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Olive oil is a major component of the Mediterranean diet. It is rich in antioxidants. The main fat it contains is monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), which experts consider a healthful fat.

The antioxidants in olive oil may help protect the body from cellular damage that can lead to a range of health conditions and diseases. Extra virgin olive oil has a bitter flavor, but it contains more antioxidants than other types, as it undergoes the least processing.

In this article, find out more about the health benefits of olive oil and find some ideas on how to use it.

a person pouring olive oil into a cooking pan Share on Pinterest
A person can use olive oil when cooking.

Olive oil comes from olives, the fruit of the olive tree. Olives are a traditional crop of the Mediterranean region. People make olive oil by pressing whole olives.

People use olive oil in cooking, cosmetics, medicine, soaps, and as a fuel for traditional lamps. Olive oil originally came from the Mediterranean, but today, it is popular around the world.

In the diet, people preserve olives in olive oil or salted water. They eat them whole or chopped and added to pizzas and other dishes.

They can use olive oil a dip for bread, for drizzling on pasta, in cooking, or as a salad dressing. Some people consume it by the spoonful for medicinal purposes.

Which are the most healthful oils? Find out here.

Many studies have looked at the health benefits of olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil, which is the best quality oil available, is rich in antioxidants, which help prevent cellular damage caused by molecules called free radicals.

Free radicals are substances that the body produces during metabolism and other processes. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals.

If too many free radicals build up, they can cause oxidative stress. This can lead to cell damage, and it may play a role in the development of certain diseases, including certain types of cancer.

Olive oil and the cardiovascular system

Olive oil is the main source of fat in the Mediterranean diet. People who consume this diet appear to have a higher life expectancy, including a lower chance of dying from cardiovascular diseases, compared with people who follow other diets. Some experts call it “the standard in preventive medicine.”

A 2018 study compared the number of cardiovascular events among people who consumed a Mediterranean diet, either with olive oil or nuts, or a low-fat diet.

People who consumed the Mediterranean diet, whether with olive oil or nuts, had a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease than those on the low-fat diet.

According to the authors of one 2018 review, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authority recommend consuming around 20 grams (g) or two tablespoons (tbs) of extra virgin olive oil each day to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and inflammation.

Results of a 2017 study suggested that the polyphenols in extra virgin olive oil may offer protection from cardiovascular disease, atherosclerosis, stroke, brain dysfunction, and cancer. Polyphenols are a type of antioxidant.

Metabolic syndrome

Metabolic syndrome is a condition characterized by a group of risk factors that increase disease risk, including obesity, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar levels.

Authors of a 2019 meta-analysis concluded that olive oil in a Mediterranean diet might improve features of metabolic syndrome, such as inflammation, blood sugar, triglycerides (fats in the blood), and low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol. In contrast, it appears to increase levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good” cholesterol.

Which foods help lower blood pressure? Click here to find out.

Depression risk and olive oil

In 2013, a rodent study suggested that ingredients in extra virgin olive oil may help protect the nervous system and could be useful for treating depression and anxiety.

Two years before, scientists had found evidence that people who ate trans fats, which is an unhealthful fat that features in fast foods and premade baked goods, were more likely to have depression than those who consumed unsaturated fats, such as olive oil.

How can diet impact depression? Find out here.

Olive oil and cancer risk

Some studies have suggested that substances in olive oil may help reduce the risk of breast cancer, but not all findings confirm this.

According to research published in 2019, olive oil contains substances that may help prevent colorectal cancer. Lab tests have found evidence that antioxidants in olive oil may help protect the body from inflammation, oxidative damage, and epigenetic changes.

Can diet impact a person’s risk of cancer? Find out here.

Alzheimer’s disease

In 2016, some scientists suggested that including extra virgin olive oil in the diet may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. This may be due to its protective impact on blood vessels in the brain.

Authors of a mouse study published in 2019 suggested that consuming oleocanthal-rich extra virgin olive oil could help slow or stop the progression of Alzheimer’s. Oleocanthal is a phenolic compound that occurs in extra virgin olive oil.

Olive oil and the liver

A 2018 review of laboratory studies found that molecules in extra virgin olive oil may help prevent or repair liver damage.

The oil’s MUFAs, which are mainly oleic acid, and its phenolic compounds appear to help prevent inflammation, oxidative stress, insulin resistance, and other changes that can result in liver damage.

Olive oil and inflammatory bowel disease

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) causes inflammation of the digestive tract. Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are types of IBD.

A 2019 review found that phenols in olive oil may help boost intestinal immunity and gut health by changing the microbes in the gut. This could be useful for people with colitis and other types of IBD. The authors noted that more human studies are needed to confirm these results.

Find out more about the Mediterranean diet.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 1 tbsp, or 13.5 grams (g) of olive oil, provides:

  • 119 calories
  • 13.5 g of fat, of which 1.86 g is saturated
  • 1.9 milligrams (mg) of vitamin E
  • 8.13 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin K

It also contains traces of calcium and potassium, as well as polyphenols, tocopherols, phytosterols, squalene, and terpenic acids and other antioxidants.

When buying olive oil, it is best to choose an extra virgin olive oil, as this undergoes less processing and is more likely to retain its antioxidant content. Extra virgin olive oil has a high smoke point of 376 °F (191°C), so it is safe to use for most cooking methods.

The USDA grade olive oil depending on its flavor, odor, absence of defects, and acidity.

U.S. Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO): This has an excellent flavor and odor, and a free fatty acid content of 0.8 g or less per 100g (0.8%).

U.S. Virgin Olive Oil: This has a reasonably good flavor and odor, and a free fatty acid content of 2g or less per 100g (less than 2%).

U.S. Virgin Olive Oil Not Fit For Human Consumption Without Further Processing: This is a virgin oil of poor flavor and odor. It is not intended for food use.

U.S. Olive Oil: This is an oil mix of both virgin and refined oils.

U.S. Refined Olive Oil: This is an oil made from refined oils with some restrictions on the processing.

These grades are voluntary. Producers do not have to label their products.

In many countries, including the U.S., manufacturers process “light” or “extra light” olive oils with heat and chemicals to take out impurities. The color and flavor are lighter compared to virgin olive oils. Producers may blend light olive oil with other oils.

Tips for use

Tips for using olive oil include:

  • drizzling it on a salad or adding it to a salad dressing
  • drizzling it on a freshly made bread
  • using it when making bread
  • using it instead of other fats when frying or sautéing

Try the following recipes:

  • Crisp rosemary and olive oil flatbread
  • Spaghetti with olive oil, chili, and garlic
  • Poor man’s potatoes

Frying in olive oil

According to a review published in 2017, frying food in olive oil may help maintain and even improve its nutritional value. This is because the food takes up antioxidants that transfer from the oil.

Olive oil is available for purchase in groceries and online.

Q:

I once heard that heating olive oil changes its chemical composition and makes it toxic. Is this true?

A:

This is a common misconception. Research has shown that extra-virgin olive oil has a relatively high smoke point of 376°F (191°C), and is safe to use for most cooking methods, including frying.

However, when people fry in olive oil for a long time, this can lead to degradation of the fats and the production of toxic compounds, including acrolein. Acrolein is a highly reactive, toxic compound that may cause cellular damage when people swallow it. So, as long as you are using olive oil for sautéing or frying and not for prolonged frying methods, it’s perfectly healthy.

Some research has shown that pan-frying produce such as tomatoes, onions, and garlic in olive oil improves the bioavailability of protective plant compounds, such as carotenoids and polyphenol antioxidants. Therefore, cooking with olive oil may enhance the nutrition of your recipe.

Jillian Kubala, MS, RD Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.