Olive oil has become very popular over the past few decades. It is recommended by health gurus of every description. Why has interest in olive oil skyrocketed? Extra virgin olive oil is popular for two main reasons.
First, ‘extra virgin’ olive oil is unrefined, meaning that it is not damaged by the usual industrial processing applied to what are known in the industry as RBD oils: refined with harsh chemicals, bleached and ‘deodorized’ at destructively high temperatures (160-245°C or 320-450°F—the temperatures we use when frying). These processes are unnecessary for olive oil because the oil is pressed from the flesh, not the seed, of the olive and is then floated off on water. As a result, extra virgin olive oil is less damaged than the colorless, odorless, tasteless oils sold in grocery stores. You don’t get one million plus damaged molecules for every one of your body’s 60 trillion cells in one tablespoon like you do with cooking oils. Extra virgin olive oil is far less processing-damaged than cooking oils. That’s a really big deal.
The second reason for extra olive oil’s popularity is that it is relatively stable. That’s because it contains virtually none of the highly delicate essential omega-3, and only 10% of the oil is the less delicate essential omega-6. 80% of the oil is omega-9 (mono-unsaturated oleic acid), which is not essential for health. You don’t have to spend a lot of time making sure that the oil is treated with the special care required for oils that are rich in essential fatty acids.
Since you get virtually none of the super-energizing essential omega-3 and only small amounts of the also essential omega-6, you’re just eating fat as an energy source, but with only small health benefits. In short, olive oil is highly overrated.
Rarely do I use olive oil. My main reason is that there are other unrefined oils made with health in mind that have much higher amounts and far better ratios of the two essential nutrients that come from fats and oils. More specifically, you get better results for health with an oil containing both omega-3 and omega-6 made without damage by complete protection from light, oxygen and heat while being pressed, settled, filtered, and filled.
Extra virgin olive oil has some other down sides. Olive trees grow very slowly. This means that expanding the supply takes a long time. As a result, the rate at which the demand for extra virgin oil has grown in recent times has far outstripped its supply.
There are also olive oils, usually sold as ‘virgin’ or ‘pure’ olive oils, which have been treated like the colorless, odorless, tasteless cooking oils; damaged by refining, bleaching and deodorization. Some suppliers of olive oil mix extra virgin or even processed olive oil with cheaper oils but mis-label the mixture as ‘extra virgin’ olive oil. You think you’re getting one thing when you’re actually getting another. How do you know? You don’t. You can get screwed both on quality and on price. It is important to know your source of olive oil. As much as possible, get to know growers, suppliers and shippers that you can trust. That is easier said than done.
Really high-quality olive oil will solidify in the fridge, or it will at least develop small oil crystals that float in the oil. If this does not happen, you can assume that the oils has been doctored and it is best to not used (or bought) again.
Olive oil is often associated with the Mediterranean Diet, which is said to be associated with longer life and better health. It sounds good. We should all be eating that diet and its foods. There’s only one problem. What exactly does the Mediterranean Diet consist of? It depends on whom you ask. The emphasis on fresh vegetables and fruits is good for health. The oil is so-so. The major issue with the Mediterranean Diet today is its recommendation that people should get their omega-3 from eating fish. That might have been a good idea in the past, but the research now shows that fish has become the dirtiest meat on the planet. Sorry to break it to you. Every poison that we throw into our environment ends up in waterways, goes downhill and lands in the ocean, where it remains. Poison works its way (concentrates) up the food chain.
The Mediterranean Diet as ingested in most countries today emphasizes pasta and noodles of many different kinds. However, research makes it clear that whole grains are substantially better for health and long life than white flour and the products made with it. In the past, whole grains were used instead. This means that the Mediterranean Diet was better than it is today. Be aware of that.
Wine is also associated with the Mediterranean Diet. But research blows the cover on this one too. Alcohol shows a strong correlation with breast cancer. In fact, research has recently shown that even one alcoholic drink per day is already one too many for good health. Alcohol, concludes research, is poison and any alcohol at all hurts your health. That is not news. We know from our own experience that it temporarily poisons our brain. It also poisons liver function.
Common sense and research tell us that eating whole olives is better for health than using olive oil. And frying foods with olive oil will fry your health, so don’t do it. Frying damages oils, damages carbohydrates (sugars and starches) and damages proteins. Fried (overheated), each one of these three increases the risk of inflammation and cancer, independent of the others. You can learn more about the dangers of frying in my upcoming book Your Body Needs an Oil Change: How to Use Good Oils to Look, Feel, Think, Do, & Heal Better.
Your consumption of fruits and vegetables is one of the most reliable and important predictors of your health and longevity, no matter what you call the diet you adhere to. Eating more of plant-based whole foods, and less animal products (eggs, fish, chicken, turkey, lamb, beef, pork, and dairy) is the direction to go. Milk sugar is also not impressive in its effect on the body. Even a calf only drinks cow milk briefly to get its bones going, and then it’s off to a fabulous diet of grass. You should do that, too, except switch out the grass for broccoli and other greens. Finally, animal-based proteins are more acidic than plant-based proteins, and are associated with less healthy, shorter lives. But, if you choose to eat only plant-based, make sure you’re eating unprocessed whole foods, and take a vitamin B12 supplement.
Here’s a short summary. Because they are essential for life and for health, omega-3 and 6 are hugely more important than even the best olive oil. If you cut to the chase on health, olives are much better, and olive oil just is not the hero it’s been made out to be, or that we thought it was.
Udo Erasmus has extensive education in biochemistry, biology and an MA in Counseling Psychology from Adler University. He is the author of Fats and Oils, Fats That Heal Fats That Kill, Choosing the Right Fats, Omega 3 Cuisine, The Book on Total Sexy Health, and the upcoming Your Body Needs an Oil Change: How to Use Good Oils to Look, Feel, Think, Do, & Heal Better. Udo is the creator of Udo’s Oil® 3·6·9 Blend, a multiple award-winning mix of plant-based, unrefined, certified organic food oils made with health in mind.