Have you ever gone into the oil aisle at the store and been instantly overwhelmed? There are so many choices now, including:
- virgin olive
- extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)
- oil infused with herbs or seasonings
The list seems to go on and on. But how do you know which to use? Do they actually taste different? Is one healthier than the others? Here’s how to navigate the oil aisle.
Is olive oil healthy?
Different oils have different uses. Olive oil is relatively heat-stable for cooking. It has great flavor for eating unheated. But olive oil has recently started to fall from grace. Is it healthy or not? And if it’s OK to use, which type is best?
The main type of fat found in olive oil is monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), which are considered a healthy fat. What does “healthy fat” mean, since it sounds like an oxymoron?
It means that if you replace other fats in your diet — trans fats and saturated fats —with MUFAs, you can lower your risk of heart disease. You’ll raise your HDL (“good” cholesterol) and lower the oxidized LDL (“bad” cholesterol) in the bloodstream.
The pros of buying extra virgin olive oil:
- It has fewer chemicals and free radicals than regular olive oil.
- It’s higher in antioxidants than olive oil.
- It’s full of good fats.
Olive oil vs. extra virgin olive oil
Most of the modifiers that go before olive oil, such as “virgin” or “extra virgin,” are referring to the process that made the oil. For example, extra virgin olive oil means it’s been touched the least. But why does that matter?
Vegetable oils are pretty fragile as far as food goes, which is why your foodie friend will have a few different types of oil. They’ll decide what to use depending on what they’re cooking and at what temperatures. Certain oils will go rancid when stored at the wrong temperatures or for too long, and others will become unstable when cooked at higher temperatures, losing nutrients and flavor.
When oils are processed, they’re cleaned with chemicals and then heated. These things prolong the shelf life, which is great for the food industry, but not so great for your body. These processes also strip away a lot of the oil’s flavor.
Good, fresh, unprocessed extra virgin olive oil will:
- be a little fruity (olives are fruits, after all)
- be a little bitter (like biting into an olive)
- have a pungent pepperiness
If it’s metallic, flavorless, or musty, it’s gone bad or was overprocessed.
Should you buy extra virgin olive oil?
The next time you’re at the store, you’ll want to shell out the few extra bucks for extra virgin olive oil. Again, EVOO tastes better.
When figuring out which of the EVOO options to go with, look for the words “cold pressed” and “unfiltered.”
If you can find even fancier types, such as “stone pressed,” go for it. But the main two things to look for are:
- you don’t want heat added to the process, as it is with regular olive oil
- you don’t want it filtered (which normally introduces chemicals)
What about pure olive oil or light virgin olive oil?
Don’t be fooled by claims of “pure olive oil.” Look at the package and be sure you know what you’re getting. Pure olive oil and even some virgin olive oil (light virgin olive oil is a common culprit) are a blend of extra virgin olive oil and processed oils.
No matter the claims on the front of the bottle, always read the full label, too. In this context, “light” doesn’t mean lower in calories. It means lighter in color. That means it’s been processed and refined to strip down the color and, therefore, the flavor. Processing makes the oil last longer and is often able to be heated at a higher temperature, but this also adds chemicals and strips out nutrients.
Olive oil storage
Store your olive oil somewhere cool, dry, and dark. You don’t have to worry about constantly moving it away from your stovetop while you’re cooking. But when you’re done, put it somewhere it won’t get radiant heat, either from appliances or the sun. It’ll stay flavorful and healthful longer.
Olive oil in cooking and smoke point
If you’re using oil for cooking, keep your heat level in mind. If you plan on searing something at high temperatures, pick another fat to help grease the cooking surface. Oil smoke point is the temperature at which the oil begins to break down, become carcinogenic, and release smoke into the air. In other words, when the oil starts to burn. The smoke point for olive oil varies, so do your research. For higher heat cooking, consider looking into other healthy oil options, like avocado.
If your choices are olive oil or extra virgin olive oil, go with high quality EVOO every time. It has fewer chemicals and free radicals. It’s also higher in antioxidants and still has vitamins K and E, which are stripped away during the processing of regular olive oil.
EVOO also still has a high percentage of omega fats (polyunsaturated fats that are good for your heart) along with its monounsaturated goodness.
Avoid processed oils and remember to use EVOO in moderation. Yes, the types of fats in EVOO are good for you. They can lower your risk of heart disease and help control your blood sugar levels. But even the highest quality EVOO is still high in calories and low in nutrients when compared to actual vegetables. Use EVOO instead of overly processed oils and butter, not with them.
Your average EVOO contains about 120 calories per tablespoon. While it’s the healthier choice when faced with regular olive oil and other processed vegetables oils, don’t start drinking it and dousing food with it because it’s healthy. Think of it as a healthier fat/oil alternative, not a health elixir.