Olive Oil – What Do the “Authorities” Say PLus What to Look For on A Label

Written By: Carol Amendola D’Anca, MS, CNS, LDN Plant Based Integrative Nutritionist

In the last two articles of this series we’ve established that olive oil is the product of a stone fruit – the olive. The color change of the olive as it ripens from green to purple signals the presence of health promoting anthocyanins, or antioxidants as they are sometimes called.  Ideally, olives are picked at the peak of ripeness and pressed within 8 hours of picking preserving their healthful nutrients called polyphenols.

This optimal sequence is what happens when superior growers produce extra virgin olive oil. Olive oil of this exceptional quality rarely leaves the region where it’s produced, or the country of production because “locals” are aware of quality and taste.

When Ancel Keys began his research on longevity in the late 1950’s this is probably the kind of olive oil being used (most likely in very small amounts) in the Mediterranean regions of the world where his research was conducted. In the last few decades however the quantity and quality of olive oil has changed dramatically. If you missed the first in this series and would like to read about the current quality of dietary olive oil you can access it here.

While I’ve not been involved as a research scientist evaluating whether olive oil is healthful or not, I’ve read the research, and value it’s findings. Fortunately, because of my Mediterranean background and closeness to the land where Italian olive oil comes from and how people use it, I have a deeper understanding and greater sensitivity to the way olives are grown, processed and the variations in its final quality.

Each year when I lead a lifestyle immersion trip to Italy the issue of olive oil often becomes a topic of discussion as we are learning to cook the Mediterranean diet by master chefs on the Amalfi Coast. On the most recent excursion a participant observing a chef “finishing” grilled vegetables with a drizzle of olive oil inquired about which brand he was using.

The chef looked puzzled, thought for a moment, and said “it’s our oil from our trees.”  At that moment I remember thinking, wow, what a contrast to the 40 brands of olive oil available at any large grocery store in the U.S. But more importantly, what a difference in quality!

Therein lies the difference!
Properly produced olive oil is rich in nutrients and polyphenols and when it is used in small amounts and part of a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts and combined with the Mediterranean lifestyle, it is health promoting.
In contrast, poor quality olive oil is nothing more than fat without nutrients (and to make matters worse) is combined with the Standard American Diet and lifestyle, it’s a problem, not only because of its calorie density (120 calories per tablespoon) but it’s capability to become plaque in our arteries as its oxidized due to the absence of antioxidants found in fruits, vegetables and greens in the diet.
After years of studying nutrition combined with personal research and experience on how the longest living people eat and live, the above advice is the best I can offer. Other experts on the topic expressed their views in a recent publication of the Journal of The American College of Cardiology. Twelve
cardiologists and other physicians presented their perspectives in the publication titled “Trending Cardiovascular Nutrition Controversies.” They not only studied and reported on the nutritional value of olive oil, but of several other foods and dietary eating patterns. A recap of their findings can be viewed in the following table.
Broadly speaking, these researchers organized their findings into three groups; evidence of harm, inconclusive, and evidence of benefit. I believe you will find these recommendations helpful.

Authors in the above article include Dean Ornish, Caldwell Esselstyn, Neal Barnard, Stephen Devries, Andrew Freeman, Kim Williams and others who are held in esteem by their colleagues. Please note: the complete reference may be found below.

What is the conclusion of this powerful group of physicians and cardiologists? Extra virgin olive oil (be careful about the quality and nutritional content) in moderate quantities has evidence of benefits. It is important that it’s part of a diet high in antioxidant rich foods such as green leafy vegetables for example and use it in moderation – no need to pour it on our food.

In conclusion of this series, I would like to offer my best advice for how to choose good quality olive oil.

Read the label carefully. Just because it says “packed in Italy” it doesn’t mean it’s good quality oil. Turn to the back of the bottle to check the country of origin for the olives. Many times, you will find a “code” letting the buying know the source of olives. If olives are being shipped to Italy to be pressed and packed, this is way past the 8 hours after picking to retain nutritional content. You can read more about why olives should be pressed 8 hours after picking here.

Only buy olive oil in glass bottles (a dark bottle if available) or in stainless steel containers. Chemicals from plastic can seep into oil. Plus, light destroys nutrients.
Check the date on the bottle or can. Good oil will tell you the harvest date. The older the oil the more nutrients it has lost.
Be prepared to pay a little more for good quality olive oil. Bargain prices usually mean lower quality or old inventory.
Do not shop by brands as every brand can have several levels of quality.

If the label says DOP, DOC or PDO it means it’s been inspected by a European agency for quality, growing conditions and designation of origin of the olives.

Andrew M. Freeman, Pamela B. Morris, Neal Barnard, Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Emilio Ros, Arthur Agatston, Stephen Devries, James O’Keefe, Michael Miller, Dean Ornish, Kim Williams and Penny KrisEtherton, Trending Cardiovascular Nutrition Controversies, Journal of the American College of Cardiology Volume 69, Issue 9, March 2017DOI: 10.1016/j.jacc.2016.10.086

Ruano J1, Lopez-Miranda J, Fuentes F, Moreno JA, Bellido C, Perez-Martinez P, Lozano A, Gómez P, Jiménez Y, Pérez Jiménez F.Phenolic Content of Virgin Olive Oil Improves Ishchemic Reactive Hyperemia in Hypercholesterolemic Patients, J Am Coll Cardiol. 2005 Nov 15;46(10):1864-8. Epub 2005 Oct 24.

Olives and Olive Oil in Health and Disease Prevention, Edited by Victor R. Preedy, Department of Nutrition and Dietetics King’s College, London, Ronald Ross Watson, Division of Health Promotion