A RAFT OF RESEARCH suggests that olive oil – which is a key component of the Mediterranean diet – is associated with heart health and an array of other benefits.
There are several olive oils typically available on U.S. store shelves, including:
Extra virgin olive oil. Olive oil, also sometimes known as pure olive oil. Extra light olive oil. These three are the main labels consumers will see in the U.S., says Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne, an international olive oil consultant based in Petaluma in Sonoma County, California. She's also CEO of Extra Virgin Alliance, an international association of producers dedicated to olive oil quality.
Extra virgin and olive oil are both grades of olive oil. Extra light is a marketing term used for a lighter tasting version of olive oil, but it's not a grade, Devarenne says. Olive oil, pure olive oil and extra light olive oil are all blends of refined olive oil and virgin olive oil.
Extra virgin olive oil is clearly the healthiest olive oil, because it's the one that's the least processed, says Jack Bishop, chief creative officer of America's Test Kitchen. "Extra virgin is the industry standard," he says. Using heat and chemicals to process olive oil can degrade its nutritional value; extra virgin olive oil is, by definition, cold-pressed.
Defining 'Extra Virgin' Olive Oil
So what, exactly, is "extra virgin" olive oil?
It's a common question. One survey by the Olive Center at the University of California, Davis, found widespread confusion among consumers regarding the term. The center is comprised of university faculty members, research specialists and farm advisers who address the growing and education needs of California olive growers and processors.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture lists five grades of olive oil. Most olive oil organizations list five or six grades of olive oil, Devarenne says. For example, the International Olive Council lists six grades of olive oil. Meanwhile, the California state government, which is one of a handful of states that regulate the quality of olive oil, lists five grades. Higher grades of olive oil indicate quality, Devarenne says. "The grades indicate type and quality. Extra virgin is the highest grade and the highest quality." The center's survey found that 55% of consumers believed they understood the meaning of different olive oil grades. However, no more than 25% of participants responded correctly to statements about the grades.
Refined olive oil is flavorless, colorless and odorless. Virgin olive oil is added to refined olive oil for flavor and color, Devarenne says. Refined olive oils also contain healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, she says. The American Heart Association recommends that the majority of fats people eat should be monounsaturated or polyunsaturated.
There's no one extra virgin olive oil standard that every olive oil producer and seller in the U.S. or overseas applies, Devarenne says.
"All this talk of standards can be confusing, but the important thing to know is that extra virgin is the best tasting and healthiest choice," Devaranne says.
Overall, at least 75% of the extra virgin olive oil marketed in the U.S. is sold by companies that say they apply the USDA or IOC standards, says Joseph Profaci, executive director of the North American Olive Oil Association. There's no federal governmental agency enforcing these standards. The USDA standards are voluntary. Though the USDA extra virgin oil grade guide puts "U.S." in front of each of the five types of oil graded, many companies that import olive oil also apply these standards, Profaci says.
A couple of other things to know about extra virgin olive oil: This grade of oil is extracted from olive pulp with a press, typically centrifugal in nature, and no chemicals or heat, which is why it's sometimes referred to as a "cold-press" product, Profaci says.
Health Benefits of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Extra virgin olive oil is the healthiest kind of olive oil because it contains natural chemical compounds known as phenols or polyphenols that provide a host of health benefits, says Mary M. Flynn, a research dietitian and associate professor of medicine, clinical, at Miriam Hospital and Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
Research suggests that phenols provide an array of health benefits, including:
Decreased blood pressure. Lower inflammation. Higher levels of high-density lipoprotein, or HDL (good) cholesterol. Improved HDL function. More efficient use of insulin to better store glucose. Improved heart health. "The phenols found in extra virgin olive oil have been shown to improve an impressive range of disease risk factors," Flynn says. Be Wary of Labels
It's important to keep in mind that just because a product is labeled as extra virgin olive oil doesn't mean it is.
Many products labeled as extra virgin olive oil in retail stores do not meet the definition of that grade of oil, Flynn says. That's because the federal government doesn't closely regulate claims of what extra virgin olive oil is, she says.
So, if you pick up a bottle of olive oil in a local retail store that's labeled "extra virgin," it may not be, says Kristin Kirkpatrick, a registered dietitian nutritionist with Cleveland Clinic.