Do you remember back when fat phobia was rampant with everyone seeking out assorted fat-free products? Sanity then prevailed and healthy fats found their way back to the dinner plate. But confusion reigns as to what are the smartest options. Do you go for extra virgin olive oil or extra light olive oil? And what about cooking canola oil versus olive oil?
Olive Oil Nutrition Facts
First things first. If you’re wondering about how many calories there are in olive oil, be aware that all liquid oils provide approximately the same number of calories — around 120 calories and 14 grams of fat in one tablespoon. The health benefits of olive oil really depend on the type of olive oil. Virgin olive oil is simply olive juice. It’s what you get when you press olives. The acidity of the oil, which can be affected by both the quality of the olives and harvesting techniques, determines the classification and whether any refining is needed.
Here’s a little primer on olive oil nutrition by type:
Virgin Olive Oil
Extra virgin oils are the least acidic and vary in taste depending on the variety of olive used. The term virgin refers to oils that are slightly more acidic than the extra virgin ones. Because they’re unrefined, these oils contain a wealth of phytonutrients with an assortment of health benefits, including monounsaturated fat, the same good-for-you fat found in avocados. It’s estimated there are over 200 of these different micro-components which are linked to protection against disease, including various forms of vitamin E, vitamin K, carotenoids and phenolic compounds (a type of antioxidant). The more aromatic and flavorful the oil, the higher the level of phenolics.
Regular Olive Oil
Regular olive oil are those oils which have high acidity levels or don’t meet appearance, taste or aromatic criteria, and as a result they must be refined. This could include processes such as deodorizing and removing color. It’s during the refining process that the phytochemicals are lost. The term olive oil on a label means that the oil has been refined, but according to International Olive Oil Council regulations, a small amount of virgin oil is added back.
Extra Light and Light Olive Oil
Extra light and light olive oils are the most highly refined of all of the olive oil varieties. Despite their name, they do not contain fewer calories or fat than more colorful, fragrant varieties. Unlike regular olive oil, extra light and light olive oils have no virgin olive oil added back. While all olive oils are monounsaturated fat and offer benefits for healthy blood cholesterol readings, it’s the micro-components that give extra virgin olive oil its health halo.
The Health Benefits of Olive Oil
Here are just a few of the growing list of health perks:
1. Extra virgin olive oil provides protection against cardiovascular disease.
In European research, scientists tested different extra virgin olive oils with varying phenol levels and their effects on blood cholesterol measures. The oil with the highest phenolic content boosted levels of the beneficial HDL-cholesterol the most and also had the greatest antioxidant power. In terms of artery health, antioxidants protect against oxidized cholesterol which is more easily deposited in arteries. The amount of another fat in the blood, triglycerides, also decreased.
If you’ve ever noticed an almost peppery taste or sensation at the back of your tongue with some extra virgin olive oils it’s due to a compound which acts in a similar fashion to aspirin in decreasing the likelihood of developing blood clots.
2. Extra virgin olive oil is a defense against certain cancers.
Much research has pointed to a lower incidence of some cancers, including breast, prostate, colon and melanoma cancer, in those who eat a Mediterranean Diet — an eating pattern where the predominant fat is olive oil and includes lots of vegetables, fruit, whole grains and nuts and seeds with only small amounts of meat.
A recent long term study evaluated the effect of the Mediterranean Diet supplemented with either extra virgin olive oil or nuts versus a low-fat diet on breast cancer incidence. Those subjects consuming the olive oil had a significantly lower risk of breast cancer.
3. Extra virgin olive oil protects against cognitive decline.
Extra virgin olive oil with its high antioxidant power and anti-inflammatory action may protect your brain and slow cognitive decline. Scientists speculate certain polyphenols contained may be responsible for these effects.
4. Extra virgin olive oil guards your vision.
Olive oil is linked to decreasing your risk of age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in older adults. But it’s not just consuming the oil on its own that offers the benefits. Eating plenty of produce packed with the pigment lutein, such as dark leafy greens, also protects your eyes but when you combine vegetables such as spinach with olive oil, the lutein is better absorbed with this oil than with others such as sunflower oil.
Canola Oil vs. Olive Oil
As for the health benefits of canola oil compared to olive oil, the canola is a very rich source of an omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). In fact, it has nine times the amount of ALA, an anti-inflammatory nutrient linked to a lower risk of heart disease, compared to olive oil.
Regular canola oil is a great substitution for extra virgin olive oil when you’re looking for a neutral-tasting oil for certain dishes. But when you’re looking at canola oil nutrition, be aware that there’s also cold-pressed canola oil available at specialty and health food stores. Like extra virgin olive oil, it contains more polyphenols than regular canola oil which is refined.
What’s Best for Cooking?
Contrary to popular belief, you can use extra virgin olive oil for cooking. Its smoke point (the temperature where an oil starts to breakdown and burn) of 410 degrees Fahrenheit is even a little higher than that of canola at 400 degrees.
For maximum taste, use small amounts of extra virgin olive oil when you’re cooking, such as sautéing vegetables or preparing a pasta sauce, and then add a splash when you’ve removed the food from the heat. It’s a way to retain all of the deliciousness of the various polyphenols, some of which can be lost when heated.
For storage, keep your extra virgin olive oil in a dark, cool spot as light and heat can shorten its shelf life. Bitter tasting oil may in fact be rancid. Also, fraud involving extra virgin olive oil (the mixing of oils) has become more common. Putting your oil in the fridge to see if it hardens can help you to confirm what’s in the bottle. If the contents are liquid, as opposed to slightly hard, then it’s not 100% olive oil.