Benefits of olive oil
You’ve heard us talk about extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) as an important part of the Mediterranean diet we recommend, but what is it about this superfood that makes it so a powerful for brain health?
Numerous studies support the benefits of a Mediterannean eating pattern for health, especially due to the diet’s emphasis on EVOO. Compounds such as monounsaturated fats, antioxidants, and biophenols are particularly rich in olive oil and may have brain health benefits.
Monounsaturated fats make up 55 to 83 percent of EVOO, while the rest is made of other fatty compounds such as linoleic, palmitic, and stearic acids. Though these healthy fats help contribute to the nutrition of EVOO, recent studies suggest that the most powerful compounds in extra virgin olive oil makeup only about 2 percent—phenols, phytosterols, and tocopherols¹. These antioxidants are responsible for the oxidative stability of EVOO, as well as for its distinctive taste, color, and smell¹. Phenols, specifically, are not found in other oils². These compounds are major contributors to the stability and health benefits of EVOO.
One 2016 study found that a Mediterranean diet with high EVOO intake can help improve cognition³. In the study, participants who were older adults with high risk for heart disease, diabetes, or obesity were assigned to either the Mediterranean diet with an emphasis on EVOO consumption or to a low fat control diet for about five years.
Those who were assigned to the Mediterranean diet and the EVOO supplementation showed improved frontal function in the brain—the area associated with memory, language, and problem-solving³. Meanwhile, the control group who followed the low fat diet actually showed a decline in cognitive function.
In addition, participants in the Mediterranean and EVOO group also had a reduced incidence of cardiovascular disease by 30 percent³. This can likely be attributed to the biophenol compounds (antioxidants) found in olive oil which can help improve blood flow, help neuron signaling in the brain, and stimulate neurogenesis (formation of new brain cells)³.
Other ways that olive oil biophenols may benefit our brain health (directly or indirectly) include improving blood pressure and cholesterol levels, improving blood sugar regulation, reducing amyloid plaque build up, and improving cognitive performance⁴.
How to buy and store your olive oil
Now that we’ve convinced you to eat more olive oil, you may be wondering how to select from the huge array of choices in the oil aisle at the store. Olive oil comes in many varieties, including pure, virgin, extra virgin, pomace, light, and more.
Prices range from $2 to $20 per bottle, and could be from any of a number of origins, both domestic and international.
Not all EVOO is created the same—it’s important to check the label while browsing at the grocery store to ensure you purchase the best quality product. We’ve got several olive oil selection tips to guide you.
First, only buy extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). This is the highest quality, least refined option.
Extra virgin means “first cold press.” Cold pressed refers to the way the oil was extracted from olives—without the addition of heat, which would alter the nutritional compounds of the fruit².
Unrefined oil means that it went through less processing than refined oil, which has additives to help it last longer on your shelf. Refined oil will have less beneficial compounds than unrefined oil though, which is why suggest looking for unrefined.
Second, look for a dark glass or metal bottle. Why? EVOO is prone to oxidation, which degrades its powerful compounds we described. Packaging material, temperature, and light can all affect the quality of your EVOO, so be sure to purchase it in a dark bottle and store it away from excess heat and light exposure (not by the stove!)⁵.
Be sure to read the label for care instructions.
Third, fresh is best! Look for a harvest date within the past 12-18 months, and use up your bottle within 3 months of opening.
Here’s a video you can watch by clicking the image about buying olive oil:
Some of you may recall an olive oil fraud scandal highlighted on 60 Minutes a few years ago, but the information that circulated on the web was misleading. Reports suggested that up to two-thirds of the extra virgin olive oil on grocery store shelves was “fake,” or diluted with other, cheaper oils.
According to the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA), that information was based on a small sample only in the state of California and was not a replicable test, meaning the findings were unreliable.
Chemical lab tests are the only way to certify the authenticity of an olive oil, states the NAOOA. According to the NAOOA’s annual testing of hundreds of olive oils, at least 98 percent of olive oil sold in the U.S is authentic.
If you have any concerns about the authenticity of an EVOO, both the NAOOA and the California Olive Oil Council offer a list of certified and approved olive oils on their site. We highly recommend browsing these portals for additional information and tips on olive oil!
Authentic doesn’t always mean high-quality, though. Don’t forget to follow our three tips above; buy extra virgin olive oil in a dark bottle with a harvest date in the past 12-18 months (or sooner).
Can you cook with olive oil?
There’s a common misconception that you shouldn’t cook with EVOO, due to its low smoke point—but this is not true.
Extra virgin olive oil is incredibly stable, especially in comparison to other types of oils. In one study that observed chemical changes in oil exposed to heat, extra virgin olive oil had the lowest level of polar compounds and oxidative products—both of which are associated with increased risk for disease⁶⁷. Though each specific type of oil has a smoke point (EVOO’s smoke point is between 350 and 410 degrees Fahrenheit), this does not mean that the oil will be stable at that smoke point⁶.
Canola oil, for example, produced high levels of polar compounds at its smoke point, the study found. This means that even though a certain oil can be used to cook at higher temperatures, we need to consider how stable that oil is under that amount of heat.
EVOO, although known for having a fairly low smoke point, has superior stability at that temperature. This is mostly due to the antioxidants and monounsaturated fats that make up EVOO.
The stability of olive oil means that it can hold up to cooking better than is commonly believed, but that doesn’t mean it’s advisable to cause it to smoke. A good rule of thumb is to use low to medium heat with olive oil. As long as it doesn’t smoke or burn, it’s okay.
How to boost your olive oil intake
So, how much olive oil do you need, and how do you get it all in? We recommend aiming for about 2 tablespoons of EVOO each day. Ideally, at least some of that should be unheated for maximum biophenol content.
One of the easiest ways to get in your olive oil is to make homemade EVOO-based salad dressings and use them liberally. These can be as simple as drizzling EVOO and vinegar or lemon juice on your salad, or you can find dozens of tasty dressing recipes online. Watch out for recipes that use a lot of sugar (or honey, or other sweeteners). You should only use enough to take the edge off the bitterness from the vinegars.
Here is a formula for a basic homemade vinaigrette (adjust ingredients to taste):
- 1 to 2 parts good quality EVOO (more olive oil for a milder dressing, less olive oil for a tangier dressing)
- 1 part vinegar of choice (balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, lime juice, etc.)
- 1 small squirt mustard (optional—mustard is an emulsifier and helps the dressing mix better; you won’t taste a tiny bit)
- 1 pinch salt
- 1 splash (about 1 tsp.) pure maple syrup or honey (honey takes longer to dissolve than pure maple syrup)
Put the above ingredients in a jar, close the lid, and shake until mixed. Adjust ingredients to taste if needed before drizzling over your salad.
The beauty of the formula above is that it can be adapted to almost any flavor combination. Here are a few of our favorite recipes to inspire you.
We love this infographic from Cook Smarts with dressing recipes and 50 Salad Combinations to change up your salad game.
Want to make it even more simple? Drizzle olive oil over your salad, drizzle vinegar or lemon/lime juice over your salad, and dig in.
In conclusion, extra virgin olive oil is nutritiously packed with compounds that will do good for your brain—it stands out from its other oil competitors with its chemical stability under heat and its high amount of powerful antioxidants.
Remember to look for extra virgin, cold-pressed, and unrefined varieties in a dark bottle, and don’t hesitate to do your research if you have concerns about the authenticity of a purchase.
Pay attention to the storage of your EVOO, and don’t be afraid to cook with it at medium or low heat. Aim for about 2 tablespoons a day to reap the benefits of EVOO!
We hope this post gave you some insight and some ideas on how to choose your olive oil and how to incorporate it into your regular diet.
1. Agostini, C., Leone, L., Mazzocchi, A., & Pali-Scholl, I. The secrets of the mediterranean diet. Does olive [only] olive oil matter? 2019. Nutrients 11(12). Doi: 10.3390/nu11122941
2. Gomez-Delgado, F., Lopez-Miranda, J., Lopez-Moreno, J., & Yubero-serrano, E.M. 2018. Extra virgin olive oil: More than a healthy fat.2018. European journal of clinical nutrition 72 pp. 8-17. Doi: 10.1038/s41430-018-0304-x
3. Corella, D. et. al. Mediterranean diet and age-related cognitive decline: A randomized clinical trial. 2015. JAMA internal medicine, 175(7) pp. 1094-1103. Doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.1668
4. Omar, S.H. Mediterranean and MIND diets containing olive biophenols reduces the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease. 2019. International journal of molecular sciences, 20(11). Doi: 10.3390/ijms20112797
5. Li, X. & Wang, S.C. Shelf life of extra virgin olive oil and its prediction models. 2018. Journal of food quality. Doi: 10.1155/2018/1639260
6. De Alzaa, F. Guillaume, C., & Ravetti, L. Evaluation of chemical and physicl changes in different commercial oils during heating. 2018. Acta scientific nutritional health, 2(6) pp. 2-11. Pdf https://www.actascientific.com/ASNH/pdf/ASNH-02-0083.pdf.
7. Can we reuse cooking oil, once it is utilized for frying foods? Food smart consumer. 2017. Retrieved from https://foodsmart.fssai.gov.in/reusingoil.html