You may have heard olive oil is “good for you”, but how can we practically use that information, particularly to stay healthy during the COVID-19 crisis? What is “extra virgin” olive oil, how do we store it, and how do we safely cook with it? I’ll discuss the role of olive oil in a healthy lifestyle and discuss how it can help risk factor reduction for severe COVID-19 infection and cardiovascular risk – in short, correct use of olive oil can help us stay healthy during COVID-19, but it will also result in life-time benefits!
Life-time benefits: strong evidence shows olive oil reduces cardiovascular disease
In fact, for the first time, a large study in the United States has shown the health benefits of olive oil. Two large cohorts (nearly 83,000 people) were followed over 24 years and showed reduced rates of heart attacks. This strongly supports large studies from Europe.
Cardiovascular risk factors are implicated in severe COVID-19 infection
In previous posts we’ve discussed the recurring risk factors for severe COVID-19 infection:
These risk factors funnel into the same risk cardiovascular diseases that olive oil protects against. While we certainly don’t have any direct evidence for olive oil against COVID-19, the evidence supporting olive oil to protect against the cardiovascular diseases that worsen COVID-19 infection support the use of olive oil in our healthy lifestyle.
How can we practically use this information?
Simply start by replacing saturated fats with olive oil in your cooking and meal preparation.
All oils are high in calories, so replace the unhealthy calories with healthy calories for an easy health gain
- Based off our data, all it takes to start is 0.5 tablespoons of olive oil a day to gain cardiovascular disease protection.
- Replacing margarine, mayonnaise, butter, and dairy fats with olive oil similarly reduces cardiovascular disease.
So swap the ingredients when you can! Remember, oil is high in calories, so the easy way to benefit is replacing other high calorie fats/oils that are less nutritious with olive oil. While I do not advocate “calorie counting”, it is still important to recognize the context of calories in our diet (a topic for another post).
What makes olive oil “extra virgin” and does it matter?
Is virgin olive oil better or more healthy?
Let’s summarize the differences in olive oil. Note that all forms contain the healthy monounsaturated fats, but differ in other ways:
- Refined olive oil (“regular olive oil”) = Most refined form. May be able to withstand slightly higher heat but has less nutritional value.
- Virgin olive oil = Less refined form. Contains higher concentration of polyphenols*.
- Extra virgin olive oil: Least refined oil with no excessive heat used in extraction. Contains high concentration of polyphenols* (possibly more than others).
- Extra virgin is the “first press” of the olive and is the “best”, most vibrant tasting.
- “Cold pressed” refers to the extraction process. Heat damages the oil and reduces its shelf life and nutritional value. Many modern oil productions use centrifuges and avoid heat.
*Polyphenols = antioxidants believed to confer many of the health benefits of olive oil
How to store olive oil?
Heat and light cause oils to break down and go rancid, losing nutritional value. That’s why olive oil is sold in dark containers.
Rancidity is the stale taste and odor we experience from oil that has “gone bad” and oxidized. This is undesirable because we lose the taste and nutritional value. This means we should:
- Store oils in cool, dark places. You can place olive oil in the refrigerator but it will become solid and cloudy. That’s okay because you can let them liquefy again before use.
- Chose extra virgin olive oil and “cold pressed” oil whenever possible. Try to avoid heat treated oils for this reason.
Tip: buy small quantities of high quality oil to prevent it from going rancid. It tastes better, is healthier, and you save money.
How to safely cook with olive oil?
What is the “smoke point” and how do we avoid it to stay healthy?
There is much confusion around cooking with olive oil. Let’s focus on the smoke point of olive oil to clarify why we recommend low temperature cooking with olive oil.
Smoke point is the temperature the oil begins to “burn” or form smoke. This makes the oil or fat bitter and forms harmful free radicals.
Olive oil’s smoke point depends on many factors but can be summarized as:
- Lowest: extra virgin olive oil: ~350F.
- Medium: virgin olive oil: ~420F.
- Highest: “regular” olive oil: 390-470F.
Accordingly, we can safely use olive oil in these ways (and substitute margarine!):
- Raw: salad dressing, dipping, mixing with food (like pasta), drizzling.
- Light/quick sautee or low oven temperatures
- Avoid roasting, broiling, grilling, pan frying (temperatures can exceed the smoke point!).
Note on olive oil scandals
Olive oil scandals involve mixing high grade olive oil with refined olive oil or cheaper oils from other plants. I always recommend third party testing before purchasing a product. I also recommend viewing the UC Davis resource center on what to look for in your olive oil. This likely also makes clinical studies less accurate, too, because some studies may not have had true extra virgin olive oil. Fortunately, the rate of adulterated oils appears low on the average, with 3 of 88 tested brands chemically revealing adulteration in a recent study.
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The information provided in this post in intended for general education. It is not medical advice. While I make every effort to provide the most up-to-date information, please note that new data is continuously becoming available and may change the conclusions I present here.