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Spotlight on Extra Virgin Olive Oil

By Michelle Dudash, RDN

Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) holds an undeniably large place in the Mediterranean diet. From the French Riviera to the Middle East to North Africa, EVOO has been a staple ingredient in these Mediterranean countries for centuries. In the United States, EVOO has gone mainstream, and the market is projected to continue to grow as consumers drizzle, bake, sauté, dip, and drink EVOO with their favorite foods and beverages.1

While the first olives grew in southern Europe near the Mediterranean Sea, today, the largest Mediterranean countries producing olives include Spain, Italy, Greece, Tunisia, Turkey, and Morocco.2 The United States produces a small amount of EVOO. However, with a climate similar to the Mediterranean region, California is the largest producer in the United States.3

In the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, olive oil is the only oil included and is listed at the base of the pyramid and with every meal, along with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and spices. Olive oil also is included in the African Heritage Diet, among other oils.

Nutrient Content
Perhaps the nutritional crown jewel of EVOO is its fat profile. Olive oil is certified by the American Heart Association as a heart-healthy food due to its high content of monounsaturated fat.4 The FDA recommends consuming 2 T olive oil in place of saturated fat.

One tablespoon of EVOO contains 120 kcal and 14 g total fat, including 11 g monounsaturated fat, 2 g saturated fat, and 1 g polyunsaturated fat.5

The beautiful green and gold colors presented in EVOO come from polyphenols found naturally in olives. Oleocanthal and oleacein (antioxidant polyphenols), for example, have been studied for antiplatelet aggregation and anticancer effects.6,7 It’s important to note that olive oil polyphenols largely have been studied in vitro, making more in vivo studies necessary to understand the effects.

The first milling of olives reaps the richest polyphenol content. As olives travel further down the processing continuum, fewer polyphenols remain in olive oil, as is the case for refined olive oil.

Grades of Olive Oil
The USDA has developed grades of olive oil to reflect quality levels. These grades may be used voluntarily by producers, suppliers, buyers, and consumers8:

• EVOO and virgin olive oil may be obtained only from the fruit of the olive tree and without solvents or additives.

• Virgin olive oil isn’t fit for human consumption without further processing.

• Olive oil is a blend of refined olive oil and virgin olive oil and is commonly marketed as “pure olive oil.”

• Refined olive oil is flavorless, odorless, and obtained from virgin olive oils.

• Olive-pomace oil is made from crushed olive remnants left over from higher grades of olive oil. Solvents or other treatments are used to extract the oil. Alpha-tocopherol may be added to restore natural compounds lost during processing.

David Garci-Aguirre, vice president of operations at Corto Olive Oil in Northern California, says, “Extra virgin olive oil is essentially juiced fruit, using a simple mechanical process that celebrates the fruit.” By contrast, he says, “Pure and pomace oil are highly refined and often extracted with solvents to separate the oil, resulting in flavorless, colorless, processed fats.”

What About Extra EVOO?
Your clients may have seen bottles labeled “extra, extra virgin olive oil.” But is this description accurate?

Garci-Aguirre says it is: “The term itself has no legal meaning and might be confusing, but the idea behind it is profound.” He says, “‘extra, extra virgin,’ ‘beyond extra virgin,’ whatever you want to call it, is an attempt at distinguishing fresh, high-quality olive oil from an extra virgin category that has become dominated by commoditized low-quality oil.”

How to Store Olive Oil
Olive oil should be stored in a cool, dark place away from heat and light to maximize shelf life and protect its antioxidant content. An open bottle of olive oil stored properly can stay fresh for three months.9 For unopened bottles, shelf life can vary due to a variety of factors, so it’s important to follow the manufacturer’s best-by dates. When in doubt, give it a whiff. Oil with a rancid odor indicates oxidation and shouldn’t be consumed.

To help prevent spoilage, suggest clients buy the quantity they’ll use well before the oil expires, such as an 8-oz bottle, a 3-liter tin, or an oxygen-free bag-in-the-box.

EVOO in Recipes
In addition to drizzling olive oil over salads or dunking a piece of bread in it, there are endless culinary applications to explore.

• Spaniards drizzle olive oil onto breakfast toast and on the famed pan con tomate (toasted bread rubbed with garlic and tomatoes).

• A bottle of olive oil is part of the table setting in France and Italy.

• In the Moroccan soup harira, EVOO is used generously to toast spices and sauté vegetables.10

• The Egyptian-style omelet eggah relies on olive oil throughout the cooking process for vegetables, meat, and the addition of the eggs.

Frying With Olive Oil
One common myth that continues to perpetuate in the United States is that you shouldn’t cook with EVOO. But, in fact, Italians fry zucchini in EVOO. Rich Lemon Olive Oil Cake, which is baked, celebrates olive oil’s complex, fruity taste.

“It’s an absolute myth, as modern studies show that fresh, high-quality olive oil is one of the healthiest cooking oils,” Garci-Aguirre says. “Not only is fresh, high-quality olive oil composed of heat-stable fats but, because it’s unrefined, it contains natural polyphenols that significantly increase the stability of the oil when heated.”

Drinking Olive Oil
Not only can one fry with olive oil, but one can drink it, too. Italians are known for sipping olive oil neat to reap health benefits. Starbucks recently decided to take this practice one step further by launching the Oleato, a coffee drink containing EVOO, in Milan and select US cities.

Janet Helm, MS, RDN, a food and nutrition consultant in Chicago, tried the Starbucks Oleato Caffè Latte with Oatmilk, and says, “I experienced an appealing and bit of a smooth nutty taste. After a few more sips, the olive oil flavor became overwhelming, so I’ll be sticking to my usual order at Starbucks without the olive oil.”

EVOO is a rich part of Mediterranean cuisine and can be used in your clients’ favorite recipes and at the table. With simple swaps, clients easily can incorporate olive oil into a daily regimen to take advantage of its health benefits.

— Michelle Dudash, RDN, is a Cordon Bleu-certified chef; author of Clean Eating Kitchen: The Low-Carb Mediterranean Cookbook (Fair Winds Press, 2021) and Clean Eating for Busy Families, revised and expanded (2019); and creator of Spicekick® Seasoning Mix: Your Sidekick in the Kitchen.

1. North America olive oil market – industry trends and forecast to 2029. Data Bridge Market Research website. https://www.databridgemarketresearch.com/reports/north-america-olive-oil-market. Updated August 2022. Published 2022.

2. Olives. Agriculture Marketing Resource Center website. https://www.agmrc.org/commodities-products/fruits/olives. Updated February 2023. Accessed April 21, 2023.

3. What are the main olive oil producing countries? Aceite de Las Valdesas website. https://www.aceitedelasvaldesas.com/en/faq/varios/produccion-aceite-de-oliva-por-paises/. Accessed April 21, 2023.

4. NAOOA’s American Heart Association’s Heart Check® Program. North American Olive Oil Association website. https://www.aboutoliveoil.org/heart-check. Updated May 7, 2021. Accessed April 24, 2023.

5. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. FoodData Central. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/589060/nutrients. Updated July 6, 2018. Accessed April 24, 2023.

6. Extra virgin olive oil. US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. FoodData Central. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/2353616/about. Updated October 28, 2022. Accessed April 24, 2023.

7. Gorzynik-Debicka M, Przychodzen P, Cappello F, et al. Potential health benefits of olive oil and plant polyphenols. Int J Mol Sci. 2018;19(3):686.

8. United States Department of Agriculture. United States standards for grades of olive oil and olive-pomace oil. https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/Olive_Oil_and_Olive-Pomace_Oil_Standard%5B1%5D.pdf. Published October 25, 2010. Accessed April 24, 2023.

9. How long does olive oil last? North American Olive Oil Association website. https://www.aboutoliveoil.org/how-long-does-olive-oil-last. Accessed April 25, 2023.

10. Feller M. Eating From Our Roots. Goop Press; 2023.