What's in Your Olive Oil?
What you should know about some extra virgin olive oils.
Like a Virgin?
How can you tell if the olive oil on your shelf is really extra virgin?
The North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA), a trade group promoting olive oil, advises consumers to look for their label on the bottle.
"A stipulation of membership in the NAOOA is to abide by strict quality control standards," NAOOA president Bob Bauer says in a statement emailed to WebMD. "To enforce the standards, the NAOOA purchases olive oils from the same stores where American consumers buy olive oil for home use. Then, those bottles are sent to labs in Europe run by the International Olive Council for chemical testing and analysis. The tests determine if the olive oils are what the labels say they are -- and not adulterated or a mislabeled product." (The International Olive Council [IOC] is the worldwide body that sets quality standards for the olive oil industry.)
But chefs and culinary experts suggest the best bet is to do a little testing of your own.
"My rule of thumb for at-home testing is to pour a few tablespoons of olive oil on a white dish. Look for consistencies that are smooth, although far thicker than corn or vegetable oil. Your olive oil should also smell like olives," Stella Metsovas, a Los Angeles nutritionist, tells WebMD in an email. "When the oil hits your palette, look for a smooth finish on the tongue; when the oil hits the back of your throat, look for a slight burn. The burn is actually the polyphenols found in fresh oils." Polyphenols are a type of antioxidant.
Harlan has some preferences of his own. "I prefer Spanish oils because they will have a grassy and sharper flavor (they are often slightly more acidic). They are often the more reasonably priced choice," he says. "Greek and Italian oils are great. I look for extra virgin oils that are labeled 'cold pressed' with labels that indicate the origin -- usually a family company or farm."
Olive oil isn't your only option. Harlan recommends the following choices, depending on what you’re cooking:
- Extra virgin olive oil for cold dishes and recipes that don't require much heat. That’s because extra virgin olive oil has a low smoke point -- that's the temperature at which the oil begins to smoke. (The healthy phenols found in olive oil are severely compromised by heat, Metsovas says.)
- Virgin olive oil for lower-temperature cooking. "Great flavor with a higher smoke point," Harlan says.
- Grapeseed oil is a great substitute for olive oil in cooking, because it has a higher smoke point. "Flavor-wise, grapeseed oil has less of the strong fruitiness of olive oil but all of the benefits," Harlan says. Some research shows that it may have heart-health benefits. One study found a 13% to 14% increase in HDL (good) cholesterol from eating as little as one ounce a day. In another study, substituting 1.5 ounces of grapeseed oil for other fats in recipes resulted in a 7% drop in LDL (bad) cholesterol and a 13% rise in HDL levels.
- Toasted or dark sesame oil for Asian dishes. "High in monounsaturated fats and a distinct flavor that says Chinese or Thai," Harlan says.