Olive Oil 101: Understanding the Types, Benefits, and Uses

May 12, 2023

Vanessa Vincent

Olive oil is a staple in many kitchens and is well known for its distinct flavor and versatility in cooking. However, did you know that olive oil is also a powerhouse when it comes to health benefits? With so many types of olive oils on the market, it can be hard to know which bottle to grab for cooking certain dishes or for reaping specific health benefits. In this blog post, I will explore the many health benefits of olive oil, from its anti-inflammatory properties to its ability to support heart health. So, grab a bottle of your favorite olive oil, and let's dive in!

What is the best kind of olive oil?

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to olive oil! When deciding which type to buy it boils down to two questions: 1.) What do you want nutritionally from the oil? 2.) What will you be using the oil for?

When it comes to the nutrient profile, all types of olive oil have a high concentration of

monounsaturated fatty acids, which have been shown to lower LDL, a type of cholesterol (sometimes referred to as the “bad” kind of cholesterol). High levels of LDL increase the risk of heart disease and stroke, so olive oil is one of the healthiest choices when it comes to choosing cooking oil. In fact, there have been multiple research studies that show a relationship between regular consumption of olive oil and a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. These same studies have also shown that regular consumption of olive oil decreases the chance of certain types of cancer and even dementia!

Certain types of olive oil also have phytochemicals, which are substances made from plants that give them color and have many health benefits, including anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Extra virgin olive oil and virgin olive oil have less processing and have a higher nutrient profile than other types of olive oil. These less-processed oils are often termed

as unrefined, cold pressed, or stone pressed, and besides having different nutrient profiles, they also have nuanced properties that make them ideal for certain types of cooking.

Refined Olive Oil

Refined olive oil is a type of olive oil that undergoes a process of refining and filtering to remove any impurities or defects. This process results in a lighter-colored and milder-tasting oil compared to extra-virgin or virgin olive oil. While refined olive oil can still provide some health benefits, it is important to note that the refining process removes some of the antioxidants and polyphenols that are present in extra-virgin and virgin olive oils. As a result, refined olive oil may not have the same level of anti-inflammatory and heart-protective properties as its unrefined counterparts. However, refined olive oil has a higher smoke point than extra-virgin and virgin olive oils, making it a better option for high-heat cooking methods like frying or roasting. Despite its lower antioxidant content, using refined olive oil in place of other less healthy oils, like vegetable or canola oil, can still be a beneficial choice for overall health.

Unrefined Olive Oil

Unrefined olive oil, also known as extra-virgin or virgin olive oil, is made from cold pressing or stone pressing of the olives and is not subjected to any chemical or heat treatments.

Cold pressing involves crushing the olives into a paste and then using a hydraulic press to extract the oil. This method involves minimal heat and processing, which helps to preserve the natural flavors and nutritional benefits of the oil.

Stone pressing involves crushing the olives using heavy stone wheels, which can result in a slightly higher yield of oil but may also generate more heat, potentially affecting the quality of the oil.

Both methods are time-consuming and require a significant amount of olives to produce a relatively small amount of oil, but they are highly regarded for their ability to produce high-quality and flavorful oils.

These gentle extraction methods allow the oil to retain more of its natural nutrients and antioxidants, such as vitamin E and polyphenols, which have been shown to have anti-inflammatory and heart-protective properties.

Unrefined olive oil has a robust flavor and is best suited for low-heat cooking or as a finishing oil for salads, dips, and sauces. When using extra-virgin olive oil for cooking, it is important to avoid heating it above its smoke point, as this can cause the oil to break down and produce harmful compounds.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil vs. Virgin Olive Oil

Extra virgin olive oil is made from the highest quality olives and has the lowest level of acidity among all grades of olive oil, typically below 0.8%. It is not heated and is therefore considered unrefined and can be cold pressed or stone pressed. This type of oil has the most preserved nutrients as well as a superior flavor and aroma profile compared to virgin olive oil.

Virgin olive oil is similarly extracted by cold pressing or stone pressing but may have slightly higher levels of acidity and a milder flavor compared to extra-virgin olive oil due to the quality of the olives used and slight variations in processing.

The International Olive Council sets strict standards for the production and labeling of olive oils, with extra-virgin olive oil being the highest quality and most prized grade of olive oil.

Light, Extra Light, & Pure Olive Oil

Light, extra light, and pure olive oil are extracted by the use of heat or chemical treatment and are therefore considered refined. Pure olive oil and light olive oil are blends of refined/extra light olive oil and virgin or extra-virgin olive oil. The term "pure" is often used to refer to this type of olive oil in the United States, but it can be misleading as the oil is not entirely pure.

The quality of these olive oils is lower than extra-virgin or virgin olive oils, and they are stripped of most antioxidant vitamins and phytochemicals.

What olive oil should I use for cooking?

When choosing olive oil for cooking, the most important thing to consider is the smoke point.

The smoke point is the temperature at which the oils start to break down and produce smoke. When an oil reaches its smoke point, it can produce harmful compounds and develop an unpleasant taste and odor. The smoke point of olive oil varies depending on the quality and type of the oil.

Olive Oil Smoke Points

  • Extra-virgin olive oil: 375-405°F (190-207°C)
  • Virgin olive oil: 390-420°F (199-215°C)
  • Refined olive oil: 470-480°F (243-249°C)

Smoke point is also close to the flash point, which is the point at which the oil can actually catch fire. It’s important to choose the right kind of oil for the meal you’re preparing so you still get the most nutritional benefits, but avoid burning down the kitchen!

Extra-virgin olive oil, with its delicate flavor and low smoke point, is best suited for low-heat cooking methods such as sautéing, light frying, and finishing dishes. It's an excellent choice for salads, dips, and sauces as well. When cooking with extra-virgin olive oil, it's essential to keep the heat low and avoid overheating the oil to prevent it from breaking down and losing its flavor and nutritional value.

Virgin olive oil, with its slightly higher smoke point, can be used for medium-heat cooking methods such as baking, roasting, and stir-frying. Its mild flavor and aroma also make it a good option for dishes where a more subtle taste is desired.

Refined olive oil has the highest smoke point and is best suited for high-heat cooking methods such as grilling and broiling. Its mild flavor and high smoke point make it a versatile oil for a variety of dishes.

It's important to note that while olive oil is a healthy cooking oil choice, it's not suitable for all cooking methods. For example, olive oil is not recommended for deep-frying for extended periods as it can smoke and burn quickly.

Olive Oil Cheat Sheet Table

Find the best olive oil for the job with this quick-look cheat sheet. Happy cooking!

Extra Virgin Virgin Refined
Smoke Point 375-405°F 390-420°F 470-480°F
Nutrition High in Vitamin E, and phytochemicals Similar to extra virgin but is considered a lower quality oil, and is more acidic which breaks down healthy fats faster Low in Vitamin E and little to no phytochemicals.
Processing Unrefined, no treatment of chemicals or heating during extraction and bottling. May be cold pressed or stone pressed. Similar to extra virgin, but the acidity is higher in due quality of the olives and variations in processing. Refined/Extra Light: oil extracted by the use of heat and chemical treatment.

Pure/Light: blends of refined and virgin

Common uses Little to no heat: tasting, salads, dips, sauces, light to medium sauteing, and frying. Little to no heat: tasting, salads, dips, sauces, light to medium sauteing, and frying. High heat: frying, cooking, baking.

Chat with Western’s registered dietitian today!

At Western, our registered dietitian can help you navigate the world of olive oil and other healthy foods, providing personalized guidance and advice tailored to your nutrition goals and preferences. Visit our website and fill out the form to schedule a consultation with our registered dietitian today to get the answers to your nutrition questions and start your journey toward a healthier you!

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