Despite the reported health benefits of monounsaturated-rich olive oil, there remains much confusion on how to use it in cooking. People are also curious about how to choose the right type of olive oil, and how to store it properly. I’ve included some easy to digest information on cooking with olive oil and some of my favourite olive oil-based recipes below.
When asked which is better – butter or margarine? The answer always is – olive oil. One thing that can be certain in nutrition science is that the Mediterranean diet has shown undeniable health benefits. This style of eating encourages an increased intake of nuts, fish, whole grains and vegetables while eating less meat and processed foods. At the same time, it promotes an increase in good fats – mainly monounsaturated fat which is found mostly in olive oil.
The Health Benefits of Olive Oil
Olive Oil and Monounsaturated Fats
When monounsaturated-rich olive oil is used in place of saturated fats it can help to lower ‘bad’ or LDL cholesterol, triglycerides and raises HDL cholesterol or the ‘good’ cholesterol. Diets in which these fatty acids represent more than 12% of energy intake are associated with lower fat mass and decreased blood pressure compared with diets containing less than 12% (1).
Olive Oil and Antioxidants
Extra virgin olive oil which has the highest levels of antioxidants has the added benefit of protecting cholesterol in the arteries against harmful oxidation (2).
Furthermore, polyphenolic components in extra virgin olive oil have also been shown to reduce high blood pressure. These factors may also help to explain the lower incidences of cancer in the Mediterranean populations. See my post What Are Antioxidants Good For for more information (2).
Extra Virgin Vs Virgin Vs Refined Olive Oil
Extra Virgin and Virgin Olive Oil
Simply put, both extra virgin and virgin olive oils are made using methods that do not in any way alter the oil. No excessive heating or chemical refining can take place. The difference between extra virgin and virgin olive oil is based on their characteristics including acidity, flavour and fragrance.
- Extra virgin olive oil has a lower acidity and a flavour and odour that is said to be ‘excellent’
- Virgin olive oil has a higher acidity and its flavour and odour must be ‘reasonably good’
Olive Oil and Refined Olive Oil
Just plain olive oil (no virgin designation) is a blend of refined oil and virgin olive oil. Refined olive oil has been chemically treated, but still has the good monounsaturated fats.
- Olive oil has an acidity between extra virgin and virgin. Its flavour and odour is similar to virgin olive oil
- Refined olive oil has no fragrance or flavour, and the antioxidant alpha-tocopherol is generally added back in to replace the naturally occurring antioxidant that is removed during the refining process
Can I Use Olive Oil For Cooking?
Using Extra Virgin Olive Oil For Cooking
Which olive oil you buy should depend on how you choose to use it. Extra virgin oils, which are minimally processed, contain many desirable ‘impurities’ such as minerals and compounds that degrade rapidly when heated, leading to rancid, off flavours. This variety is best left for salad dressings, dipping bread or for dressing fully cooked foods.
Using Refined Olive Oil For Cooking
Refined olive oils are a more reasonable choice for cooking, especially at higher temperatures, since the refining process removes the compounds most susceptible to burning. The smoke point of refined olive oil is about 410°F, compared with just 325°F for extra virgin. This is the best olive oil to use for frying or stir-frying.
Using Virgin Olive Oil For Cooking
Right in between the two is virgin olive oil which is suitable for sautéing or browning.
Smoke Point For Different Olive Oils
Ever left oil in a pan over high heat, only to turn around and find it smoking? That’s because even oil has a smoke point – a temperature at which it stops shimmering and starts smoking.
When oils are heated past their smoke point the fat starts to break down and releases free radicals (see What Are Antioxidants Good For – Protection From Free Radicals and Oxidative Stress), as well as a substance called acrolein which gives food a burnt food their acrid flavour.
- Refined Olive Oil – 390-465°F/240°C Smoke Point
- Virgin Olive Oil – somewhere in the middle
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil – 325-375°F/165-190°C Smoke Point
*Coconut Oil – 350°F/175°C for comparison
How To Store Olive Oil
What Is The Shelflife Of Olive Oil
Extra virgin olive oil is susceptible to heat, light and oxygen and exposure to these elements over time degrades the quality of the oil. Olive oil generally has a shelf life of about 12 months, or up to 2 years if left unopen.
How Do You Keen Olive Oil Fresh?
When you bring you olive oil home, the worst place to store it is in the cupboard on top of the stove where it is susceptible to heat, or on the countertop where it is susceptible to light. Store it in a cool cupboard to preserve its quality.
Can I Store Olive Oil In The Fridge?
If your olive oil comes in a large container and you are not likely to use it up quickly you can store it in the fridge. Refrigeration does not affect the quality or flavour of olive oils.
What Is The Best Container For Olive Oil?
Choosing olive oil that is packaged in darker glass or opaque metal containers also helps to protect the oil from light, which also protects against degradation of tocopherols, the naturally occurring antioxidant that protects the oil from rancidity.
Olive Oil and Sustainability
Olive Oil and Food Miles
Unfortunately, olive oil is never going to be produced in Canada, we just don’t have the climate for it. It is the growing conditions in Italy and Spain that give us the flavours we love, therefore we must forfeit the food miles, just as we do for coffee and chocolate.
Which Oils Are Canadian?
In Canada we produce our own canola oil, unfortunately, this is now all genetically modified (see my post Genetically Modified Foods – What These Means For Your Health and The Health of the Environment). Organic canola oil is now more widely available.
A new addition to the Canadian oil scene is Camelina Oil -see my recipe for Vegan Cauliflower and Miso Dip with Camelina Oil for more information on this Canadian oil.
What Some Favourite Olive Oil Recipes?
- Baked Tofu Quinoa Salad with Glory Bowl Dressing
- The ULTIMATE Vegan Pesto with Hemp
- Best Lentil Salad with a Mustard Vinaigrette
Take-Home Tips For How To Use Olive Oil In Cooking
- Choose olive oil most often, as olive oil is a great source of monounsaturated fats that have been shown to be protective against heart disease
- Use extra-virgin olive oil for dressing salads, dipping bread or to dressing fully cooked foods
- Use virgin olive oil for sautéing or browning at medium temperatures
- Use refined olive oil for frying or stir-frying at higher temperatures
- Store your olive oil in a dark cupboard, not on top of the stove or on the counter-top
- Vannice G, Rasmussen H. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: dietary fatty acids for healthy adults. J Acad Nutr Diet.
- The University of Virginia – Journal of Gastroenterology
Rachel Dickens, The Conscious Dietitian, is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator. She graduated with her Masters in Nutrition and Dietetics in 2010 from Griffith University. She strives to provide evidence-based nutrition information with a focus on plant-based nutrition, and share some of her favourite seasonal recipes and sustainable eating tips.