What Makes a Healthy Olive Oil?

Known for its light feel and fruity aroma, olive oil is widely favored in Mediterranean cooking. It’s also associated with many health benefits. Some studies suggest that daily consumption of virgin olive oil may lower cardiovascular mortality risks. And replacing butter with olive oil can contribute to overall mortality reduction.

Olive oil is also a staple of the Mediterranean diet, which has ranked as the healthiest diet for seven years in a row in U.S. News & World Report’s best diets rankings.

Despite its many benefits, finding the right olive oil for you can be tricky — especially when sorting through endless bottles and brands on grocery store shelves. There are labels such as extra-virgin, cold-pressed, refined and so-called extra-light tasting olive oil. You can find olive oil from California, Greece, Spain, France and elsewhere. In this guide, we’ll explain the different types and production methods of olive oil to help you find the healthiest olive oil on your next grocery trip.

[Read: Why You Should Stop Worrying About Olive Oil’s Smoke Points.]

Healthiest Olive Oil

“Olive oil has been associated with a variety of health benefits including lower risk of heart disease, cancer prevention, improved brain health and even weight management,” says Melanie Murphy Richter, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Los Angeles.

Richter explains that the oil is high in healthy fats and vitamins, like vitamin E, which can fight disease and reduce inflammation. “Unfortunately,” she adds, “not all olive oils are created equal.”

The health and quality of olive oil can vary based on factors such as the type of olives used, the extraction process and the level of processing, says Lisa Jones, a registered dietitian based in Philadelphia.

To find the best olive oil to support your health, there are several factors to take into consideration.

[READ: Are Seed Oils and Vegetable Oils Bad for You?]

What Makes a Healthy Olive Oil?

In moderation, all olive oils can be healthy additions to your diet. However, certain types of olive oils can contain more healthful properties, like antioxidants, and fewer unhealthy properties, like unnecessary additives, than others. Some components that can impact how healthy your olive oil is include:

1. Where your olive oil is from.

2. How your olive oil is made.

3. If your olive oil is extra virgin olive oil.

4. How your olive oil is stored.

5. If your olive oil is organic.

6. How your olive oil tastes.

[READ: Avocado Oil vs. Olive Oil: What’s the Difference?]

1. Where your olive oil is from

Suppliers in many countries and localities produce healthy olive oil. However, some areas are better known for their olive oils than others. These can include areas along the Mediterranean, where olives are a native species and where people regularly consume olive oil (and follow the Mediterranean diet), Richer says. Certain areas of Europe that have “robust guidelines on safer and healthier food production,” Richter adds. These aren’t the only places that produce healthy options, so locally sourced oils or some of your favorite brands may be good options too, she says.

Often, you can verify where an olive oil is from by checking its labeling. For products from Europe, you may be able to look for acronyms such as PDO, which stands for Protected Designation of Origin, or PGI, which stands for Protected Geographical Indication. Both of these labels are used in the European Union. These are certifications that ensure the authenticity of the source. For a particular area to be awarded the PDO/DOP status, it must be grown, produced and bottled in the designated area, but it must also meet strict requirements in terms of varietals, method of production and overall quality. Olive oils without these labels can still be healthy for you, but if you are looking for a product from a specific region, they may help you pinpoint your desired bottle.

Various organizations play a role in monitoring olive oil’s quality in the U.S. too. The Olive Oil Commission of California, for example, plays a key role in verifying California olive oil quality through mandatory government sampling and third-party testing.

2. How your olive oil is made

To turn olives into olive oil, the olives need to be squeezed — or pressed — in various ways. The different methods of extraction can impact the purity of your oil and its antioxidant content.

Long ago, all olive oils were made with a hands-on method called cold pressing, through which olives were ground on stone, spread on mats made of natural materials and pressed to extract the oil. With modern technology, cold pressing has evolved into a method more accurately described as machine extraction. Due to the historical context, machine-extracted olive oil is still described as cold-pressed by some companies — though some have phased out this term.

Machine extracted, or cold-pressed

Machine-extracted olive oils produce what we know as virgin olive oils, the highest quality of which are known as extra-virgin olive oils, or EVOO.

To make machine-extracted olive oil, olives are ground into a paste, then mixed and run through a decanter — a type of centrifuge. This milling process takes place at a temperature of no more than 27 degrees Celsius, or about 81 degrees Fahrenheit. While this might not be considered “cold” to some people, it “indicates that the temperature has been kept below a degree that will degrade the oil,” says Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne, an olive oil educator and the director of the Extra Virgin Alliance, the specialty section of the North American Olive Oil Association.

And because this method does not use chemicals, it yields an olive oil with several health benefits, she adds.

Machine-extracted oil also comes with robust levels of vitamins, and “ensures higher quantities of vitamin E and other polyphenols in the oil, which are potent antioxidants that can protect the oil from oxidative damage,” Richter says.

Machine-extracted olives and virgin olive oils

Before a machine-extracted oil can get a virgin or an extra virgin title, it is chemically tested and tasted by a panel of olive oil tasters to ensure it is up to standards — and truly the best.

“There’s a sensory methodology that was designed to grade olive oil. It is not one person who makes this determination,” Devarenne says. “It is a statistically analyzed evaluation by an official taste panel, which is a minimum of eight tasters who are specially trained for this process.”

Oils that meet chemical and taste benchmarks can be marked as EVOO, whereas oils that taste off or are otherwise not up to EVOO standards are either sold as “virgin” olive oils or (if they are categorized as the lowest grade of virgin oils) required to go through more processing before they can be sold for consumption.

High-heat processing

Olive oil without the virgin or EVOO label goes through a refining process that involves higher heat and strips the oil of some, but not all, of the healthful properties present in EVOO

In this method, oil that doesn’t meet the EVOO standards is put through a higher-heat processor (sometimes with added chemicals) to get it shelf-ready for consumers. This process will take out some of the “funky” tastes or other components that withheld the olive oil from the EVOO designation and can take out some of its healthy antioxidants as well. After going through these additional processes, the olive oil is mixed with some amount of EVOO before hitting the shelves.

Standard olive oils have a lighter color, blander flavor and lower antioxidant content, says Devarenne. Even so, they are not void of health benefits altogether. Importantly, standard olive oils come with the same healthy fats as other olive oils, she says.

“How the olives are processed is arguably the most important component in determining how healthy and nutrient-dense it’ll be,” Richter says. “The process of heating an oil can significantly degrade the nutrients present.”

Opt for cold-pressed olive oils over high-heat refined olive oils for maximum health benefits.

3. If your olive oil is extra virgin olive oil

Extra virgin olive oil, or EVOO, is the purest and least processed form of olive oil. EVOO is “generally healthier with more antioxidants, polyphenols (and) heart-friendly monounsaturated fats,” Jones says.

As a bonus, EVOO’s tend to be made with higher-quality olives, Richter says. “This means that these oils are richer and more pungent in flavor and typically more pure too.”

4. How your olive oil is stored

You may have noticed that many olive oils come in dark green bottles. Well, that’s not just for aesthetic marketing. Richter explains that olive oil can be vulnerable to ultraviolet light damage (which can degrade its healthy fat content) and dark bottles can protect against exposure.

Extra-virgin olive oil’s biggest enemy is oxidation, which is caused by light, heat and oxygen. Therefore, it’s best to purchase olive oil that’s in a container that can keep the product as fresh as possible. Look for dark-colored glass bottles, or any other opaque, well-sealed bottle, such as containers made of ceramic or aluminum. Some olive oil is sold in metal tins or a bag-in-box, the way some boxed wines are sold.

After you buy it, to protect olive oil from oxidation, store it in a cool and dark place, such as a kitchen cabinet. To consume olive oil in its peak condition, it’s best to finish a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil between six weeks and four months of purchasing it, depending on how many people are consuming it and the size of the bottle.

5. If you have organic olive oil

“If possible, choose an oil that is organic,” Richter says. “This means that the olives were grown with fewer chemicals and pesticides.” Exposure to certain chemicals, pesticides and contaminants “can contribute to longer-term health issues,” so going organic can help you mitigate risks, she adds.

Unfortunately, this can also mean purchasing a more expensive bottle, she says.

6. How your olive oil tastes

How your olive oil tastes can provide information on its health profile. Extra-virgin olive oil is a minimally processed food and should taste of fresh olives, not cured ones. The fruity notes in olive oil can be green, with grassy, herbaceous or artichoke flavors, or ripe, with a nutty, buttery or banana taste. In general, olive oils with higher phenol content will have a bitter and/or peppery taste.

The purest, healthiest olive oils will have different taste profiles than refined, heavily processed olive oils, Jones says. Ultra-processed olive oil can taste more bland or flavorless, while “genuine extra virgin olive oil should have a robust flavor,” she says.

But chances are, if you’re looking for a new healthy olive oil, you don’t know how it tastes yet. Jones recommends asking for a sample before you buy.

Like wines, olive oils can be made with a single olive variety, which can allow you to appreciate the unique character and flavor profile of that particular olive. On the other hand, olive oil blends are crafted from multiple olive varieties. Blending different cultivars creates a delightful complexity that elevates your culinary creations.

[READ: Could Caribbean Cuisine Be the Next Mediterranean Diet?]

How to Pick the Best Olive Oil

“The important thing to know is that extra-virgin is the best tasting and healthiest choice,” Devarenne says.

The next time you go to the grocery store for olive oil, consider buying an olive oil that includes the following qualities:

— Extra virgin olive oil, or EVOO.

— Cold-pressed (or machine-extracted) olive oil.

— Packaged in dark-colored or opaque containers.

— Labeled as organic.

— Labeled with PDO and/or PGI certifications to verify authenticity, if you are looking for oil from a specific area of Europe.

You may have heard something about olive oil’s low smoke point and that heating olive oil to high temperatures could release harmful compounds, remove the oil’s healthy benefits and perhaps even pose health risks. However, recent studies indicate that olive oil continues to deliver nutritional benefits even when cooked at a high heat. However, 2018 research published in Acta Scientific Nutritional Health suggests that extra-virgin olive oil is safe when cooked at high heat (just over 400 degrees Fahrenheit). Researchers also found it more chemically stable at higher temperatures than other common cooking oils. If it’s still a concern for you, use olive oil as a finishing oil, on top of dishes or in a dressing, rather than for baking or high-heat cooking

Keep in mind your budget, as some olive oils are more expensive than others. And after buying, enjoy in moderation. Adding a couple tablespoons to your food instead of butter or other animal fat is good for you, but olive oil is still a high-calorie food and not an item that you should be consuming by the cup. Hopefully, whatever new healthy olive oil you invest in will be able to serve you for weeks or months to come.

More from U.S. News

6 Health Benefits of Olive Oil and Trendy Foods That Contain It

The Best Snacks on the Mediterranean Diet

Best Diabetic Desserts Everyone Will Enjoy

What Makes a Healthy Olive Oil? originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 06/11/24: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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