Olive oil nutrients and types
Olive oil contains naturally occurring nutrients, including vitamins and antioxidants. Find out how they can support your health.
Olive oil has a fantastic nutrient profile and is full to the brim of vitamins and healthy fats to help support your body.
It’s these nutrients that provide olive oil benefits for your health. But, unless you’re a nutritionist, it can be pretty tough to figure out exactly what all of these nutrients are and what they do.
Unsurprisingly, their nutrient profiles can be different, so let’s spend a moment getting acquainted with the different types of olive oil.
What types of olive oil are there?
The most famous type of olive oil is extra virgin olive oil, sometimes known as ‘EVOO’. This kind of olive oil is unrefined and natural, and does not use heat or solvents in its production.
Virgin olive oil is also natural and unrefined, with no heat or solvents used during processing. However, it may be made from lesser quality olives and been pressed more than once to draw out more oil. It has a higher acidity level and is more suitable for sauteing and baking. Bear in mind that any type of olive oil is not suitable for deep frying.
Then we have refined olive oil. Unlike with natural oils, this oil may contain trans fats as well as a lower level of nutrients; the flavour will not be distinct. However, refined olive oil is cheaper and some may prefer to use it for cooking.
Pure olive oil is another grade with a misleading name. Rather than being pure as most people understand the word, this grade of olive oil is a mixture of virgin and refined oils. It is suitable for external use and may have an unpleasant odour when used in cooking.
Finally, pomace olive oil is the cheapest. Pomace is what is left over of the olive after natural oils have been extracted. To make olive pomace oil, producers treat this paste with chemical solvents, then, mix it with olive oil.
As you may have guessed, the more processing the olive oil undergoes, the more its nutrient profile is reduced. So, if you want the most nutrients in your olive oil, stick with a variety which is extra virgin, and cold-pressed.
Olive oil nutrients
So, now you know which type of olive oil to look for, let’s take a look at the goodness inside. Olive oil is a good source of:
- Vitamin E: This vitamin is a powerful antioxidant (1) (more on that below). Some studies have also linked it to a decreased risk of heart disease. (2)
- Vitamin K: Slightly less well known than vitamin E, vitamin K also has benefits for your body. It helps the blood clot and is needed to help wounds heal. It may also contribute to bone health. (3)
- Monounsaturated fats: Unlike saturated fats, which are thought to be bad for you when eaten in excess, monounsaturated fats are considered to be ‘good’ fats. You might also find them in foods such as avocados and nuts such as almonds and brazil nuts. Monounsaturated fats are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. (4)
- Oleic acid: This is a particular type of monounsaturated fat and is the primary monounsaturated fat in olive oil. Research has supported numerous benefits of oleic acid such as reducing inflammation and supporting the fight against cancer. (5)(6)
Antioxidants in olive oil
Extra virgin olive oil is also an excellent source of antioxidants. But what exactly are antioxidants, and what do they do?
There’s a lot of jargon around antioxidants, so bear with us!
Let’s start with free radicals. These are little molecules which are produced when oxygen molecules are broken down in your body. This can happen when your body is exposed to stress, for example from UV light.
While the molecules are in a pair, as oxygen, they are stable and happy. But when they’re split up into free radicals, they become very unstable and can cause lots of damage to your cells, such as ageing and disease.
‘An antioxidant is a substance which protects your cells from free radicals, preventing them from causing as much damage.’
Extra virgin olive oil naturally contains a range of antioxidants (phenol alcohols and acids, secoiridoids, lignans and flavones, if you want to get technical). (7)
What to avoid in olive oil
As mentioned, there are lots of types of olive oil, and some are healthier than others. For the most health benefits, we recommend the highest quality extra virgin olive oil you can find. But how can you tell which extra virgin olive oils are high quality?
First, this may seem obvious, but whichever extra virgin oil you choose should have nothing in it but olive oil! Some companies do mix other oils or preservatives in, and that’s not what you want.
Check the label to make sure there is nothing else lurking in your bottle — which shouldn’t be transparent. That is to say, olive oil goes rancid if exposed to light. Want chemical nasties in your food? Thought not! Make sure your bottle is tinted rather than clear. The date of harvest or date of bottling is significant for this reason. To clarify, the less oxygen that the oil has been exposed to, the longer it will stay fresh.
In the same vein, for top-quality extra virgin olive oil, your olives will have been picked less than 24 hours before they were pressed. This ensures freshness and high nutritional value. Good companies will make some indication of this on the label or literature.
You could also keep your eyes peeled for olive oil made from one type of olive which come from one place. Flavour is pure. There is no muddying with other types of olives grown elsewhere, under differing conditions. This is what single estate or estate nurtured olive oil means. Do you see the olive varietals on the label? If so, that’s another great sign of good olive oil!
How does organic come in?
Aren’t all extra virgins organic? The answer is no, not always — at least when it comes to olive oil! Organic olive oil is about how farmers grow the olives. It has nothing to do with how the oil was produced from these olives, which is where the extra virgin part comes in.
To be certified organic, the olives will have been raised without pesticides. According to this thinking, organic extra virgin olive oil must be the holy grail — or is it?
Olive trees are hardy and disease resistant. Many growers and consumers say these trees require a minimum of pesticides anyway. So do you really need to go organic?
The key factor to consider here is the amount of transparency you are getting about the product you’re eating.
Even if the farmer has not needed to use pesticides, you don’t have any guarantee that the olive trees have not been treated with chemical fertilisers, irradiation, or sewage sludge. There’s also no guarantee that they haven’t been grown from genetically modified seeds.
Can you be sure that the land has not been farmed in a way that is not conducive to long-term health — for soil, plants, or humans?
An olive oil certified organic gives you certainty about all of this. You will know how the oil you purchase affects the environment. Further, you will know more about what you are putting into your body.
Know where your olive oil comes from
Lastly, if you are a fervent olive lover — is there any other type of true olive lover?! — you will have noticed that, while the nutrients in the oil will be similar, Greek and Italian olives do taste different.
And then there are Croatian, Lebanese, and Spanish olives… and then the regions within each country! It might be worth your while to understand which country and region suits your taste the best, and know which producer of olive oil in that region you are buying from.
Is there a country, but no region, given on the label of your oil? Then it is possible that the olives themselves came from elsewhere and was only bottled in the given country.
You’ll now understand a bit more about why this is not optimal. Practises such as this as well as the diluting of natural olive oils with other types of oils are at the heart of discussions about the purity of certain olive oils.
As is probably obvious by now, at Erbology we’re huge fans of olive oil. Not only does it have an impressive nutrient profile, it can be used to create delicious dishes, or even to be eaten simply with freshly baked bread.
Olives have been harvested by humans since before history was recorded. The symbolism of olive trees is rich and resonant across cultures; the flavour of good olive oil transforms food and cooking from mere sustenance to spiritually satisfying. Honour all of this in your kitchen if you can, and history and humanity flows onto your plate from your bottle of olive oil.