Olive oil: Nutrition, benefits, uses, types, side effects

Have you ever considered the impact of your choice of cooking oil on your health? Olive oil, revered for its rich flavor and health benefits, is a staple in kitchens around the globe. 

Recent research spanning two large prospective U.S. cohorts, has illuminated the substantial benefits of olive oil. 

Findings indicate that those who consume more than half a tablespoon of olive oil daily exhibit a 15% reduced risk of total cardiovascular disease (CVD) and an even more significant 21% decreased risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) compared to non-consumers [1]. 

This comprehensive study underscores the potential of olive oil, when used instead of fats like margarine, butter, and mayonnaise, to enhance heart health significantly.

This article will explore everything you need to know about olive oil, from its nutritional content to its various types and potential side effects. Let’s discover how this ancient oil can be a modern-day superfood for your diet.

What is olive oil?

Olive oil is known for its robust flavor and its impressive nutritional profile. Monounsaturated fat, specifically oleic acid, is a primary component of olive oil, constituting about 55-83% of the total oil content [2]. 

This type of fat is highly beneficial for heart health, as it helps to lower bad cholesterol levels and maintain good cholesterol. Besides healthy fats, olive oil is a rich source of antioxidants like vitamin E and polyphenols. 

These substances combat oxidative stress in the body and contribute to the prevention of numerous health issues, including cancer and heart disease.

Olive oil’s nutritional content

NutrientAmount per tablespoon% Daily value (approx.)
Monounsaturated fats10 grams
Vitamin E1.9 milligrams13%
Vitamin K8.1 micrograms
PolyphenolsVaries
Calories119 calories

For the complete list of olive oil’s nutrient profile, visit the USDA FoodData Central

Olive oil vs other oils

When compared to other commonly used vegetable oils, olive oil stands out for its health-promoting properties. 

For instance, many vegetable oils such as canola, soybean, and corn oil contain higher levels of polyunsaturated fats, which, unlike the monounsaturated fats in olive oil, can lead to inflammation when consumed in excess. 

Furthermore, these oils often undergo extensive processing, stripping away beneficial nutrients and introducing harmful chemicals. 

In contrast, high-quality extra virgin olive oil is produced through mechanical pressing without heat or chemicals, preserving its natural nutrients and antioxidants.

Oil typeMonounsaturated fatsPolyunsaturated fatsProcessingAntioxidant contentHealth impact
Olive oilHigh (about 73% oleic acid)LowMechanical pressing (cold-pressed)High (rich in polyphenols and vitamin E)Reduces heart disease risk, anti-inflammatory, lowers cholesterol
Canola oilModerateModerateOften refined and sometimes hydrogenatedModerateHeart healthy but potential for inflammation when consumed in excess
Soybean oilLowHighRefined, bleached, and deodorizedLowMay contribute to inflammation; widely used in processed foods
Corn oilLowHighHighly refinedLowHigh in omega-6 fats, which can promote inflammation when unbalanced

This table highlights the distinctive properties of each oil, showing why olive oil might be the superior choice for health-conscious individuals due to its beneficial fat composition, minimal processing, and high antioxidant content.

How is olive oil produced?

Olive oil production is a meticulous process that combines traditional practices with modern technology, ensuring the highest oil quality reaches your table. 

Understanding how olive oil is produced can help you appreciate the value and effort behind each bottle.

Olive cultivation

Olive trees thrive in specific regions known for their Mediterranean climate—warm, sunny days and cool evenings. Key areas include parts of Italy, Spain, Greece, and newer regions like Latin America, Australia, the USA, and China [3]. 

Successful olive cultivation depends on the right type of soil, adequate sun exposure, and proper irrigation practices. 

Farmers often employ crop rotation and organic farming techniques to maintain the health and productivity of their olive groves.

Harvesting techniques

The method of harvesting olives has evolved over the centuries. Traditional harvesting involves hand-picking or using simple tools to gently shake the branches, allowing the ripe olives to fall onto nets spread below the trees. 

On the other hand, modern mechanization uses sophisticated machinery to shake the trees or comb the olives off the branches, significantly speeding up the process and reducing labor costs. 

However, many high-quality olive oil producers still prefer hand-picking to ensure the olives are harvested without damage, preserving the fruits’ quality and flavor.

Pressing and extraction

Once harvested, olives are quickly transported to the mill to prevent spoilage. Here, the olives are washed and then crushed into a paste using mechanical grinders. 

The traditional olive oil extraction method is cold pressing, in which the paste is pressed at temperatures below 27°C (80.6°F) to extract the oil without altering its chemical structure [4]. 

Modern methods may involve centrifugation, where the olive paste is spun to separate the oil from the water and solids. 

Cold pressing is highly valued for producing the highest quality extra virgin olive oil, which is rich in flavor and nutrients.

Filtering and bottling

After extraction, the oil may be filtered to remove solid particles and impurities, enhancing its purity and stability. 

The oil is then stored in stainless steel tanks under nitrogen to protect it from oxidation before being bottled in dark glass bottles or tins that further protect it from light and heat.

Quality control and certification processes

Quality control is paramount in olive oil production. The oil is rigorously tested for chemical composition and sensory characteristics. 

Certifications like PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) ensure the olive oil meets strict criteria for the region of origin and production methods [5]. 

These measures are crucial for maintaining the trust and safety of consumers, guaranteeing that the olive oil you choose is of the highest standard.

Each step in the production of olive oil is carefully managed to preserve its quality, flavor, and nutritional properties, making it a remarkable product valued worldwide.

How is olive oil produced?

What are the health benefits of olive oil?

Each component of olive oil plays a role in supporting different aspects of health, from heart health to longevity.

1. Heart health

The connection between olive oil and heart health is robust, backed by substantial evidence. Olive oil’s high monounsaturated fat content, particularly oleic acid, prevents cardiovascular disease. 

Regular consumption helps maintain the balance of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol levels [6], reducing the risk of heart disease

Furthermore, olive oil’s ability to lower blood pressure adds another layer of cardiovascular protection.

2. Anti-inflammatory effects

Olive oil contains oleocanthal, a compound with potent anti-inflammatory properties comparable to ibuprofen [7]. 

Chronic inflammation is linked to a variety of severe health conditions, including cancer, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and arthritis. 

You may reduce the underlying inflammation contributing to these conditions by integrating olive oil into your diet.

3. Antioxidant properties

Olive oil is rich in antioxidants, including vitamins E and K, and several potent polyphenols, which protect the body from oxidative stress and associated diseases. 

These antioxidants can neutralize free radicals, preventing cell damage and reducing the risk of chronic diseases.

4. Digestive health

Olive oil is beneficial for the digestive system. It stimulates the digestive tract, making food move smoothly through the colon [8]. This smoother passage can help improve gut health and prevent issues like constipation. 

Additionally, olive oil is beneficial in balancing the microbes in the gut, which is vital for maintaining overall health.

5. Longevity and disease prevention

Regular consumption of olive oil has been associated with increased longevity. Studies suggest that olive oil’s fatty acids and antioxidants can help decrease the overall risk of chronic diseases [9]. 

Additionally, populations consuming diets high in olive oil, such as those in Mediterranean regions, often exhibit longer lifespans and lower death rates from heart diseases and cancer.

What are the four types of olive oil?

Olive oil comes in various grades, each distinguished by its production method, flavor profile, and best culinary uses. Understanding these differences can help you choose the right type for your needs.

1. Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)

EVOO is the highest quality olive oil, characterized by its extraction process and flavor. 

It is made from the first cold pressing of the olives, a mechanical process that doesn’t involve heat or chemicals, thus preserving the oil’s natural flavors, vitamins, and minerals. 

EVOO has a low acidity level, typically below 0.8% [10], and is noted for its fruity, peppery flavor and its aroma of fresh olives. It’s ideal for dressings, drizzling over dishes, and other uses where its rich flavor can shine without being cooked away.

2. Virgin olive oil

Virgin olive oil is a step below EVOO in terms of quality but is still made through a similar mechanical process. 

The key difference lies in its slightly higher acidity level (up to 2%), which may have a less intense flavor than extra virgin varieties. 

This type of olive oil is suitable for cooking as it retains some of the flavors and antioxidant properties but is more forgiving when used at higher cooking temperatures than EVOO.

3. Refined olive oil

Refined olive oil is made by treating low-quality or defective virgin olive oil with charcoal and other chemical and physical filters. 

The refining process removes major flaws, producing a more neutral flavor and lighter color. It has the same fat composition as virgin olive oil but lacks the same level of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. 

Refined olive oil is commonly used for high-heat cooking and deep-frying, where its neutral flavor and high smoke point are beneficial.

4. Olive pomace oil

Olive pomace oil is the lowest grade of olive-based oil. It is extracted from the olive pulp after the initial pressing has removed the bulk of the oil. 

Solvents and heat are typically used to extract the oil from the pomace, and the final product is often blended with some virgin olive oil to enhance its flavor and aroma. 

Olive pomace oil is suitable for high-heat cooking and is often used in restaurants for frying because of its cost-effectiveness and high smoke point.

Oil typeBenefitsUsesProduction method
Extra virgin olive oilRich in flavor, high in antioxidants, low acidity, preserves natural vitamins and minerals.Dressings, drizzling over dishes, dipping oil.Extracted through mechanical pressing without heat or chemicals. First cold press of olives.
Virgin olive oilLess intense flavor than EVOO but retains many health benefits.Cooking at medium temperatures, light sautéing, baking.Similar to EVOO but allows for slightly higher acidity (up to 2%). Second pressing or lower quality first press.
Refined olive oilNeutral flavor, higher smoke point, lacks some nutrients compared to virgin oils.High-heat cooking, frying, deep-frying.Made from lower quality virgin oils using chemical and physical filters to remove flaws.
Olive pomace oilCost-effective, suitable for high-heat cooking, higher smoke point, less flavorful and fewer health benefits.High-temperature cooking, industrial kitchens, deep-frying.Extracted from the olive pulp after the initial pressing using solvents and heat. Often blended with some virgin oil.

Which type of olive oil is best?

EVOO is widely considered the premium choice for its superior taste, nutrient profile, and health benefits. 

It is extracted through mechanical processes without heat or chemicals, preserving the natural flavors and antioxidants. 

EVOO is best used in applications where its robust flavor can be appreciated, such as in salads, drizzled over dishes, or as a dipping oil.

Virgin olive oil is a practical choice for cooking at higher temperatures, such as sautéing or frying. It retains some of EVOO’s health benefits and flavors but can withstand higher cooking temperatures without degrading.

Refined olive oil, while lacking the complex flavors and some of the antioxidants found in virgin oils, is suitable for high-heat cooking due to its higher smoke point.

Finally, the least expensive olive pomace oil offers fewer health benefits and is best reserved for high-temperature cooking where its neutral flavor and high smoke point are useful.

Thus, the best olive oil depends on balancing flavor, cooking needs, and nutritional benefits for your specific requirements.

olive oil culinary uses

What can olive oil be used for?

Olive oil is a versatile ingredient that plays an integral role in various aspects of daily life, from the kitchen to cosmetic and medicinal applications.

Culinary uses

Olive oil is a staple in the culinary world, esteemed for its robust flavor and compatibility with various cooking methods. Here are some of the most popular culinary applications:

  • Cooking – Ideal for sautéing and shallow frying, olive oil enhances the flavor of foods without overpowering them.
  • Baking – A healthier alternative to butter, olive oil can be used in baking to add moisture and subtle flavor to cakes, breads, and pastries.
  • Dressings and marinades – Its rich texture and flavor make it perfect for vinaigrettes, dressings, and marinades, helping to infuse herbs and spices into dishes.

Skin and hair care

Beyond the kitchen, olive oil is highly valued in beauty regimens for its hydrating properties and natural antioxidants.

  • Skin care – As a moisturizer, olive oil is known for its ability to nourish and soften the skin, which is particularly effective in combating dryness [11].
  • Hair care – It can also be applied to hair as a mask or serum, offering a natural treatment for enhancing hair strength and adding shine.

Medicinal and therapeutic uses

The benefits of olive oil extend into medicinal applications, both traditional and contemporary.

  • Traditional remedies – Historically, olive oil has been used to soothe abrasions, ease the discomfort of sunburn [12], and as a base for herbal infusions.
  • Modern applications – Today, it’s recognized for its anti-inflammatory properties, contributing to dietary supplements and used in formulations to support heart health and reduce the risk of chronic diseases.

Does olive oil have any side effects?

Olive oil is revered for its numerous health benefits and culinary versatility. However, like all foods, it has potential side effects and considerations that should be noted.

1. Allergies and sensitivities

While rare, some individuals may experience allergic reactions to olive oil. Symptoms can include skin rashes, eczema, or gastrointestinal discomfort [13]. 

If you suspect an allergy to olive oil, it is crucial to consult with a healthcare provider to confirm the allergy and discuss alternatives or management strategies.

2. Caloric content

Olive oil is high in calories, providing about 120 calories per tablespoon [14]. Its rich content of healthy fats can contribute to weight gain if consumed in excess. 

To incorporate olive oil into your diet without disrupting your caloric balance, consider using it to replace other fats rather than adding it on top of your current fat intake.

This will help manage your overall calorie consumption while enjoying olive oil’s benefits.

3. Smoke point and cooking

The smoke point of an oil is the temperature at which it begins to break down and produce harmful free radicals and toxic fumes. 

Extra virgin olive oil has a smoke point of around 375-410°F (190-210°C) [15], which makes it suitable for medium-heat cooking. 

However, high-heat cooking methods such as deep-frying, refined olive oil, or other oils with higher smoke points might be more appropriate. 

Using olive oil within its smoke point ensures you maximize its health benefits without generating harmful compounds.

How to choose and store olive oil

Here are some tips on how to choose high-quality olive oil and keep it at its best.

Selecting olive oil

  1. Check the label – Look for oils labeled as “extra virgin” since this indicates the highest quality olive oil with excellent flavor and maximum nutrient content.
  2. Harvest date – Opt for bottles with a “harvest date” rather than an expiration date. Olive oil is best used within a year of harvest.
  3. Origin – Consider the oil’s origin. Olive oils from a single region or farm are often higher quality than blends from multiple origins.
  4. Certifications – Seek out oils that have certifications from official organizations, such as the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) or the European Union’s PDO and PGI labels, guaranteeing a product that meets strict production standards.

Olive oil storage 

  1. Keep it cool and dark. Store olive oil in a cool, dark place away from light and heat, as these can quickly degrade the oil’s quality. Avoid storing it above the stove or on a sunny countertop.
  2. Use the correct container. Olive oil is best kept in dark glass bottles, stainless steel containers, or other opaque materials to protect it from UV light.
  3. Tight seal. Ensure the container is tightly sealed to minimize exposure to oxygen, which can accelerate the degradation and rancidity of the oil.
  4. Use timely. Even properly stored, olive oil should be used within six months to a year after opening for the best flavor and health benefits.

Closing thoughts

Olive oil is a versatile kitchen staple and nutrition powerhouse that enhances your meals and health. We’ve explored its abundant benefits, from its essential role in cooking and natural beauty treatments to its impressive health perks. 

With this knowledge, you can select the best olive oil for your needs and keep it fresh for maximum flavor. 

Make olive oil a central part of your diet and explore its variety. Why not start your taste tests with different brands and types to discover your favorite? 

Dive deeper into the rich world of olive oils and let it transform your cooking and health regimen.

FAQs

How healthy is drinking olive oil?

Drinking olive oil can provide significant health benefits, including enhancing heart health and reducing inflammation due to its high content of monounsaturated fats and antioxidants. However, moderation is key due to its high-calorie content.

Does olive oil help hair grow?

Olive oil can promote hair growth by improving scalp health and increasing blood flow to hair follicles. Its antioxidants also help protect against damage and strengthen hair.

Is it good to eat olive oil every day?

Eating olive oil daily can benefit your health by reducing heart disease risk and providing healthy fats and antioxidants. However, moderation is crucial due to its high caloric content.

Is it safe to put olive oil on your face?

Applying olive oil to the face is generally safe and can hydrate skin and provide antioxidants, but those with oily or acne-prone skin should use it cautiously.

[1] https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/circ.141.suppl_1.P509
[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7982730/
[3] https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/pharmacology-toxicology-and-pharmaceutical-science/olive-tree
[4] https://farmselite.com/cold-press-olive-oil-extraction-process/
[5] https://agriculture.ec.europa.eu/farming/geographical-indications-and-quality-schemes/geographical-indications-and-quality-schemes-explained_en
[6] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022227520323518
[7] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21443487/
[8] https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/313416
[9] https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/harvard-study-high-olive-oil-consumption-associated-with-longevity
[10] https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/virgin-olive-oil
[11] https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321246
[12] https://www.eatingwell.com/article/7969477/can-drinking-olive-oil-help-heal-your-sunburn/
[13] https://allergylosangeles.com/allergy-blog/olive-allergy-an-overview-of-clinical-presentation-diagnosis-and-management/
[14] https://exauoliveoil.com/blogs/olive-oil/calories-in-olive-oil
[15] https://www.souschef.co.uk/blogs/the-bureau-of-taste/sunflower-oil-vs-olive-oil-for-cooking 

The information included in this article is for informational purposes only. The purpose of this webpage is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.