I grew up with the smell of olive oil and garlic in my hair. Our Italian-American house permeated with the smell and we had olive oil on everything – from pasta to bread, and even the occasional vegetable (we didn’t eat a lot of veggies in my house growing up). Despite the fact that my mom knew very little about nutrition, we did get the benefit of consuming olive oil on a daily basis.
Olive Oil, especially the Extra Virgin variety, is actually a superfood! Some longevity scientists affectionately call it “the nectar of the Gods”. Understanding why olive oil is good for you, along with how to choose the highest quality oil is key in making sure you get the best source of this magical monounsaturated fat.
There are a number of different types of “healthy fat” you can include in your diet, which vary in their chemical structure. Unsaturated fats are those that have double bonds in their chemical structure. Monounsaturated fatty acids, or MUFAs, are a type of unsaturated fat. “Mono,” meaning one, signifies that monounsaturated fats have only one double bond.
Foods that are high in unsaturated fats, such as olive oil, are usually liquid at room temperature, whereas foods that are high in saturated fats, such as butter and coconut oil, are usually solid at room temperature. These different fats affect health and disease differently. Monounsaturated fats, in particular, have been shown to have a number of health benefits. Olive oil is one of the best sources of monounsaturated fats.
Health Benefits of Olive Oil
Olive oil has a number of health benefits which include:
- Reduces Inflammation – Oleic acid, the main fatty acid in olive oil, can reduce levels of C-Reactive proteins, thereby reducing inflammation in the body. Good quality olive oil consumed regularly can help with the pain and inflammation of arthritis and other chronic inflammation.
- Optimizes Heart Health – Olive oil is heart-protective. Adding more olive oil into your daily food plan can actually lower your LDL cholesterol, raise your HDL cholesterol, and lower your triglycerides.
- Improves Brain Function – The brain is made up of 60% fat, and fatty acids are essential for keeping the brain healthy. Olive oil is brain-protective. It has been proven to have a positive effect on both memory and concentration, and research has shown that it may be effective in warding off Alzheimer’s disease and strokes.
- Maintaining Healthy Weight (and Weight Loss) – Healthy fats like olive oil help regulate your blood sugar to keep your insulin level where it should be, which helps to keep weight regulated. Additionally, healthy fats in your diet help to make you feel full sooner, and stay satisfied longer, helping to regulate your food intake and keep snacking at bay.
- Mood Regulation – Our brains need healthy fats to function properly. When you include olive oil in your diet regularly, it helps to keep dopamine, serotonin and other hormone levels in check. This helps to lessen symptoms of depression and anxiety.
- Improves Digestion – Olive oil helps to rid the body of bad bacteria in the gut promoting a healthier gut microbiome. Additionally, olive oil helps to lubricate the digestive tract making digestion and elimination easier.
- Fights Disease – Olive oil, especially extra virgin olive oil, is high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. This makes it especially helpful in fighting cancer, autoimmune disease and other chronic health conditions when consumed regularly.
- Fights Breast Cancer – Olive oil has shown to slow epigenetic progression of cancer cells
- Anti-aging: Olive oil has been shown to improve DNA stability and telomere length in both animal and human studies
- Protects Mitochondria – Olive oil has been shown to protect our body’s energy powerhouses, the mitochondria, from damage and oxidative stress.
Choosing Quality Olive Oil & Spotting Fakes
Now that we know a bit more about why olive oil is good for you, let’s talk more about how to choose a good quality olive oil.
Most people aren’t even aware of the big olive oil scandal. It’s actually big business. Authentic extra-virgin olive oil takes a lot of time, expense, and labor to make. On the flip side, it’s quick, cheap, and easy to doctor it.
The most common form of adulteration comes from mixing extra virgin olive oil with cheaper, lower-grade oils. Sometimes, it’s an oil from an altogether different source — like canola oil or colza oil. Other times, they blend extra virgin olive oil with a poorer quality olive oil. The blended oil is then chemically deodorized, colored, and possibly even flavored and sold as “extra-virgin” oil to a producer. In other words, if you find a major brand name olive oil that is fake, it probably isn’t the brand’s fault. Rather, it’s their supplier’s – the middlemen.
Last year, researchers at UC Davis tested 124 different samples from eight major brands of extra-virgin olive oil. More than seventy percent of the imported oils failed.
This is a big problem because all those amazing benefits we just talked about, well those are reversed when you consume poor quality vegetable oil.
So it’s REALLY important to know how to spot the fakes.
First, how NOT to do it.
The “Dr. Oz Fridge Test” – This method was popularized by the Dr. Oz TV show. The premise behind this test is that extra-virgin olive oil is comprised of mostly monounsaturated fats which solidify when super cold. So, if you put real extra-virgin olive oil in the fridge, it ought to become thick and cloudy. Some high-wax varieties of olive oil will even solidify completely.
But this is not a fail-proof way to tell if your olive oil is fake.
EXAMPLE 1: The extra-virgin olive oil is a high-wax variety (which would normally solidify when cold), but it’s cut with low-grade oils from other plants. So, when you put it in the fridge, it thickens up, but doesn’t solidify. This fake oil would pass the fridge test because the so-called olive oil STILL thickened up and became cloudy.
EXAMPLE 2: The extra-virgin olive oil is 100% real, but “winterized” (chilled and filtered). Many olive oil producers choose to winterize their oils so that it doesn’t become inconveniently solid on cellar shelves during the winter. By chilling the oil and filtering out the wax that solidifies or clumps up, they can ensure that their oil is always pourable. This 100% real oil would fail the fridge test, and would only become slightly thick (but not solid) when frozen.
So the fridge test isn’t always accurate. Here are some better tips for choosing the best quality olive oil for you and your family.
- Never buy anything that doesn’t say “extra-virgin” on the label. The phrase alone isn’t a guarantee, but without it, you’re always going to get a lower quality product. Also, extra virgin olive oil is cold-pressed, which means the integrity of its anti-inflammatory properties and antioxidants are still intact.
- Look for a “harvest date” and an estate, or mill, name. Basically, the more specifics, the better. Typically only the better oils will have a ‘pressed on’ or ‘harvest date.’ If a label calls out the name of the producer or estate, or the variety of olive used, it’s very likely genuine.
- Look for a third-party certification seal. In particular, the European Union’s Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), Italy’s DOP, or the “COOC Certified Extra Virgin” seal from the California Olive Oil Council for California-made oils.
- Ignore the “best by” and “bottled on” dates. The “best by” date is arbitrary and lacks any legal standard, and “bottled on” doesn’t mean much. The oil could have been sitting in a vat or tank for a year, so knowing when it was bottled doesn’t make much difference. The older olive oil becomes, the more flavor and anti-inflammatory power it loses. Olive oil is at its peak within the two or three months after its pressing. Unfortunately, few labels carry bottling dates or ‘use by’ dates, let alone pressing times. Studies show that after 12 months, many of the oil’s healing compounds are almost completely gone.
- Only choose Extra Virgin Olive Oil that is in a darkly colored bottle or can. Oils turn rancid when exposed to light and heat. Choose a bottle that is green or darker in color (not a clear glass bottle) or oil that is sold in a can, as that protects the oil from being exposed to light.
- Trust your senses. Good quality olive oil should taste green, bright, peppery, earthy, grassy, or any combination thereof. Fake olive oil might taste greasy, rancid, flavorless, or just not pleasant. *This one isn’t 100% reliable, but it’s always good to go with your gut.
- Buy from a Single Family Farms or a Small Co-op of growers: That’s because almost all olive oil adulteration happens with the middle men — the people who buy olive oil in bulk from individual farmers and collect it in bulk to sell to corporate buyers. The corporate buyers are usually buying olive oil they think is 100% real, and they’re then mixing, sorting, and branding it to sell it in grocery stores. (And most of that oil sits on store shelves for years)
Don’t forget that expensive doesn’t always mean better. A higher price tag doesn’t necessarily mean the olive oil is of better quality. However, I would definitely rule out the bargain brands. It’s important to follow the tips above to be sure you’re choosing a high quality oil.
One of my favorite brands is Kasandrino’s. I’ve gotten to know the owner personally, and I know that producing the highest quality, best tasting olive oil is of highest importance. Here are some of the Kasandrino’s Olive Oil highlights:
- Single-sourced Koroneiki olives – Kasandrinos olive oil uses only Greek, extra-virgin Koroneiki olives, known for their robust flavor, small size, and high quality oil. Kasandrinos is never mixed with lower-quality oils or other types of olives.
- Cold pressed – This refers to the process used to extract the oil from their olives. Though more oil can often be used by heating the olives during the extraction process, this can disrupt the taste and flavor profile and lower the nutritional content of the olive oil. Kasandrino’s olives are never heated above 81 degrees Fahrenheit during production.
- Hand- picked – Similar to grapes in Italy, olives don’t do well with mechanized picking methods. Kasandrino’s olives are hand-selected, and only the highest-quality and ripest olives are chosen for their oils.
- Pressed within twenty-four hours – After olives are picked, dirt and twigs are removed via a washing process. Olives are then pressed within twenty-four hours. This yields an extremely fresh and high-quality oil.
- Ultra-low acidity level – Generally speaking, the lower the acidity of a virgin oil, the better quality it is. Kasandrino’s oils all fall under .3% – an extremely low level that yields a higher nutritional content and better taste.
- Veteran and woman-owned – Kasandrinos is founded and owned by friend, Tony Kasandrinos, a Marine Corps veteran, and Effi Kasandrinos, his sister. When you buy Kasandrinos, you know you’re supporting a family brand that upholds its values. Tony actually worked to grow the company while fighting for our country!
Incorporating good quality extra virgin olive oil into your diet brings a wealth of health benefits. Drizzle olive oil over your salads, veggies, and meats when you cook them. Use olive oil in your salad dressings and sauces for an easy way to add it into your daily food plan. Following the tips above will help you choose the highest quality, and safest, olive oil.