What Is Extra Virgin Olive Oil, and Why Is It Healthy?
Known for its rich flavor, versatility, and health benefits, extra virgin olive oil is an excellent ingredient to keep in your kitchen cupboard.
Not only is it easy to use for roasting, frying, baking, or sautéing, but it’s also jam-packed with antioxidants and heart-healthy fats.
Plus, it’s been studied extensively for its many health benefits, with some research suggesting that it could protect against heart disease, combat cancer, and alleviate inflammation.
This article takes a closer look at the potential benefits, downsides, and uses of extra virgin olive oil, along with how it stacks up against other common cooking oils.
Olive oil is a type of oil that has been extracted from olives, the fruits of the olive tree.
The production process is simple. Olives can be pressed to extract their oil, but modern methods involve crushing the olives, mixing them, and then separating the oil from the pulp in a centrifuge (
After centrifugation, small amounts of oil remain. The leftover oil can be extracted using chemical solvents and is known as olive pomace oil (
There are several grades of olive oil, which vary in terms of their nutritional content and the amount of processing that they undergo.
The three main grades of olive oil include:
- refined olive oil
- virgin olive oil
- extra virgin olive oil
Extra virgin olive oil is the least processed variety and is often considered to be the healthiest type of olive oil. It’s extracted using natural methods and standardized for purity and certain sensory qualities, such as taste and smell (
In addition to its unique flavor and aroma, extra virgin olive oil is rich in disease-fighting antioxidants and has been associated with a wide range of potential health benefits (
Modern olive oil is made by crushing olives and separating the oil from the pulp in a centrifuge. Extra virgin olive oil is the least processed variety and is rich in antioxidants.
Extra virgin olive oil is rich in heart-healthy fats, along with vitamins E and K.
A tablespoon (about 14 grams) of olive oil contains the following nutrients (
- Calories: 119
- Saturated fat: 14% of total calories
- Monounsaturated fat: 73% of total calories (mostly oleic acid)
- Polyunsaturated fat (PUFA): 11% of total calories
- Vitamin E: 13% of the Daily Value (DV)
- Vitamin K: 7% of the DV
The oil’s main antioxidants include the anti-inflammatory oleocanthal, as well as oleuropein, a substance that protects LDL (bad) cholesterol from oxidation (
Some people have criticized olive oil for having a high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. However, its total amount of polyunsaturated fats is still relatively low, so you probably don’t need to worry (
What makes it so healthy?
In addition to its impressive antioxidant content, extra virgin olive oil is loaded with monounsaturated fatty acids, a type of healthy fat that has been linked to several benefits.
In particular, research suggests that monounsaturated fatty acids could benefit heart health and may even help protect against heart disease (
Extra virgin olive oil also contains a good amount of vitamins E and K in each serving. Vitamin E is an essential nutrient that doubles as an antioxidant, while vitamin K plays a key role in bone health, blood clotting, heart health, and more (
Olive oil is very high in monounsaturated fats and contains a modest amount of vitamins E and K. Extra virgin olive oil is also loaded with antioxidants, some of which have powerful health benefits.
Chronic inflammation is believed to be among the leading drivers of many diseases, including heart disease, cancer, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and arthritis.
Some speculate that olive oil’s ability to fight inflammation is behind many of its health benefits.
Oleic acid, the most prominent fatty acid in olive oil, has been shown to reduce inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein (CRP) (
However, the oil’s main anti-inflammatory effects seem to stem from its content of antioxidants like oleacein and oleocanthal, which appear to significantly reduce inflammation in test-tube and animal studies (
Interestingly, several studies have found that regular consumption of olive oil may be linked to lower levels of certain markers of inflammation, including CRP and interleukin-6 (
However, keep in mind that chronic, low-level inflammation is usually mild, and it takes years or decades for it to do damage. More human studies are needed before we can draw conclusions about olive oil’s ability to counter it.
Still, making extra virgin olive oil a regular part of your diet could help protect against damage in the long run, leading to a reduced risk of various inflammatory diseases, including heart disease.
Olive oil contains oleic acid and antioxidants, which can help fight inflammation. This may be the main reason for olive oil’s health benefits.
Cardiovascular diseases, such as heart disease and stroke, are among the most common causes of death in the world (
But many observational studies show that death from these diseases is low in certain areas of the world, especially in Mediterranean countries, where olive oil is a major part of people’s diets (
Studies on the Mediterranean diet consistently show that it’s associated with improved heart health and may help prevent heart disease and stroke (
Extra virgin olive oil protects against heart disease via numerous mechanisms:
Reduces inflammation. Olive oil can decrease inflammation, a key driver of heart disease (
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Reduces oxidation of LDL (bad) cholesterol. Olive oil may prevent LDL particles from oxidative damage, an important factor in the development of heart disease (
Improves blood vessel health. Olive oil may improve the function of the endothelium, which is the lining of the blood vessels (
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Helps manage blood clotting. Some studies suggest that olive oil can help prevent unwanted blood clotting, which could contribute to heart attack and stroke (
Lowers blood pressure. Research suggests that increased intake of olive oil could be tied to lower blood pressure, which may aid in the prevention of heart disease (
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Given the multitude of health-promoting properties associated with olive oil, it’s not surprising that many studies show that increased consumption may even be linked to a lower risk of heart disease and stroke (
Olive oil can improve several aspects of heart health. In fact, studies show that it may reduce blood pressure and inflammation, protect LDL particles from oxidation, improve blood vessel health, and help prevent unwanted blood clotting.
Although olive oil has mostly been studied for its effects on heart health, its consumption has been associated with a number of other health benefits as well.
Olive oil and cancer
Studies have shown that people living in Mediterranean countries have a fairly low risk of cancer, which may be partly due to their consumption of anti-inflammatory ingredients, including olive oil (
One potential contributor to cancer is oxidative damage due to harmful molecules called free radicals. However, extra virgin olive oil is high in antioxidants that reduce oxidative damage (
According to a 2011 review, regular consumption of olive oil may also be associated with a lower risk of developing breast cancer or cancer of the digestive system (
Still, more recent, high quality research is needed to understand the effects of olive oil on cancer when enjoyed as part of a healthy, well-rounded diet.
Olive oil and Alzheimer’s disease
Alzheimer’s disease is the world’s most common neurodegenerative disease and a leading cause of dementia (
One feature of Alzheimer’s disease is a buildup of proteins known as beta-amyloid plaques in certain neurons in the brain (
Animal studies have found that extra virgin olive oil and some of the compounds it contains could help preserve brain function by preventing the buildup of these proteins (
Additionally, some studies show that following the Mediterranean diet, which is typically rich in olive oil, may also be associated with a reduced the risk of dementia and cognitive impairment (
Preliminary evidence suggests that olive oil can help fight cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, although more human studies need to confirm this.
In addition to extra virgin olive oil, there are many other popular cooking oils available, including regular olive oil, canola oil, vegetable oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil.
Here is a closer look at how extra virgin olive oil compares to these other types of oils (
|Extra virgin olive oil
|made from cold-pressed olives
|strong, olive-like flavor
|• 119 calories/tablespoon (14 grams)
• 73% MUFA
• 11% PUFA
• 14% saturated fat
• salad dressings
• finishing oil
|405° F (207° C)
|Regular olive oil
|derived from olives through mechanical or chemical means
|mild, neutral flavor
|• 119 calories/tablespoon (14 grams)
• 67% MUFA
• 10% PUFA
• 16% saturated fat
|406° F (208° C)
|extracted from rapeseed using chemical solvents
|• 124 calories/tablespoon (14 grams)
• 63% MUFA
• 28% PUFA
• 7% saturated fat
|493° F (256° C)
|usually made from a blend of oils, including corn, soy, or sunflower oil
|• 124 calories/tablespoon (14 grams)
• 42% MUFA
• 41% PUFA
• 14% saturated fat
|400° F (204° C)
|extracted from cold-pressed avocado pulp
|mild and nutty flavor
|• 124 calories/tablespoon (14 g)
• 71% MUFA
• 14% PUFA
• 12% saturated fat
• salad dressings
• finishing oil
|520° F (271° C)
|derived from fresh or dried coconut meat or milk
|• virgin coconut oil: tropical, coconut flavor
• refined coconut oil: neutral flavor
|• 121 calories/tablespoon (14 g)
• 6% MUFA
• 2% PUFA
• 83% saturated fat
|376° F (191° C)
There are several different types of cooking oils available, each of which varies in terms of taste, nutritional value, uses, and smoke point.
During cooking, fatty acids can oxidize, meaning they react with oxygen and become damaged.
The double bonds in fatty acid molecules are mostly responsible for this.
For this reason, saturated fats — which have no double bonds — are resistant to high heat. Meanwhile, polyunsaturated fats — which have many double bonds — are more sensitive and can become damaged (
Olive oil contains mostly monounsaturated fatty acids, which have only one double bond. Therefore, olive oil is fairly resistant to moderate heat (
In one 2007 study, researchers heated extra virgin olive oil to 356°F (180°C) for 36 hours and found that the oil was highly resistant to damage (
Overall, olive oil seems to be very safe, even for cooking at moderate temperatures.
Olive oil is fairly resistant to moderate heat and can be used safely for cooking.
Eating more calories than you burn each day contributes to weight gain over time (
Therefore, if you’re not making other adjustments to your diet, consuming high amounts of olive oil could make it more challenging to maintain a moderate weight.
Additionally, although uncommon, some people may also be allergic to olives and olive oil. If you experience symptoms of an allergic reaction after consuming olive oil, stop using it and speak with a healthcare professional (
Olive oil is high in calories and could contribute to weight gain if consumed in high amounts. Some people may also be allergic to olives and olive oil.
Is it OK to cook with extra virgin olive oil?
Olive oil is made of mostly monounsaturated fats, which are resistant to moderate heat (
It also has a fairly high smoke point, making it a good choice for many cooking methods, including roasting, grilling, baking, and sautéing (48).
Can you substitute extra virgin olive oil for other oils in cooking?
For most recipes, you can easily swap an equal amount of extra virgin olive oil in for other types of oils, including vegetable oil, coconut oil, or canola oil.
However, keep in mind that extra virgin olive oil often has a distinct taste and aroma, so it may slightly alter the flavor of your final product.
Is extra virgin olive oil healthy?
Extra virgin olive oil is loaded with heart-healthy fats and antioxidants, making it a great addition to a nutritious diet (
Can olive oil reduce belly fat?
Still, although olive oil may help promote weight control, it’s important to keep in mind that oil is high in calories.
For this reason, it’s best to swap it in for other fats in your diet and keep your intake in moderation to maximize the potential benefits.
Can I use extra virgin olive oil on my face?
Olive oil is often used as a natural skincare product. It can be applied directly to the face, either alone or combined with other ingredients like honey or egg yolks.
In addition to moisturizing your skin, some research suggests that olive oil could reduce inflammation, promote wound healing, and slow skin aging (
However, be sure to wipe off any excess oil to prevent blocked pores, and always do a patch test before applying anything directly to your face.
Not only is extra virgin olive oil loaded with heart-healthy fats, but it’s also a great source of antioxidant compounds, like vitamin E, oleacein, and oleocanthal.
It has been associated with a wide range of powerful health benefits and may help prevent heart disease, promote brain function, and protect against certain types of cancer.
Plus, it’s incredibly versatile and makes a great addition to a variety of recipes, ranging from baked goods to stir-fries, sautéed veggies, salad dressings, and more.
Just one thing
Try this today: One of the easiest ways to boost your intake of extra virgin olive oil is by drizzling it overcooked dishes. Try using it to dial up the flavor and health benefits of roasted veggies, cooked meats, pasta dishes, and more.