Olive is not just a dietary staple in the Mediterranean region, but also enjoys the reputation of being a healthy oil in the United States. It is valued not only for its flavor, but also for its range of wellness benefits. Learn more about this plant-based oil — its uses (why I recommend drizzling it cold on salads, not cooking with it), health value, and how to identify and avoid good oil that's gone bad.
What Is Olive Oil?
Olive oil is pressed from fresh olives and is made mainly in the Mediterranean, mostly in Italy, Spain, and Greece. It is available all year round. Just like in wine-making, several factors affect the character of the oil, including climate, soil, and the way the olives are harvested and pressed.1
The flavor, smell, and color of olive oil can vary significantly, based on its origin and whether it is extra virgin (finest grade) or not. Generally, the hotter the country, the more robust the flavor will be.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grades olive oil based on flavor, odor, absence of defects, and acidity. Extra virgin olive oil is described as having an excellent flavor and odor, and a free fatty acid content of ≤ 0.8g per 100g (0.8 percent).2
Uses of Olive Oil
Olive oil can be flavored with herbs and spices, which you can steep in the oil for 10 days or so. If you're using chili, you need far less time.
However, it's important to note that olive oil is not recommended for cooking — I prefer using it cold, usually drizzled on salads and other foods. Extra-virgin olive oil's chemical structure and its large amount of unsaturated fats make it very susceptible to oxidative damage when used for cooking. Whenever you need an oil to cook with, I recommend using coconut oil instead of olive oil, other vegetable oils, butter, margarine, and other oils.
Good Housekeeping3 lists several surprising uses of olive oil, including for healthy skin. Olive oil has been used for centuries for moisturizing skin, partly because of its linoleic acid. You can consume the oil, apply it directly on skin, or add a bit to a warm bath for a good soak.
Olive oil can also be used as a safe, natural lubricant for a close shave and as a soothing aftershave (rub on an extra teaspoon of it after you rinse off). It can also help soothe chapped lips — make a balm by mixing olive oil and melted beeswax in a 1:1 ratio, and add an essential oil for fragrance. According to the website AltUse.com, it can also moisturize your cuticles when you apply it directly before applying polish or buffing nails.
Composition of Olive Oil
One hundred grams (3.5oz) of olive oil has 100 grams of fat — monounsaturated (77 grams), polyunsaturated (8.4 grams), and saturated (13.5 grams).4
Apart from its large amount of unsaturated fats that make it very prone to oxidative damage, extra virgin olive oil has a significant drawback even when used cold: it's still extremely perishable. It contains chlorophyll that accelerates decomposition and makes the oil go rancid quite quickly.
Benefits of Olive Oil
Olive oil is touted for a number of beauty benefits,5 including the following:
- Moisturizing skin
- Improving skin elasticity and its regenerative properties
- Providing antioxidants and good fats to fight free radicals and facilitate skin healing
- Reducing under-eye wrinkles
- Massaging dry, flakey scalp or dandruff
- Massaging frizzy hair or split ends (lightly warmed olive oil)
But its benefits are not only skin-deep. Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fats, helping lower your risk of heart disease. It may even benefit insulin levels and blood sugar control, and therefore potentially lower your risk of type 2 diabetes.
Good-quality olive oil contains important vitamins and nutrients and is loaded with antioxidants.6 This oil is also noted to be gentle on your digestive system, and may help in preventing gallstones and soothe ulcers.
How to Make Olive Oil
The craft of making olive oil has been mastered in the Mediterranean region over thousands of years now. Each grower can have a unique way of tending the trees and producing the oil. The trees are matured for several years before they produce olives.7
After olives are picked, they are washed and the leaves, twigs, and stems are removed. Afterwards, they are processed to extract the water and oil, which are then separated. The olive oil is stored in stainless steel containers at about 65 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent breakdown before bottling and shipping.
Extracting oil from olives is better reserved for expert growers and producers, but you can immediately enjoy high-quality olive oil in your salads and other no-cook recipes. Here is one you can try:
Thyme Chicken Salad
2 cups dark-meat chicken, cooked & chopped
1/2 cup raw cashews
2 stalks organic celery, chopped
Small handful organic fresh Italian parsley, chopped (may also use curly parsley)
2 teaspoons fresh thyme, chopped
1/3 cup red onion, chopped
1/2 cup to 1 cup fresh, raw cream
1/2 teaspoon prepared mustard
Splash of organic olive oil
Juice of ½ lemon
- Place chicken, cashews, celery, parsley, thyme and onion in medium-sized bowl.
- Add lemon juice, raw cream and mustard (the secret ingredient).
- Add splash of organic olive oil.
- Mix well.
How Does Olive Oil Work?
Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), which are found in both plant and animal sources, such as olives and olive oil, nuts and seeds, and avocado.
Some of the possible benefits of this type of fat include:8
- Decreased breast cancer risk — A study of women in Sweden found that those whose diets were higher in monounsaturated fats (compared to polyunsaturated fats) showed less frequent incidence of breast cancer.
- Reduced LDL or "bad" cholesterol level
- Lower risk for heart disease and stroke — Diets high in MUFAs are linked to a healthy heart and fewer strokes.
- Weight management — Research has found that switching to monounsaturated fat from diets with trans fat resulted in weight loss.
- Less severe pain and stiffness for rheumatoid arthritis (RA) sufferers
- Reduced belly fat — A study by the American Diabetes Association linked diets with monounsaturated fat with better belly fat loss than high carbohydrate diets.
Is Olive Oil Safe?
As previously mentioned, olive oil is ideal as a salad dressing and should not be used for cooking, as it can be easily damaged by heat. Polyunsaturated fats, which include common vegetable oils such as corn, soy, safflower, sunflower, and canola, are the worst oils to use — they have double bonds that make them highly susceptible to heat damage.
Here are four signs of defective olive oil, as reported by The Olive Oil Times:9
- Rancidity – Remember that rancid olive oil smells like crayons, tastes like rancid nuts, and has a greasy mouth feel. So beware of leaving your bottle of olive oil right on the counter, opening and closing it multiple times in a week. Any time it is exposed to air and/or light, it oxidizes. The chlorophyll in extra virgin olive oil speeds up the oxidation of the unsaturated fats.
Treat olive oil as you would other sensitive omega-3 oils by keeping it in a cool and dark place, purchasing smaller bottles instead of larger ones to ensure freshness, and immediately replacing the cap after each pour.
- Fusty oil – Your oil should not have a fermented smell to it, reminiscent of sweaty socks or swampy vegetation. See this quality on table olives — brown and mushy Kalamata-style olives show the flavor of fusty.
- Moldy olives – If your olive oil tastes dusty or musty, it's likely because it was made from moldy olives.
- Wine or vinegar flavor – If it tastes like it has undertones of wine and vinegar, it's probably because the olives underwent fermentation with oxygen, which leads to the sharp, unpleasant flavor.