All About Olive Oil

Tips for using this healthy, flavorful oil

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte E. Grayson, MD

This oil's got history going for it, that's for sure. One of the oldest known cultivated trees in the world, the olive tree is native to Asia Minor. It is thought to have spread to the Mediterranean region -- now well-known for its use of olive oil -- about 6,000 years ago.

You can buy domestic olive oil (using mostly Californian grown olives) or imported oils from France, Greece, Spain, and Italy.

This uniquely green and flavorful oil can be less green and less flavorful, depending on the type you buy. If you want to use it at high temperatures or in baking, try one of the "light" olive oils. This type goes through a fine filtration process, producing lighter-colored oil that lacks the classic olive flavor.

What if you want a fragrant and flavorful oil, for salad dressings or for adding to a dish after cooking? Olive oil that's extra-virgin and cold-pressed (a chemical-free process that involves only pressure, producing an oil with low acidity) is considered the fruitiest and finest type, according to The Food Network's online encyclopedia.

More and more people are cooking with olive oil, perhaps because Mediterranean cuisine is in vogue, or because of the oil's distinctive flavor, or its potential health benefits. How about all of the above?

A Smart Fat

Nutrition experts consider omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat found in fish and some plant foods, to be a "smart fat." The other "smart fat" is monounsaturated fat -- the type olive oil is rich in.

Environmental Nutrition (The Newsletter of Food, Nutrition & Health) recommends that monounsaturated fats make up most of your fat intake, with polyunsaturated fats comprising the rest, according to Luanne Hughes, MS, RD.

Unsaturated fatty acids, whether monounsaturated or polyunsaturated, can lower your levels of "bad" cholesterol (which decreases your risk of heart disease) if you eat them instead of saturated fatty acids, Hughes says. Saturated fat -- found mostly in animal products and in palm and coconut oils -- is the main dietary cause of high blood cholesterol, according to the American Heart Association.

Here's a breakdown of the fat makeup of some different types of vegetable oils:

Type of oil
% Monounsaturated fat
% Polyunsaturated fat
% Saturated fat
Hazelnut oil
82
11
7
Olive oil
78
8
14
Almond oil
73
9
8
Canola oil
62
31
7
Peanut oil
48
34
18

And the oil that's readily available, usable in a variety of dishes, relatively reasonably priced (unless you buy a gourmet variety) AND has the highest amount of monounsaturated fat is none other than ? drum roll, please ? olive oil!

In fact, the FDA now allows olive oil labels to carry the claim that its monounsaturated fat can reduce heart disease risks -- with a few strings attached. The claim says that "limited and not conclusive scientific evidence" suggests that eating about 2 tablespoons of olive oil daily may reduce the risk of heart disease. To give this possible benefit, it adds, the olive oil must replace a similar amount of saturated fat in your diet -- and must not increase the total calories you eat in a day.

The potential health benefits of olive oil don't stop at heart disease.

Recent studies have suggested that, of all the fats we can choose -- aside from the omega-3s found in fish -- monounsaturated oils are the least likely to promote cancer.

And monounsaturated fat isn't the only thing olive oil has going for it nutritionally. Some olive oils come with phytonutrients that may offer their own disease protection benefits (still, it's not clear whether most of us can take in enough of these phytonutrients without going overboard on olive oil, says Joyce Nettleton, DSc, RD, researcher and editor of the PUFA Newsletter).

And, of course, olive oil is a key component of the well-studied Mediterranean diet, the others being a bounty of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains. Several studies have shown that this type of diet may have many health benefits, from adding years to the lives of healthy older adults, to lowering the risk of metabolic syndrome.