Once called “the great healer” by Hippocrates and “liquid gold” by Homer, extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) has been praised for its positive effects on health for centuries, starting with Galen, a physician, surgeon, and philosopher in the Roman Empire. A versatile oil used not just for consumption and cooking but also for perfume, soap, massage oil, lighter fuel, and to produce medicine and cosmetics, EVOO has been the foundation of great wealth and power throughout history (1).
But have times changed? Have the broad and unenforced standards for EVOO led to a consumer market that’s inundated with knockoffs? And, if so, can the average consumer distinguish quality differences to select an oil that honors tradition and delivers the health benefits even the ancient Greeks and Romans knew about?
Well, let’s take a look. But before we dive into quality standards, let’s quickly learn a little about EVOO.
According to the USDA, one tablespoon of EVOO contains 124 calories, 14 g fat (of which 10.2 g are monounsaturated and 1.47 g are polyunsaturated), 0 g carbohydrates, 0 g protein, 0 g fiber, 2.01 mg vitamin E, and 8.43 µg vitamin K (2). Its high content of monounsaturated fatty acid drives the beneficial effects of the oil, but other compounds like squalene, tocopherols, and polyphenols lend a helping hand.
Research suggests that consuming about two tablespoons of high-quality EVOO daily, in conjunction with a healthy diet and exercise, may reduce the risk of heart disease and overall cancer incidence while preventing overweight and obesity, neurodegenerative diseases, and type 2 diabetes (3, 4, 5, 6, 7). It may also reduce inflammation, stimulate immune health and longevity, and give you glowing skin (8, 9, 10).
If that’s not liquid gold, I don’t know what is.
No wonder it remains the primary fat source in the Mediterranean. Defined by physiologist Ancel Keys in the 1960s, the Mediterranean diet focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats. It’s low in saturated fat and high in vegetable oils like olive oil.
And it’s working.
Year after year, the Mediterranean diet is recognized as the gold standard approach to living and eating. It’s recommended by the Food and Drug Administration, the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, the American College of Cardiology, the American Cancer Society, the Arthritis Foundation, and the Alzheimer’s Foundation (11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17). It’s even been named one of three healthy diet patterns to follow in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines by the USDA (18). That’s because it’s a sustainable diet and lifestyle that often supports those who follow it well into their 100s. And they’re living well.
Forget about finding the fountain of youth –– it’s time to drink liquid gold.
Sounds simple, right? Well, it’s not. Unfortunately, like gold, not all EVOO is created equal. In fact, most olive oil isn’t what it says it is. Nearly 70% of imported olive oil samples fail international and USDA standards for EVOO (19).
It’s clear, just as there are different purity levels of gold, there are different purity levels of oil. Think about it like this …
10k: generic, cheap, supermarket oil sold in plastic bottles with no flavor
14k: average, run of the mill oil that starts to have a flavor profile
18k: good oil you can taste and smell
24k: high-quality, non-commercial organic oil that is smooth, elegant, and balanced
I don’t know about you, but I’ll take the 24k version, thank you.
But, with so many low-quality options available, how do we ensure the oil we’re purchasing meets liquid gold standards?
Here’s what I recommend –– don’t commit to anything too large, and try a few. As you use them, look for one that smells and tastes fresh, has fruity notes, and possibly a bitterness and spiciness. That means it’s young and alive with healthy antioxidants.
If you want more direct guidelines, check out the list below:
– select less commercial more artisanal brands
– look for dark glass bottles as it protects the oil from damaging light
– choose early harvest fruit
– look for a brand whose farmers don’t use GMOs, additives, preservatives, or dies
– go for organic when you can
– root yourself in tradition with an Italian oil from small family farms
– make sure it’s cold pressed
– find a transparent brand you trust (I recommend Olivaio)
Once you find an oil that’s right for you start to use it with everything from baking to dipping to sautéing to frying.
I’ll leave you with the recipe for my favorite Sicilian salad. It has just a few ingredients and can be thrown together in minutes. You can make it for one or serve it at a dinner party. It’s also a perfect backdrop for high-quality oil.
Sicilian Fennel and Orange Salad
– 1/4 red onion, thinly sliced
– 1 small fennel bulb, thinly sliced (a few fronds saved for garnish)
– 1 blood orange (or regular), peeled and sliced
– a handful of oil-cured black olives
– a generous drizzle of high-quality EVOO
Place the first three ingredients in a bowl. Drizzle with oil and gently toss. Top with olives and fennel fronds.
Kelly Powers, MA, RDN is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with a master’s degree in Food Studies. Kelly is the creator of 52 Weeks, a weekly meal plan program that helps users get back in the kitchen and feed themselves well. She is also a co-founder of Olivaio, a high-quality organic Italian EVOO company that ships directly to your door.