Olive Oil Shopping Guide

— Written By and last updated by Patricia Burch
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I get several questions about olive oil: what types to buy, if you need more than one for different uses in cooking, and so on. Olive oil is the recommended fat of choice in the Mediterranean Diet for its beneficial properties, affordability, and versatility. It also tastes delicious and can be used in a variety of ways when preparing a meal.

First, let’s discuss the different types of “fats” we may consume. When discussing the nutrition components of foods, fat is not always considered a bad nutrient for a food to have. There are tons of good fats out there, the difference is the type of fat the food is made up of. Foods that are low in fat or fat-free may not be a good food choice based on their nutrient content. For example, a handful of nuts is a healthy and nutrient-dense (meaning it has a lot of vitamins and other nutrients packed inside) snack choice for your midday cravings. Nuts are going to be higher in fat, but they are made up of healthy fats. Pretzels on the other hand are fat-free, but are not a nutrient-dense food. They are made up of refined carbohydrates and are typically loaded with salt, and sometimes sugar if they are a flavored variety (like honey mustard). We know that replacing fat with refined carbohydrates during the fat-free craze did nothing to decrease our risk of chronic disease, nor did it decrease the prevalence of chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Our goal is to reduce that risk by choosing healthy food choices.

There are three types of fat: unsaturated, saturated, and trans fat. Unsaturated fats are generally found in plants or seafood and have been shown to have health-promoting properties. Saturated fats are generally found in animal products like meat, butter, cheese and milk and have not been shown to have health-promoting properties. Trans fats are typically found in process food, fried food, baked goods, and convenience and freezer foods. There is no safe level of trans fats and research has shown they are harmful to health. To avoid trans fats, check the ingredients list of your nutrition facts labels to make sure “partially hydrogenated oils” is not listed in the ingredients. Even if the food says 0 on the nutrition facts label, food manufacturers can list it this way if the trans-fat content is under 0.5 grams. Trans fats raise your bad cholesterol (LDL) levels and lower your good cholesterol (HDL) levels. They also increase your risk of developing heart disease and stroke and have been associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Because they have health-promoting properties, unsaturated fats are going to be our fat of choice.

Olive oil has a very high smoking point (392º) so can be used in a variety of cooking techniques. If that sounds a little low, compare the smoking point to the temperature required to deep fry foods (350º – 375º). As you can see, olive oil can get very hot before it hits its smoking point. We don’t want to overheat any oil (olive or otherwise) because they break down when heated. However, olive oil is a great choice when sautéing, baking, roasting, or searing. The Mediterranean Diet recommends consuming four tablespoons of olive oil a day. For those new to the Med Way of eating, this might sound like a ton of olive oil and you might feel that this would cause you to gain weight. However, we are talking about swapping the types of fats you are currently eating for olive oil, not adding olive oil to the fats you are already eating.

When buying your olive oil, make sure to choose an olive oil in a dark bottle or can. As olive oil (or any unsaturated fat oil) is exposed to light, it begins to break down. The dark bottle or can helps to protect the oil and increase its shelf life. Make sure you choose an extra virgin olive oil. Extra virgin is the highest quality of olive oil. A great comparison a participant mentioned in one of my classes is extra virgin olive oil is like that first batch of coffee made with fresh grounds. If you were to make more coffee over and over again with the same coffee grounds, it would eventually just turn into dirty water. Pure 100% olive oil, is still olive oil, but it is not the first pressing of olive oil that is associated with the extra virgin. Lastly, make sure your olive oil has a best buy date to ensure its quality. The best by date relates to when the olive oil should be opened by. Once olive oil is opened, then you introduce air to the oil which impacts its shelf life. Upon opening an olive oil container, it is recommended that it be used within 30-60 days.

Visit Medinsteadofmeds.com for some great recipes to utilize your olive oil. One of my favorites and probably the one I make most often is the olive oil toast. Try roasting your vegetables drizzled with olive oil for a delicious and craveable veggie treat. If you’re interested in participating in one our Med Instead of Meds series, contact Sydney Johnson, Family & Consumer Sciences Agent.