My kids enjoyed a good laugh at my expense while at the grocery store the other day. Apparently, I was taking way too long in the olive oil aisle. I was in an unfamiliar store surrounded by unfamiliar brands, so I couldn’t just grab my favorite on the fly. My children couldn’t grasp how it could take me so long to choose a brand. How different could they really be? Although many oils are housed in similar dark green bottles with similar lighter green labels, what lies within these bottles is not the same.
We are not stingy with olive oil in our kitchen, so I do not want to mess around with what I buy. Olive oil can be one of the healthiest fats in our diets, but only if you buy the real stuff.
Olive oil is rich in antioxidants, which reduce inflammation and protect cells against oxidization. It’s also been shown to help lower cholesterol and reducethe risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The healthful fats in olive oil are a sustained source of energy, contribute to brain health, mood stabilization and proper hormone development, while also keeping us full longer.
But Consumer Reports, the National Consumer League, and Consumer Labhave all recently discovered that some olive oils are not what they claim to be. Some brands mix higher-quality olive oil with other less healthy oils such as non-virgin olive, canola or sunflower oil, some have begun to oxidize or go rancid, and others are full of chemicals or pesticides.
In a 2015 news release announcing the National Consumer League’s findings on mislabeled olive oil products, Mary Flynn, a researcher at Brown University, explained how the health benefits of olive oil can be diminished. “Extra virgin olive oils contain compounds called polyphenols, which are responsible for many of their purported health benefits. In general, the fresher the olive oil, the higher the polyphenol content. As the oil ages or is exposed to heat, light or oxygen, the polyphenol content decreases. A number of studies have shown that extra virgin olive oils with higher polyphenol content are associated with greater health benefits.”
- Buy cold-pressed or cold-extracted olive oil. Adding heat to the olives allows producers to extract more oil from each olive, but the heat can damage the antioxidants and thus reduce the health benefits.
- Buy extra virgin olive oil, sometimes known as EVOO. What else is out there? “Virgin olive oil” is not treated with heat but has less-rigid production standards than extra virgin. “Olive oil” (no “extra virgin”) may be heat-treated or refined with chemicals. “Light olive oil” is refined to get a more neutral flavor. “Pure olive oil” is misleading because it sounds good but usually denotes the lowest-quality olive oil. Pure olive oil does not need to be extra virgin, so it can be refined or treated with chemicals. This allows it to be a more versatile cooking oil with a higher smoke point but leaves it with fewer nutrients.
- A dark glass container protects the oil from oxygen and light.
- Avoid the bottles on the top shelf, as they may be older or damaged by the light and heat above.
- Look for a harvest date and buy within 15 months of this date to be sure that no oxidization has taken place.
- The USDA Organic label does not necessarily assure high quality, but it does mean the olives have been grown under standard organic practices, which will mean no pesticide residue.
- A “product of Italy” or “product of Spain” label means that the bottle is packaged in Italy or Spain; it does not mean that all of the olives were grown there. (That said, there doesn’t seem to be any proof that olive oil from any specific country is healthier.)
- Cook at low temperatures, as cooking at high heats causes olive oil to smoke, which leads it to change structure. The polyphenols and vitamin E are destroyed at high heats, and free radicals that can damage our bodies are released. If you need an oil for high-heat cooking, grapeseed oil is a good alternative.
- Toss on salads, pastas, vegetables and other room-temperature dishes.
- Store in a cabinet to avoid light and heat from a nearby stove or oven.
A note to my kids who teased at me in the grocery store: Just as you spend hours deciding which new Nike shoe you want for Christmas, I have good reason to spend time picking out my olive oils. Your shoe choices make a style statement, which is important to you as a teenager, while my olive oil choices make an impact on our health, which is important to all of us at every age.
First published in The Washington Post on Thursday, February 15, 2018.