It can be confusing to decipher the different names associated with olive oil. The names indicate the degree of processing the oil has undergone as well as the quality of the oil. Extra-virgin olive oil is the highest grade available, followed by virgin olive oil. The word “virgin” indicates that the olives have been pressed to extract the oil; no heat or chemicals have been used during the extraction process, and the oil is pure and unrefined. Virgin olive oils contain the highest amount of polyphenols and antioxidants.

Olive Oil Nutrition Facts

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides the following nutritional information for 13.5 grams (one tablespoon) of olive oil:

  • Calories: 119
  • Fat: 13.50 g (21% of the Daily Value – DV)
  • Saturated fat: 2 g (9% of DV)
  • Carbohydrates: 0
  • Fiber: 0
  • Protein: 0
  • Vitamin E: 1.9 mg (10% of DV)
  • Vitamin K: 8.1 mcg (10% of DV)

Health Claims

Starting in November, 2004, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began allowing United States producers of olive oil to place the following restricted health claim on product labels:

Limited and not conclusive scientific evidence suggests that eating about 2 tbsp. (23 g) of olive oil daily may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease due to the monounsaturated fat in olive oil. To achieve this possible benefit, olive oil is to replace a similar amount of saturated fat and not increase the total number of calories you eat in a day.

Similar labels are permitted for foods like walnuts and hemp seed which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. The FDA acknowledges that long-term consumption of small quantities of this compound from olive oil may be responsible in part for the low incidence of heart disease associated with a Mediterranean diet, but believes this effect is inadequately supported by clinical research.

This is a good example of how anti-whole food the government really is. It is almost painful for them to say anything good about olive oil. They encumber their statement with so many caveats it reminds me of the long list of side-effect warnings you see on drugs even though there is no toxicity to olives oil and the benefits are obvious to a majority of people. Common sense is not very common in government circles! There is no question that real, whole food is the best thing anyone can do to support human health.

Virgin Versus Extra Virgin

Oil produced by only physical (mechanical) means is called virgin oil. Extra virgin olive oil is virgin olive oil that satisfies specific high chemical and organoleptic criteria (low free acidity, no or very little organoleptic defects). A higher grade extra virgin olive oil is mostly dependent on favourable weather conditions; a drought during the flowering phase, for example, can result in a lower quality (virgin) oil. It is worth noting that olive trees produce well every couple of years so greater harvests occur in alternate years.

The term “first press”, sometimes found on bottle labels, is meaningless today as there is no “second” press; it comes from ancient times of stone presses, when virgin oil was the one produced by battering the olives.

The label term “cold-extraction” on extra virgin olive oils indicates that the olive grinding and stirring was done at a temperature maximum of 25 °C (77 °F). Treatment in higher temperatures risks decreasing the olive oils’ quality (texture, taste and aroma).

Standards For Olive Oil

In October, 2010, the USDA established new Standards for Grades of Olive Oil:

U. S. Extra Virgin Olive Oil – less than 0.8% oleic acid
This is the premier oil which is extracted by pressing the olives without heat or chemicals. The oil is the natural juice from the olive and retains all the flavor, aroma and nutrients when extracted. The flavor can range from subtle and mellow to well-flavored and pungent which can be something of an acquired taste. Typically used for salad dressings, butter replacements/condiments.

U. S. Virgin Olive Oil – less than 2% oleic acid
The flavor is milder and less robust. Typically used for browning and sautéing food,a butter replacement, and beauty products.

Sometimes you will see “Pure” olive oil on the shelf. This is oil that has diluted with cheaper oils and has received some processing involving filtering and refining. The more the oil is handled the fewer nutrients it contains. This type of oil is a blend of refined and virgin oils. During the refining process, where it has been chemically treated, the oil loses most of its vitamin E content and flavor. The producer will add virgin olive oil to the refined oil to increase the vitamin content and improve the flavor and aroma.

Whole food is so complex nutritionally that science has not been able to do a very good job documenting the synergistic effects that support human health. We tend to isolate chemicals and look for value in their isolated form. But real food does not work that way. It interacts with countless enzymes and other ingredients in the body in a holistic (wholeistic) manner than reductionist science never sees (think of the story of the 6 blind men studying different parts of the elephant – they describe the elephant based on the part they are looking at!). Each study looks at one variable and never sees the entire picture of what is going on. But if you understand that the body is built to eat primarily whole food, plant-based you will comprehend the value of incorporating olives and olive oil, coconuts and coconut oil, and other healthy oil which were once disparaged as being full of fat. But as science has finally discovered – these are good fats that fuel the body in a way it was designed to utilize.

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