The king of edible oils, olive oil is well known for its health benefits and for its wide range of flavours and culinary uses. But not all olive oils are created equal. If you need to know which olive oils are better for your health, or which are more suitable for a particular cooking purpose, check out this article on how to choose olive oil.

Olive Oil Background

Olive oil is primarily a Mediterranean product, although the United States and Australia also produce significant quantities. The world’s largest producer of olive oil is Spain – it’s crop accounts for around 45% of total global olive oil production.

Though olive oil is generally associated with food and cooking, it is also used in soaps, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and as a fuel (most traditionally as a lamp oil).

Olive oil is extracted by crushing olives to a paste and then removing the oil. The removal of the oil can be done purely by mechanical means (simply squeezing the oil out) or by a combination of heat and chemical processes.

Why We Love Olive Oil

Olive oil is a favourite among health-conscious people for two reasons. Firstly, it is a monounsaturated oil. Monounsaturated oils help reduce total cholesterol levels and, more importantly, reduce levels of low density lipoproteins (LDL), also known as “bad cholesterol”, in the body.

In addition, olive oil contains polyphenols – powerful natural antioxidants which help the body eliminate dangerous free radical molecules and minimise cellular inflammation – both contributors to coronary heart disease.

Olive oil also contains phytochemicals which may help protect against cancer.

Olive Oil Grades

Choosing olive oil involves deciding between several different grades. Broadly speaking, the different grades of olive oil depend on the level and type of refinement the oil has been subjected to. When you choose your olive oil, bear in mind the classifications listed below – they can have an important impact on both the oil’s health benefits and its suitability for certain types of cooking.

Note: some grades of olive oil depend on a particular “acidity rating”. As olive oil degrades, fatty acids are released from the oil’s glycerides. This causes the acidity level of the oil to rise. The more degraded the oil is, greater its acidity. The acidity level of olive oil is measured by the percentage of free oleic acid it contains.

Extra virgin olive oil: this is the absolute best olive oil you can get and it is the richest in phytochemicals and polyphenols. To be classed as extra virgin the oil must derive from the first pressing of the olives (i.e. not from olive pulp that has previously had oil extracted) and the oil must be extracted by mechanical means only, without the use of heat or chemicals. It must have an acidity rating of 0.8% or less.

Virgin olive oil: also produced by mechanical means from a first pressing, this oil has a slightly higher acidity rating of between 1% – 4%. As virgin olive oil does not undergo chemical refinement it is, like extra virgin oil, a good source of antioxidant chemicals.

Olive oil or “Pure” olive oil: this grade of olive oil is made from oil that has been refined by heat or chemical means (producing an essentially odourless oil) and then mixed with a small amount of virgin olive oil to return some flavour. The refining process removes significant quantities of the health-giving nutrients contained in extra virgin and virgin olive oils.

Light and Extra light olive oil: the “lightness” in these oils refers to their taste and viscosity, not their calorific content – they are just as calorific as virgin olive oils. The lighter quality is achieved by even more refinement (and an even greater subsequent reduction in their health benefits).

Which Oil for Which Dish?

While it is clear that extra virgin and virgin oils are the best choices as far as your heart goes, they are not the best in every cooking situation. Virgin olive oils have a low burn  or “smoke” point and so are not suitable for high temperature cooking such as frying or sautéing. When a food oil hits its smoke point it starts to degrade and oxidise, producing free-radicals – the very things you’re probably trying to reduce by eating olive oil.

Extra virgin and virgin olive oils are therefore best added after cooking (drizzled over a steak, say) or used for dipping with bread or on salads and in marinades. They have a stronger flavour than their refined brothers.

The refined grades of olive oil have higher smoke points and are more suitable for roasting and frying and for dishes that benefit from a lighter-flavoured oil.

Freshness and Storage

The fresher the oil, the less it will have degraded and the greater will be its anti-oxidant properties. Olive oil has a shelf-life of between one and two years – so always check the use-by date.

Light contributes to the degradation of olive oil so, when choosing olive oil, go for varieties sold in dark glass bottles or in tins.

To prolong the life of your olive oil store it in a cool, dark place.

Health and Taste

Olive oil combines two characteristics that any food-interested person prizes: great taste and positive health benefits. To get the best of these characteristics, though, remember to choose your olive oil carefully – refined for high temperature cooking, extra virgin for maximum antioxidants.

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