Extra Virgin Olive Oil - love it or avoid it!?

Extra Virgin Olive Oil - love it or avoid it!?

Ah, extra virgin olive oil. Often referred to by its acronym EVOO and affectionately named the ‘nectar of the gods’, it is not only ideal for drizzling over finished dishes and dipping warm bread into, but its existence is also tainted by myths – some of which we’re about to dispel.

Drawing on some of the brightest minds in their grove, we spoke with Executive Director of Cobram Estate Olives, Leandro Ravetti, with research from Olive Wellness Institute, and Zoe Bingley-Pullin, Nutritionist, Chef and Presenter to debunk five of the most common misconceptions about cooking with extra virgin olive oil and why it might just be the companion you’ve been looking for on your conscious cooking journey.

The history of olive oil and its different varieties

Many historians believe that olive oil first originated in the Mediterranean Basin or somewhere in the Middle East. In fact, olives themselves have even been found in Egyptian tombs from 2,000 BC!

Since ancient times, olive oil has been used in everything from cooking, cosmetics, medicine, soaps, and even as a fuel for traditional lamps. So, where does it come from? Well, from the olive tree’s fruit, of course! The oil is made by pressing whole olives through several stages, from harvesting to crushing, rinsing and pressing. 

Three different grades of olive oil are commonly made and marketed today, ranging from lower-quality olive-pomace oil (OPO) to medium-quality ordinary virgin olive oil, all the way through to the highest-quality extra virgin olive oil, which is incredibly versatile and a commonly used kitchen staple in homes across the globe.

Myth #1: Extra virgin olive olive produces trans fats

Despite being a staple of the world-renowned Mediterranean diet, one of the biggest misconceptions about extra virgin olive oil is that it produces trans fats, or trans-fatty acids (TFA), which are unsaturated fatty acids that come from either industrial or natural sources. 

In a recent study, Ravetti, alongside Ana Florencia de Alzaa from the Olive Wellness Institute and Claudia Guillaume, General Manager at Modern Olives, suggested that extra virgin olive oil is in fact made up of high monounsaturated fatty acids – in particular, oleic acid – and only tiny traces of trans fatty acid. 

Ravetti explained that – 

“EVOO contains high levels of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA) with just one double bond and low levels of linoleic and linolenic acids. These substances add to the oil’s health profile including being an essential role in anti-inflammatory responses and cardiovascular health. Monounsaturated fatty acids and oleic acids play an essential role in anti-inflammatory responses and cardiovascular health. ”

So, before you go drizzling your olive oil over everything, it’s worth noting that when cooking with any kind of oil, you’ll find a higher proportion of monounsaturated fats than what’s in the original food. However, unlike trans fats – some of which are contained in other types of oil – the kinds of fats contained in extra virgin olive oil are important macronutrients that play an essential role in many aspects of human health. 

Myth #2: Cooking with extra virgin olive oil destroys antioxidants

According to Ravetti, vegetables losing antioxidants “couldn’t be further from the truth” for a whole number of reasons. He shared that recent studies suggest that cooking with extra virgin olive oil:

  • Increases the antioxidants (total phenols) in food
  • Improves their properties and health benefits
  • Leads to some foods being better absorbed by the body.

One reason for this is thanks to the ‘juicy’ antioxidants from extra virgin olive oil that transfer into cooked food such as glucosinolates (found in broccoli and kale) and carotenoids (found in carrots).

So, it’s good news for lovers of pan-fried fresh produce or veggies such as tomatoes, onions, and garlic. We now know that cooking them in extra virgin olive oil will not only improve the bioavailability of protective plant compounds but can enhance their nutritional content. 

Myth #3: Heating extra virgin olive oil makes it toxic

While extra virgin olive oil has a relatively high smoke point of 376°F (191°C), it is safe to use for most cooking methods, including pan frying, sautéing and deep frying. 

According to Zoe Bingley-Pullin, where oil becomes more dangerous is when you heat and reheat the same oil multiple times, leading to the degradation of the fats and the production of toxic compounds, including acrolein. Acrolein is a highly reactive, toxic compound so it’s a good idea to avoid using the same batch of extra virgin olive oil, or any oil, for sautéing or frying many times over.

In a 2018 study published in the journal Acta Scientific Nutritional Health, scientists heated popular cooking oils and performed a range of tests. The results proved that extra virgin olive oil is the most stable oil of those tested when heated, followed closely by coconut oil and other virgin oils such as avocado and high oleic acid seed oils. 

Myth #4: Cooking with extra virgin olive oil is just as bad as cooking with seed and veggie oils

Both olive oil and vegetable oil contain unsaturated fatty acids, however, olive oil has more monounsaturated fats like oleic acid, linoleic acid, and palmitic acid. Some vegetable oils are high in omega-6 fatty acids and may lack micronutrients, and scientists have long believed that consuming too much omega-6 may cause increased inflammation and potentially lead to disease (however, the evidence for their direct impact is mixed). Olive oil, on the other hand, is made from pressed olives, with extra virgin olive oil being the least processed and containing the most beneficial compounds.

Myth #5: It doesn’t matter where your extra virgin olive oil comes from

While extra virgin olive oil is the conscious oil of choice and is used all around the world, Zoe explains the importance of locally grown extra virgin olive oil and the key things to look out for when reaching for a bottle:

“In Australia, we are fortunate to have access to some of the highest quality, locally grown EVOO. It’s important to take advantage of this and opt for locally-grown Australian EVOO. This is because it has travelled a shorter distance to reach us, which is not only better for the environment, but it means it is also fresher and will therefore taste better (and will more likely have retained more antioxidants, too!) Another key factor to look for is “cold pressed” and more specifically “first press” as these oils will also have retained more nutrients and antioxidants during the harvesting and bottling process and will overall be a better-quality oil.” 

We hope this article has helped debunk some myths you may have heard. Thank you for taking the time to learn more about why we’re passionate about supporting you in cooking healthily and consciously. A key aspect of this support is providing cookware free of harmful substances like PFAS toxins (PFOS, PFOA, PTFE) and heavy metals. Being mindful of your cooking, from using local ingredients to choosing safe cookware, can greatly improve your health and that of your loved ones. We believe that living intentionally and making conscious choices daily empowers us to live our best lives.

Looking for a delicious recipe using extra virgin olive oil? Visit our recipes page and other resources for conscious cooks.