the NAOOA is to abide by strict quality control standards," NAOOA president Bob Bauer says in a statement emailed to WebMD. "To enforce the standards, the NAOOA purchases olive oils from the same stores where American consumers buy olive oil for home use. Then, those bottles are sent to labs in Europe run by the International Olive Council for chemical testing and analysis. The tests determine if the olive oils are what the labels say they are — and not adulterated or a mislabeled product." (The International Olive Council [IOC] is the worldwide body that sets quality standards for the olive oil industry.)

But chefs and culinary experts suggest the best bet is to do a little testing of your own.

"My rule of thumb for at-home testing is to pour a few tablespoons of olive oil on a white dish. Look for consistencies that are smooth, although far thicker than corn or vegetable oil. Your olive oil should also smell like olives," Stella Metsovas, a Los Angeles nutritionist, tells WebMD in an email. "When the oil hits your palette, look for a smooth finish on the tongue; when the oil hits the back of your throat, look for a slight burn. The burn is actually the polyphenols found in fresh oils." Polyphenols are a type of antioxidant.

Harlan has some preferences of his own. "I prefer Spanish oils because they will have a grassy and sharper flavor (they are often slightly more acidic). They are often the more reasonably priced choice," he says. "Greek and Italian oils are great. I look for extra virgin oils that are labeled 'cold pressed' with labels that indicate the origin — usually a family company or farm."

Other Oils

Olive oil isn't your only option. Harlan recommends the following choices, depending on what you’re cooking:

  • Extra virgin olive oil for cold dishes and recipes that don't require much heat. That’s because extra virgin olive oil has a low smoke point — that's the temperature at which the oil begins to smoke. (The healthy phenols found in olive oil are severely compromised by heat, Metsovas says.)
  • Virgin olive oil for lower-temperature cooking. "Great flavor with a higher smoke point," Harlan says.
  • Grapeseed oil is a great substitute for olive oil in cooking, because it has a higher smoke point. "Flavor-wise, grapeseed oil has less of the strong fruitiness of olive oil but all of the benefits," Harlan says. Some research shows that it may have heart-health benefits. One study found a 13% to 14% increase in HDL (good) cholesterol from eating as little as one ounce a day. In another study, substituting 1.5 ounces of grapeseed oil for other fats in recipes resulted in a 7% drop in LDL (bad) cholesterol and a 13% rise in HDL levels.
  • Toasted or dark sesame oil for Asian dishes. "High in monounsaturated fats and a distinct flavor that says Chinese or Thai," Harlan says.


Too Much of a Good Thing

Even if you're using the best-quality oils, you can get too much of a good thing. Olive oil may be one of the more healthful oils out there, but it's still a fat and should still be used in moderation.

"All oils and fats contain calories and about the same amount. A teaspoon has about 45 to 50 calories — whether that is butter, lard, olive oil, or margarine," Harlan says. "The idea of celebrity chefs sloshing oil in the pan with abandon does two things: adds too, too many calories and just makes the dish greasy."