Health & Fitness

All olive oils are not created equally

Olive oil is a wonderful source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats.
Olive oil is a wonderful source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. Chicago Tribune

One of the key ingredients to a long and healthy life is olive oil. Dietitians have been promoting the use of olive oil as a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat for years.

Because it’s a rich source of tocopherols, carotenoids and polyphenols — which have anti-inflammatory properties — olive oil has been shown to provide cardiovascular and anti-cancer effects. Italy, Spain and Greece are the major producers of olive oil, and it is the principal source of dietary fat in these countries.

But not all olives or olive oils are created equally, and consumers need to be careful. Because of a high demand for olive oil, many products have been adulterated by using inferior seed and nut oils, adding chemicals and misleading the consumer about the country that the olives originated from. So how can you be sure that you are getting high-quality olive oil? Here are some tips:

Tip #1: Select extra virgin oil

This title is given by the certifiers to only the purest and best of olive oils. Extra virgin guarantees that the oil is “cold pressed,” which means that it has been extracted mechanically from the olives.

Heat or chemical processing damages the fragile polyphenols. Extra virgin is the closest in flavor, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and other heart-healthy components to the whole olive fruit itself.

Tip #2: Look for the certification seal

Look for a product that has been certified by one of these entities as trustworthy, authentic olive oil:

  • International Olive Council (IOC)
  • North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA)
  • California Olive Oil Council (COOC)
  • Denominazione d’Origine Protetta (DOP)
  • Protected Designation of Origin (PDO)

Tip #3: Look for a single country of origin

An olive oil label may say that it is produced in a particular country when, in fact, it was only bottled there.

For example, “Product of Italy” does not necessarily indicate that the olives are grown or pressed in Italy — only that it was bottled there.

Look for the phrase “Produced and Bottled,” which means that the oil is actually produced and bottled in the place of origin listed on the label.

Tip #4: Choose your olive wisely

Choose olive oil with the very highest levels of polyphenols by selecting these olive varieties: Coratina and Moraiolo from Italy, Cornicabra and Picual from Spain and Koroneiki from Greece.

Tip #5: Use it or lose it

While olive oil is a wonderful source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, it does not age well.

A recent study published in the Journal of Food Science and conducted by the agricultural department at the University of Foggia in Puglia, Italy, discovered that antioxidant levels in olive oil decreased by 40 percent after six months of storage. So when you purchase olive oil, look for brands that specify production dates on their containers.

The expiration or “best-by” date should be no more than 18 months from the date of purchase. If the harvest date is given, it should be less than one year ago. Remember, the more recent the production, the higher the amount — and bioavailability — of healthy compounds.

Tip #6: Buy your oil in a dark bottle or in a can

Since olive oil’s antioxidants are fragile and damaged by exposure to light, heat and air, it is best to buy olive oil in tin or dark-colored containers. Also, it’s important to store olive oil at cool temperatures. Many people store olive oil above the stove top or near the stove top — not ideal because it is usually the warmest spot in the kitchen. And re-seal your bottle quickly after use to prevent oxidation.

Tip #7: Price point

High-quality olive oils are not cheap because they are carefully cultivated and processed to preserve the well-known taste and health benefits of the olive. Think of them as an 18-month investment for your heart. A high-quality, 17-ounce bottle can range from $35 to $100 and can usually be found in high-end specialty food stores or online.

Lastly, if you can’t afford high-end olive oil, try adding whole olives to your diet. Make a tapenade by blending pitted olives, olive oil, garlic and your favorite seasonings together for a dip, sandwich spread or pasta dish. You can also add olives to your favorite summer salads.

SeAnne Safaii-Waite, Ph.D., R.D., L.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Idaho Dietetics Program and past president of the Idaho Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.