Recently I read this article from the Washington Post, which described how certain olive oils really aren’t as healthy as their name implies.  Before you jump to conclusions and throw away your olive oil to replace it all with coconut oil, here is a summary the article.

Source: iStock Photo

Why is Olive Oil so good for us?  There are several reasons why olive oil is a top pick for health, but most importantly it’s because of its polyphenol content.  Polyphenols, you ask?!  What the heck are those??  To put it simply, they are plant nutrients.  They are found naturally in many of your favorite fruits, vegetables, and even green tea and chocolate.  Polyphenols may;

1)  Reduce your risk for cancer by decreasing inflammation in your body
2)  Reduce your risk of heart disease by reducing inflammation and lowering blood pressure
3)  Act as antioxidants and reduce cell oxidation and damage (which typically is what leads to diseases like heart disease and cancer)

But, do all olive oils have the same polyphenol content?  You guessed it…..NO! According to  the article, the following may effect an olive oil’s polyphenol content;

  • Harvesting method: Rougher treatment and exposure to the elements reduces phenols (I’m still not really sure which harvesting method is best, as the article didn’t really go into this).
  • The age of the trees: Older trees contain significantly more (polyphenols).
  • Olive maturation: Green olives contain more polyphenols than ripe olives, though it’s easier to extract more oil from riper olives.
  • Processing: The less processing the better. “Extra virgin” olive oil, which is cold-pressed only once, has the highest polyphenol levels.Two presses (“virgin” olive oil), reduces polyphenol content further, and oil with three extractions contains only about half the value of “virgin” olive oil. Highly refined or “light” olive oils, which use heat or chemicals in the refining process, have significantly lower polyphenol levels (NOTE:  “light” does NOT imply less calories or fat!)
  • Storage: Any exposure of the harvested olives or the oil to heat, light or air will reduce polyphenol content. (If you’re using extreme heat in cooking, you’ll most likely lose the polyphenols anyway, so you might as well use canola oil, which contains more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.)

So what should you look for when buying olive oil? 

  • Harvest date. The earlier, the better.
  • Color is NOT an indicator of freshness or quality.  So, don’t be fooled into thinking the greener olive oils are better.
  • Buy olive oil in a container that protects the oil from light. That could be dark glass or a tin.
  • Olive oil should smell fruity and taste like olives (freshness is important). Some describe high-quality olive oil as “grassy” or “peppery.” (have you ever sipped olive oil? Try it sometime, you should taste a peppery flavor in the back of your throat).
  • For maximum nutrition, quality and flavor, ideally, the olive oil you buy should not be more than one year old. It should say “extra virgin.” It should be harvested carefully, processed quickly and minimally, stored in a cool dark environment, and opened and used without too much exposure to air. (NOTE:  Extra-virgin olive oil is best for cold dishes, such as salads.  Use regular olive oil, or even canola oil for your high-heat cooking).

Keep in mind olive oil has other benefits, aside from polyphenols, such as its high monounsaturated fat content.  Many of the benefits of polyphenols (ie: lowered cholesterol and blood pressure, as well as reduced inflammation) can be attributed to monounsaturated fats as well.  So, polyphenols don’t get all the credit.