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Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Nutrition, Benefits, Uses

Extra virgin olive oil is considered top-tier, and as a result, it’s the most expensive class of olive oil. That’s because it’s cold-pressed rather than being processed with heat like refined olive oil. 

All olive oils offer loads of health benefits, but some beneficial nutrients are more abundant in extra virgin olive oil. Here’s the difference between extra virgin olive oil and regular olive oil, plus their health benefits and how to use them in the kitchen. 

There are three classes of olive oil, per the USDA: virgin olive oil, olive oil, and refined olive oil. 

Extra virgin olive oil falls under the “virgin olive oil” class, and it’s essentially unprocessed or crude olive oil. Rather than being treated with heat, it’s cold-pressed. It’s considered top-grade olive oil, followed by regular olive oil and then refined olive oil. For that reason, it’s also the most expensive olive oil.

Extra virgin olive oil’s nuanced flavor varies slightly based on the product itself, but it typically has a peppery, fruity, bitter flavor. 

Regular or “pure” olive oil, on the other hand, is made with a combination of refined and extra virgin olive oil. Refined olive oil is usually made from damaged olives whose oils are unpalatable. Therefore, these oils are heated, neutralized, bleached, and deodorized to improve the flavor. Then, they’re combined with a small amount of virgin olive oil to make regular olive oil. 

Light olive oil, another product you probably see on grocery store shelves, simply has more refined oil as compared to regular olive oil, so the color and flavor are lighter.

One tablespoon (13.5 grams) of extra virgin olive oil contains:

  • Calories: 119
  • Fat: 12.6 grams
  • Saturated fat: 16.4% of total fat
  • Monounsaturated fat: 73.9% of total fat
  • Polyunsaturated fat: 9.7% of total fat
  • Vitamin E: 1.94 milligrams, or 13% of the daily value (DV)
  • Vitamin K: 8.13 micrograms, or 7% of the DV

Extra virgin olive oil also contains phenolic compounds associated with inflammation reduction and chronic disease prevention and small amounts of the antioxidants beta-carotene and lycopene. 

Olive oil is especially known for its benefits on heart health. That’s in part because olive oil is a great source of unsaturated fatty acids, which are better for heart health than saturated fatty acids like those found in butter or dairy fat. 

Consuming at least 0.5 tablespoons of olive oil per day is associated with a reduced risk of dying from not just cardiovascular disease (CVD), but also cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, and respiratory disease, particularly when it replaces margarine, butter, mayonnaise, and dairy fat. 

Compared to regular olive oil, extra virgin olive oil has a slightly higher percentage of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. These kinds of fatty acids are associated with reduced risk of coronary heart disease in adults and better metabolic health amongst adults with type 2 diabetes.

Furthermore, oleic acid, the main monounsaturated fatty acid found in extra virgin olive oil, is associated with improved insulin sensitivity when it replaces saturated fatty acids in the diet. 

Extra virgin olive oil is also a good source of vitamin E—an antioxidant that can help neutralize free radicals to prevent oxidative damage to cells. Oxidative damage is associated with the development and progression of various diseases including CVD and cancer so consuming dietary sources of antioxidants is important for disease prevention.

Phenolic compounds are another component of extra virgin olive oil with potential health benefits. They are responsible for olive oil’s effectiveness in countering hypertension and improving lipid profiles.  

Culinarily, extra virgin olive oil has a delightful fruity and peppery flavor that chefs and cooking connoisseurs tend to favor over regular olive oil’s more neutral flavor.

Extra virgin olive oil is a very nutritious food and staple part of the Mediterranean diet—an eating pattern well-known for its health benefits. So, using extra virgin olive oil as one of your go-to dietary fats could be beneficial to your health. However, over-doing olive oil could potentially cause harm.

With keto being one of the most popular fad diets, many people think that a low-carb, high-fat diets is the way to go. However, a well-balanced diet with carbohydrates, protein, and fat is essential for overall health for most of the population. 

Consuming a diet low in carbs and high in fats leads to underconsumption of important foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend the following macronutrient breakdown for adults:

  • Carbohydrates: 45–65%
  • Fat: 20–35%
  • Protein: 10–35%

So while extra virgin olive oil is a super nutritious fat to include in your diet, be sure to also include sources of protein and fiber in your diet to promote overall health. Olive oil is actually a great way to make proteins and vegetables more tasty.

Extra virgin olive oil can indeed be used for cooking. One study actually found it to be the most stable oil when heated because of its relatively low polyunsaturated fatty acid content. That’s important because when you heat oils, they can degrade and oxidize, producing compounds that may be harmful to health. Different oils have different smoke points and stabilities, which indicate at what temperature and how easily they’ll degrade. 

Another study found that virgin olive oil is safe for frying and may even be better than refined vegetable oils.

So, extra virgin olive oil should be safe to use for roasting, sauteeing, and frying. You can also use it raw in salad dressings.

Extra virgin olive oil—an unprocessed form of olive oil with a nuanced flavor profile—not only adds more depth to your dishes, it may also improve your health. Consuming olive oil is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and other mortality causes thanks largely to its unsaturated fats and antioxidants. Using it in place of saturated fats like butter, dairy fat, and animal fats will likely lead to the most health benefits, so consider making it your go-to cooking oil for roasting and sautéeing foods.

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