Extra-virgin olive oil: Liquid gold or fool’s gold?
We bet you have at least one bottle of olive oil in the pantry, but is it really that healthy? HFG dietitian Brooke Longfield separates the good oil from the murky waters.
Do you choose olive oil based on its price, taste, place of origin or a combination of all three? As controversy swirls around how much fat we should consume, and some health experts advise us to eat more fat, one fact remains clear: Scientific research confirms that extra-virgin olive oil plays a positive role in a healthy diet.
Unfortunately, oils often ain’t oils, and supermarket shelves are lined with oily imposters. So here’s how to squeeze the maximum nutritional benefits from the right bottle.
Extra-virgin olive oil is the king of oils. Here’s why:
Extra-virgin olive oil is the first pressing of the olives. It delivers the best flavour, the most antioxidants and the least acidity (no more than 0.8 per cent).
Virgin olive oil is a lower grade of oil. It offers fewer of extra-virgin olive oil’s vitamins and antioxidants, along with inferior flavour and slightly higher acidity.
Pure olive oil is a more refined oil. After the first pressing, manufacturers use heat, additives and chemicals to extract the last drops. But refining the oil destroys most of its antioxidants.
Light olive oil is light only in colour and aroma thanks to its high level of refined oil. Remember: this oil isn’t low in fat or light in kilojoules compared with regular oils.
The bloom of youth
Olives are stone fruits, like plums and peaches, so extra-virgin olive oil is essentially freshly squeezed fruit juice. Think of the difference between a glass of home-made orange juice and a long-life carton of orange juice. Well, olive oils vary in the same way.
Every aspect of extra-virgin olive oil, from its taste to its health properties, peaks in the first few weeks after production. Although this oil can be just as complex as wine, it doesn’t improve with age! In fact, its flavour and aroma start to deteriorate from the minute it’s bottled, and this only accelerates when you open it.
Again, just like fresh fruit, fresh olive oil is full of antioxidants, but exposure to excess heat, light and oxygen can rapidly turn it rancid, adversely affecting its flavour and valuable health benefits.
Buy your extra-virgin olive oil in dark glass containers (or cans), and keep it well sealed in a cool, dark spot. As a general rule, you should also look for an oil that’s at least 12 months from its best-before date. Although it’s more economical to buy in bulk, choose a bottle that you’ll quickly empty (rather than hoard) to ensure optimal freshness.
The world’s healthiest oil
A wealth of global research proves that extra-virgin olive oil is the best oil for your health. Studies show that two to three tablespoons a day can lower blood pressure, and that people who include this healthy oil in their weight-loss program drop more kilos than those following a low-fat diet. Why? It’s simple: Fat is highly satiating, allowing you to go for longer hunger-free periods between meals.
Plus, extra-virgin olive oil is rich in healthy monounsaturated fat, which helps decrease ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol, and its antioxidants reduce oxidation of cholesterol and DNA, a process that research links to heart disease and cancer.
Cook with confidence
Heat can oxidise some oils and damage antioxidants, so should you cook with extra-virgin olive oil? Actually, studies show that even when you heat it to 180°C for 36 hours, this oil is resistant to damage. That said, some other healthy oils, such as canola oil and rice bran oil, have even higher smoke points. This makes them suitable for high-temperature cooking (like stir-frying), in which such oils are less likely to smoke and produce harmful by-products.
The liquid gold standard
Olive-oil labels that feature fancy illustrations and phrases such as ‘bottled in Italy’ can be misleading. These labels imply top quality, but they’re no guarantee that the oil was pressed in Italy, or that it’s even made from Italian olives!
In 2011, more than half of our supermarket extra-virgin olive oils failed to meet international standards, according to the Australian Olive Association, which also reported that 92 per cent of those oils were imported. Thankfully, our olive-oil industry is thriving — local oils hit stores faster! — and we also have an Australian Standard that guarantees the quality of any product bearing this symbol.
Always look for the Australian Certified Extra Virgin symbol to ensure you’re buying high-quality extra-virgin olive oil.
Your olive oil checklist
The words extra virgin on the bottle’s label
The Australian Certified Extra Virgin symbol
A dark glass bottle or can
A best-before date that’s at least 12 months away, or a harvest date that’s within the past 12 months
Oil colour, which ranges from pale yellow to green, depending on the olive variety
Phrases such as ‘bottled in Italy’ and ‘made from Spanish olives’
Decorative labels, which are no indication of quality
Bottles or cans far larger than you need. Fresh is always best!
Add more extra-virgin olive oil to your diet
Dress steamed greens with a tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil. This oil helps the body absorb vegetable carotenoids, powerful antioxidants that can protect against cancer.
Make a vinaigrette of one part balsamic vinegar to three parts extra-virgin olive oil.
Dip small pieces of grainy bread into dukkah and extra-virgin olive oil for a healthy alternative to fatty store-bought dips.