(Maia James) One of the main reasons that the “Mediterranean diet” leads to better health and a longer lifespan is almost certainly thanks to all the olive oil it includes. But all olive oil is not created equal!
Yes, we should always buy organically grown, extra virgin olive oils, but there are further nuances between oils that make some types of olive oil far superior.
Phenols make olive oil medicine
Perhaps the most important characteristic of olive oil is the health-producing high-phenolic compounds that some possess. Two of the very best phenols are oleocanthal, a natural anti-inflammatory agent, and oleacein, a potent antioxidant.
Some of the benefits of phenols (also known as polyphenols) include:
- Reduction of harmful cholesterol
- Treatment of inflammatory conditions, including asthma
- Lowering of blood pressure
- Protection against many types of cancer
High-phenolic olive oils are much more than food—they are truly medicinal. Unfortunately, polyphenols degrade over time, so ideally you’ll choose an olive oil that is less than one year old and that had very high phenol levels at the time of its bottling.
You should also select oils that come in dark glass and store them in a cool place (but not the refrigerator!) to preserve the phenol count.
How to identify high-phenol olive oil
The best way to tell if your favourite olive oil has a high phenol level is by simply tasting it.
Phenols give the oil a peppery after-taste. If your olive oil has absolutely zero pleasant burn to it, it probably has very low phenol levels. The best olive oils will actually make you cough a little—that’s how peppery their flavor is!
Some olive oil manufacturers publish their phenol levels (in parts per million, or ppm) on their bottles, and these are often the healthiest olive oils.
Although taste is subjective, I find the healthiest oils with the highest phenol counts to be the most delicious.
Filtered vs. unfiltered olive oil
Unfiltered olive oil retains minute particles of the fruit in the oil, which may contain some beneficial nutrients.
Unfortunately, these particles of fruit also rot, causing the oil to lose polyphenols much more rapidly than filtered oil might.
If you can get extremely fresh unfiltered olive oil, go for it. But if you don’t have access to these oils (most of us don’t), it’s probably better to stick with filtered oils.
The healthiest olive oil brands
My favourite olive oil of all is organic Olea True. With 800 to 1,300 ppm of polyphenols, Olea True blows away the competition. Apollo olive oil is another good bet, with an average of 500 to 800 ppm phenol count.
Other brands that list above average phenol levels include Sister Julie’s, OlioCru, and Living Tree.
Olive oils for cooking
Cooking olive oil will cause immediate degradation of phenols, so if you decide to invest in the olive oils I recommended above, always use them raw.
When cooking with olive oil the following brands are suitable, and will be healthful but with inconsistent phenol levels:
- Trader Joe’s
Olive oils to avoid
Many olive oils aren’t extra virgin, despite the claims on the bottle, and some brands even mix olive oil with cheaper vegetable oils, such as sunflower.
A 2011 study by U.C. Davis found that the following “100% extra virgin olive oil” brands were not, in fact, 100% extra virgin olive oil:
- Filippo Berio
- Newman’s Own
- Whole Foods
For a more tips on choosing the healthiest olive oil, you can check out this Healthy Olive Oil Shopping Guide.