A piece of bread is shown.  A person drizzles olive oil over the piece of bread with a spoon.
Used as a bread-dipping sauce in place of butter, olive oil can ax calories while adding substantial health benefits. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Lower your risk of disease. Fight inflammation. Make veggies even healthier.

Can extra virgin olive oil really do all this, plus taste great?

It can—and more.

“Of all the oils out there, olive oil has the most researched and evidence-based studies behind it, whether it’s to reduce heart disease, strokes, diabetes and Alzheimer’s, or to fight free radical damage associated with cancer and inflammation in the body,” said Irene Franowicz, RD, CDE, who teaches the Eating the Mediterranean Way class series.

Oh, so good

Olive oil contains polyphenols, which are compounds found in plant food sources that have antioxidant properties, Franowicz said.

The benefits here are many: lowering inflammation by fighting free radical damage. Acting like Ibuprofen by reducing inflammation and soothing joint pain. Protecting brain cells by removing toxic proteins and plaques that accumulate with age.

“Consuming polyphenol-rich foods as part of a healthy diet is linked to a lower risk of heart disease, certain cancers and cognitive decline,” Franowicz said.

Olive oil is also good for you because it has monounsaturated fat that lowers your LDL cholesterol—the bad cholesterol—and raises your HDL cholesterol, the good cholesterol.

“Polyunsaturated fats like corn oil and sunflower oil only lower LDL but have no effect on HDL,” she said. “Saturated fats like butter and lard can raise your LDL. Trans fats—like in shortenings, crackers, cookies, snack foods and processed foods—are the worst because they raise your LDL and also lower your protective HDL.”

Great for cooking

Olive oil is one of the most stable oils for cooking.

Unlike other common cooking oils, olive oil contains compounds and antioxidants that prevent the oil from breaking down under moderate heat, Franowicz said.

Sautéing vegetables in olive oil helps to break open their cellular structure, allowing their benefits to become more absorbable in the body.

“Cooking carrots or spinach or other greens with olive oil helps make the beta carotene, which becomes Vitamin A, more absorbable in the body,” she said. “The addition of olive oil appears to help increase the absorption of phytonutrients like phenols and carotenoids.”

This offers something of a double advantage: The vitamins and nutrients in veggies are fat soluble, but olive oil also has its own antioxidants and polyphenols.

What to buy

Extra virgin olive oil, cold-pressed only once, has the highest polyphenol levels and the highest content of health-promoting nutrients.

Olive oil with two presses, called virgin olive oil, has less polyphenol content. Olive oil with three presses contains only about half the value of virgin olive oil, Franowicz said.

When you’re shopping for olive oil, Franowicz suggests looking for the following features:

  • Make sure it’s labeled extra virgin olive oil.
  • Choose oil packaged in a dark bottle. This helps block the ultraviolet rays that deteriorate olive oil over time.
  • Check the harvest date. Stay away from anything more than two years old.
  • Look for a quality seal that indicates the oil was tested and tasted.
  • Buy smaller bottles to use within a few months of opening. The oil deteriorates when exposed to light, oxygen and heat. Unopened, it’s good for a few years. Opened, it’s good for a few months.

Baking and beyond

Can you use olive oil for most anything in the kitchen, including baking? The answer to this really depends on flavor, Franowicz said.

An extra virgin olive oil, first-pressed, will have more olive flavor, which may not lend itself well to baking. Still, that same product is great for sautéing vegetables, making salad dressings and dipping bread.

For baking, Franowicz recommends flavored olive oils such as blood orange, Meyer lemon or a butter flavor.

“You can substitute three tablespoons of olive oil for 1/4 cup of butter in a recipe,” she said. “When I do my cooking classes at the Old World olive oil store, we replace regular oil with blood orange olive oil and add walnuts when we make brownies. And it’s absolutely delicious.”

Franowicz cautioned: Olive oil doesn’t work well for high-temperature frying because healthy polyphenols are damaged by heat.

“Make sure to keep the temperature below the point the oil starts smoking,” she said.

Get started

To get started with olive oil, Franowicz recommends using the shopping tips above to guide you through the store. From there, you can use it as a salad dressing with balsamic vinegar, or use it for dipping bread.

The next step: Use olive oil to sauté your favorite vegetables.

From there, the possibilities are endless.