Olive oil has a long and rich history in many ancient cultures. Evidence of the use of olive oil has been found even before ancient Egyptian times; believe it or not, people in the Eastern Mediterranean regions have been using olive oil since around 6000 BC.
Spain is the largest producer of olive oil with 1.35 million tons made in 2016, although much of their produce is not exported. Italy produced over half a million tons and Greece comes in third place with 0.35 tons. (source)
In recent years California has emerged as a producer of quality olive oil and is fast becoming the Mediterranean of the US.
Lately there has been much debate about various different types of fat and their impact on health – including olive oil. It’s time to explore the facts and take a look at what the research says, read on to find out if olive oil is really healthy.
What Is Olive Oil?
Simply put, olive oil is the oil which is extracted from olives. Easy right?
Guess again – there’s a little more to olive oil than that. Depending on when and how the oil is extracted from the olives, olive oil varies in type and quality.
How Olive Oil is Made
Once the olives are collected from the olive trees, they are washed and ground into a thick pulp as soon as possible to preserve flavor and nutrients.
By combining different varieties of olives, producers can create olive oils with differing individual characteristics and taste.
In traditional production, the pulp is layered between hemp mats into a huge stack, which is pressed by mechanical force to extract the oil.
More modern methods involve spinning the olive pulp to release the oil. The remainder of solid mass is often used in animal feed or plant fertilizer.
Check out this great video to learn more about how olive oil is made:
Olive oil is generally graded according to the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC) standards. (source) In the US, the IOOC standards are not mandatory, but producers are encouraged to adhere to them.
Here’s the lowdown on different types of olive oil:
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Extra virgin olive oil is the best quality olive oil, extracted by a mechanical technique called cold pressing; this literally means that the olives are compressed to separate the liquids from the solid rather than using heat or solvents.
Extra virgin olive oil is the oil that results from the first press and has a very low acidity. It has a delicate, fruity taste and varies in color from light yellow to bright green and is best used for drizzling on food for extra taste or dressing salads. Color is not indicative of quality or taste.
Organic extra virgin olive oil is produced from olives which are grown without the use of any chemicals before being cold pressed.
Virgin Olive Oil
This is the next best olive oil to extra virgin in terms of quality and is produced via the same mechanical process as extra virgin olive oil, but using olives that are a little more ripe. Virgin olive oil has a slightly higher acidity than extra virgin oil, is less expensive but can be used in the same way.
Refined Olive Oil
A tasteless olive oil produced from virgin olive oil which has been processed by use of heat, chemicals or filtration. This produces oil with a longer shelf life, low acidity but an unpleasant smell.
Also known as pure olive oil, this contains a combination of refined and virgin oils with a low acidity and mild taste and smell.
Pomace Olive Oil
This olive oil is produced from the remainder of the olive pulp once cold pressing has taken place. Chemicals such as solvents are often used to extract the oil residue, and often blended with virgin olive oil.
While this oil is good for frying food at high temperatures, pomace olive is not as rich in nutrients as better quality olive oils. It can also contain harmful hydrocarbon compounds.
Light Olive Oil
This is a mixture of different refined olive oils, so is generally an inferior quality olive oil, but can be used for cooking at high heat. It is tasteless and often colorless. Light olive oil is usually used for cooking at high temperatures.
What’s in Olive Oil?
In terms of nutritional content, extra virgin olive oil imparts the maximum nutritional value. Two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil contains around 250 calories, 20 percent each of our daily requirement of vitamins E and K, plus omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
The fat in olive oil, primarily oleic acid, is largely monounsaturated fat, which means it can be used at high temperatures without breaking down and forming potentially harmful substances.
Extra virgin olive oil also contains at least thirty different plant compounds, or phytochemicals, including oleuropein, oleocanthal, hydroxytyrosol and tyrosol, all of which are powerful substances highly beneficial to health.
So what can olive oil do to improve our health?
Vitamin E, oleuropein, oleocanthal, hydroxytyrosol and tyrosol are all potent antioxidants which absorb free radical chemicals otherwise capable of causing cell damage. In this way, they reduce the risk of many serious diseases.
Oleuropein and hydroxytyrosol have been highlighted in research as having particularly strong antioxidant effects both in laboratory trials and in research involving human participants. (source)
Olive Oil Anti-Inflammatory Power
Inflammation is a natural process and is an important part of the body’s immediate response to an injury or illness. However, inflammation plays a key role in chronic or long term illness too.
Inflammation has been linked to heart disease and stroke, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and arthritis; research has highlighted chronic inflammation as a feature of many cancers and diseases which result in damage to the nervous system.
Scientists are increasingly recognizing the importance of addressing chronic inflammation in its own right, and taking preventative measures. (source)
Research indicates that the oleic acid and oleocanthal in olive oil have a significant anti-inflammatory effect; oleocanthal has been identified as having a similar mode of action in the body to that of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug Brufen. (source)
Our bodies are constantly exposed to a wide variety of bacteria, both externally and internally. For the main part, our immune system does a great job of keeping them under control so that they generally cause us few problems.
It can be a whole different ball game however, when our immune system can’t manage a particular strain of bacteria. The organisms are then allowed to multiply rapidly, causing illness mainly through the toxins they release.
The oleuropein and hydroxytyrosol in olive oil have been tested against many different strains of bacteria, including Salmonella and Staphylococcus aureus. They have been found to have significant antimicrobial activity, even against several different strains of penicillin resistant bacteria. (source)
Olive Oil and Cholesterol
Historically, cholesterol has been regarded as bad for us, but more recent research indicates that this is not quite accurate.
There are different types of cholesterol, some of which are harmful and others which are not. The two main types are low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and high density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL).
HDL cholesterol is actual helpful in decreasing the amount of LDL cholesterol in the blood, and is essential in the body for producing a range of different hormones and other metabolically essential substances.
LDL cholesterol can be subdivided into large and small LDL types, and it is the small LDL molecules which are associated with an increased risk of health condition such as heart disease and stroke.
Olive oil has been shown to not only decrease the level of LDL cholesterol in the blood, but also increases the amount of HDL in the body, and so helps to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. (source)
Olive Oil Helps to Reduce Blood Pressure
In addition to high levels of bad cholesterol, elevated blood pressure also presents an increased risk of a heart attack or stroke and kidney failure, according to the Joint National Committee on the Prevention, Detection Evaluation and Treatment of High Blood Pressure. (source)
Research which compared the effect of extra virgin olive oil and sunflower oil on blood pressure found that regular long term inclusion of olive oil in the diet can reduce blood pressure to the extent where some of the participants no longer required antihypertensive medication. (source)
Further research has identified the oleic acid in olive oil to be primarily responsible for reducing blood pressure, which explains why oils such as sunflower and soybean oil don’t have the same effect. (source)
Olive Oil Can Help Fight Cancer
Cancer is a disease which has touched many lives in one form or another. In simple terms, cancer is an out of control growth of cells which forms clumps, or tumors.
We still have a lot to learn about cancer and its treatment, but research trials using isolated human cancer cells indicates that the oleic acid in olive oil suppresses the growth and encourages the death of breast cancer cells. (source)
Olive Oil and the Digestive System
Research indicates that olive oil has many different positive effects on the digestive tract.
Studies have shown that olive oil promotes efficiency of the gall bladder, particularly with regard to emptying. This reduces the risk of the formation of gallstones.
Regular inclusion of olive oil in diet also results in the pancreas and the gut not having to produce so many enzymes to digest the food we eat, so olive oil makes it easier for our digestive system to work more efficiently.
Research also indicates that not only can olive oil help to heal gastric ulcers, it also helps to protect against the formation of digestive ulcers, as demonstrated in patients taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication, for whom gastric ulcers can be a serious side effect. (source)
Improves Brain Function
The various different sections of the brain work together to control and regulate every other function in the body, allowing us to be the amazing moving, thinking and feeling creatures we are.
Cognition is the ability of the brain to apply the information we learn in a meaningful way so that we can understand concepts, make decisions and plan future actions.
In a long term study on brain cognition, participants who included extra virgin olive oil in their diets performed significantly better in cognitive testing than people on a low fat diet. (source)
Is Olive Oil Healthy? Final Thoughts
In summary, and to answer our original question…yes, olive oil is healthy, but it depends which olive oil you choose. Extra virgin olive oil contains the highest amount of antioxidants and other nutrients out of all the different olive oils.
The combined effect of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity, the ability to reduce blood pressure and LDL cholesterol while boosting HDL cholesterol means olive oil can significantly reduce the risk of many serious cardiovascular and kidney diseases.
If we also take account of the ability of olive oil to improve brain function and fight bacteria, as well as the positive effects on the digestive system, it seems that extra virgin olive oil is an extremely worthy addition to everyone’s diets.