Published on April 26, 2018

Learn the grade when selecting olive oil

Bonnie Brost, licensed and registered dietitian at Essentia HealthOlive oil has a healthy reputation, but you’ve probably wondered if it’s worth paying a healthy price for a bottle.

Research shows olive oil can lower your risk for heart disease and cancer, improve insulin sensitivity and reduce inflammation. The health benefits are attributed to olive oil’s primary components. Oleic acid is its predominant monounsaturated fatty acid. This is the healthy fat associated with a reduced risk of heart and other chronic diseases. Other components of olive oil, including vitamin E, work as an antioxidant. 

But which olive oil should you buy? That depends on what qualities you seek and how you plan to use it. The most health benefits come from extra-virgin olive oil, which is the least processed and usually the most expensive.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has four grades: extra-virgin olive oil, virgin olive oil, olive oil and refined olive oil. You may also see olive pomace oil. 

Extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) is the highest grade and known as the “first, cold-press.” After being washed with cold water, olives are ground into paste and spun in a centrifuge to extract the first oil. Typically, this process occurs within 24 hours of picking. This is the “olive fruit juice” and this grade contains the most phytonutrients. It is also the lowest in acid and, by U.S standards must be less than 0.08 percent acidity.  This oil has excellent flavor and odor. It’s usually used in salads and salad dressings or drizzled on foods like pasta or dipped with bread.

Virgin olive oil is processed in a similar way but is higher in acid. U.S. standards are less than 2.0 percent acidity. The higher acidity is caused by the olives themselves and the time delay between harvest and production. These olives are riper or have had more sun exposure. This causes them to oxidize faster, which increases the acidity level. 

Olive oil is comprised of refined olive oil combined with extra-virgin or virgin olive oil.  Common blend ratios are 85 percent refined and 15 percent EVOO or virgin olive oil. This blended oil has a milder taste and color than the two higher grades and its acidity level must be less than 1 percent. This grade is less expensive and contain fewer health benefits. However, it’s a better oil for cooking because it has a higher smoke point.

Refined olive oil is virgin olive oil that’s then processed chemically. Refining removes the polynutrients. Refined oil is flavorless, odorless and has an acidity level of less than 0.03 percent. It is mainly used in the blended olive oil so you don’t see it on store shelves.  

Olive pomace oil is extracted from pomace, the pulp leftover after the initial oil was squeezed or spun out.  A chemical solvent extracts any remaining oil. The solvent is removed and the oil is refined, bleached and deodorized. This oil is the cheapest grade and commonly used by food, body care and soap manufacturers. 

The University of California Davis Olive Center researched olive oils produced in California and those imported. Its research showed many imported olive oils did not meet USDA standards. Paying attention to details on the bottles and understanding how oils are graded can help explain the price differences. The center recommends buying extra-virgin olive oil in an amount that you’ll use in about six weeks. This preserves the health benefits found in the oil. Unopened extra-virgin oil can maintain it quality for two or more years. 

To preserve quality, store olive oil away from light, heat and air to preserve freshness. Look for containers made from dark glass, tin or even clear glass placed in a box or mostly covered by a label.

Olive oil, especially the extra-virgin variety has health benefits, but it also has a lot of calories. Remember that you cannot make unhealthy foods healthier simply by adding olive oil. 

With spring on the calendar, now is a good time to try a high-quality olive oil to make your own salad dressing.  It’s easier than you think.  

Spring Salad with Orange Juice Vinaigrette
3 cups washed baby spinach leaves
3 cups washed & torn salad greens
1 cup sliced strawberries
2 kiwi fruit, peeled and sliced
¼ cup sliced almonds
¼ cup sliced mushrooms
¼ cup mandarin orange slices, drained
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
Dressing
¼ cup orange juice
1 Tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon poppy seeds
Pepper to taste
2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Toss together the spinach, salad greens and other salad ingredients in a large bowl. For dressing, combine the orange juice, honey, mustard, poppy seeds and pepper in a small bowl until well mixed. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil, whisking constantly until the dressing is mixed. Toss the dressing with the salad or serve on the side.

Nutrition Facts
Salad: Servings, 6; serving size, 1 ½ cups; calories, 65; total fat, 2 grams; saturated fat, 0 grams; cholesterol, 0 milligrams; sodium, 50 milligrams; potassium, 210 milligrams; carbohydrates, 9 grams; fiber, 3 grams; protein, 2 grams.
Vinaigrette: Servings, 6; serving size, 1 tablespoon; calories, 55; total fat, 5 grams; saturated fat, 1 gram; cholesterol, 0 milligrams; sodium, 25 milligrams; potassium, 20 milligrams; carbohydrates, 3 grams; fiber, 0 grams; protein, 0 grams. 

Paprika Dressing
If you favor a French salad dressing, this homemade variety is worth a try.  I adapted the recipe from Nutrition Action Healthletter.
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon honey
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon mayonnaise or salad dressing
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil.

In a bowl, combine all ingredients and whisk with a wire whip until combined.

Nutrition facts
Servings: 3; serving size, 2 tablespoons; calories, 120; total fat, 13 grams; saturated fat, 2 grams; cholesterol, 0 milligrams; sodium, 130 milligrams; potassium, 40 milligrams; carbohydrates, 3 grams; fiber, 0 grams; protein, 0 grams.