And the difference between virgin and extra virgin
Olive oil is present in most people’s lives for one reason or another. Many of us use it in cooking recipes or, if your tastes are continentally inclined, you might enjoy soaking some fresh bread with it. Either way, I’m assuming you know what we’re talking about.
I also assume that you know olive oil is made from olives. Now, there are hundreds of olive varieties but only a handful are grown commercially around the world for the purposes of oil¹, the majority of which come from the Mediterranean².
As well as using it in your kitchen, you may or may not know that olive oil is also used in cosmetics, medicines, soaps, and even fuel for traditional lamps!³
So, as such a versatile substance it might seem strange to suggest that something we put on our faces and burn to create light should also be a bigger part of our diet. However, olive oil has a whole host of benefits that arguably makes it the healthiest oil around.
But before we get on to that, do you know the difference between virgin olive oil and extra virgin olive oil? I didn’t actually know myself before writing this post so I thought it would be worth adding a little explanation.
No, it’s not just a childish insult, it also refers to the way olives have been processed. “Virgin” means that the olives have been pressed to extract the oil. But in this case, there are also some processed oils that are added⁴.
In some cases of much cheaper olive oil, the manufacturer will have cleaned the oil with other chemicals and heated it after. This process leads to a longer shelf life (hence the lower cost) but this way of processing strips away both the taste and the nutritional benefits.⁵
If your olive oil is “Extra Virgin” it is made purely from cold-pressed olives.
“No heat or chemicals have been used during the extraction process, and the oil is pure and unrefined.”⁶
So, in this case, calling your olive oil a virgin is a good thing.
Now, let’s get on to the reasons why this oil is so revered and leads some to claim that:
“Extra Virgin Olive Oil Is The Healthiest Fat on Earth”⁷
1. Works Like An Anti-Inflammatory
Studies have shown that a chemical in Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) has similar properties to ibuprofen. After further tests, they concluded that 50g of EVOO (approx. 3 1/2 tablespoons) is the equivalent of roughly 10% of a standard dosage of ibuprofen⁸.
That may not sound like a lot if you’re wanting a fast-acting anti-inflammatory, but if it’s part of your lifestyle it can make a big difference. Many Mediterranean diets are rich in EVOO (accounting for up to 25% of their calories⁹) and it is believed that this is the reason for the associated benefits that are similar to those given by anti-inflammatory drugs.
2. Helps Protect against Heart Disease
Here are two facts:
1 — Heart Disease is the most common cause of death in the world.
2 — Heart Disease is much less common in Mediterranean countries.¹⁰
As previously mentioned, olive oil can account for a large part of the overall calories in the Mediterranean diet. Research has shown EVOO to protect “bad” LDL cholesterol from oxidation, improving the lining of your blood vessels, which helps prevent excessive blood clotting and deceases the risk of heart disease.
3. Reduces High Blood Pressure
Relating to heart disease, EVOO has also been shown to reduce blood pressure, which is one of the strongest risk factors for heart disease. More specifically, this is because consuming EVOO can lower your systolic blood pressure¹¹. In one study it reduced the need for blood pressure medication by 48%¹².
4. May Reduce Type 2 Diabetes
Many studies have been conducted on the benefits of EVOO for sufferers of diabetes, one of which found significant improvement in fasting blood glucose and insulin levels after a month¹³.
“Lowering blood glucose and cholesterol may be useful to reduce the negative effects of glucose and cholesterol on the cardiovascular system”¹⁴.
Conclusions from studies have shown that consuming EVOO on its own is unlikely to have such positive results and it should instead be consumed as part of a balanced diet. This is arguably why it is so effective in the context of a Mediterranean diet.
5. Contains High Amounts of Antioxidants
EVOO naturally contains a lot of antioxidants, such as vitamins E and K. Now, these might just be letters to you and me but inside your body, they help to reduce your risk of chronic diseases¹⁰.
In combination, EVOO’s powerful antioxidants reduce the number of free radicals in your body and minimize the damage they can do to your cellular membrane, mitochondria, and DNA¹⁵. I think we can all agree that our DNA is important, so it could do with some protection!
In addition, it is argued that these antioxidants can slow the aging process of the human body and can do wonders for the likes of your skin and hair¹⁶.
6. Improves Digestion
Easing our digestion is something a lot of us could benefit from and EVOO does exactly that. Essentially, it cleans our digestive tract and releases our stomach’s content more gradually, which leads to feeling fuller for longer and improved digestion¹⁷.
However, be warned that EVOO’s natural laxative properties can lead to diarrhea if consumed in large amounts!¹⁸
7. Not Associated With Weight Gain
Finally, it’s time to dispel a myth.
Yes, overconsumption of food, and especially fats, leads to weight gain. But no, this is not necessarily the case with EVOO. Many studies have been conducted around this topic, one of which was a 30-month long study with over 7,000 students where it was concluded that consuming a lot of olive oil did not lead to increased weight¹⁹.
In fact, when studying the Mediterranean diet, many researchers have found that diets rich in olive oil may be beneficial when it comes to weight loss¹⁰.
By now you know a little more about why olive oil, and extra virgin olive oil in particular, could easily claim the title of “the healthiest fat on earth”.
In today’s society, there is a lot of noise around how all fat is bad for you. It’s a claim used by huge corporations to make you buy their “low fat” options but that doesn’t mean they are healthy. Taking the time to educate yourself about the different types of fats, which ones are good for you and which are not, and how different processes affect the quality of the foods we buy is the first step to empowering yourself to consciously make decisions that will improve your health.
Maybe we should all consider moving to the Mediterranean, if not for the sun then for the olive oil!