(Healthline) – Dietary fats are highly controversial, with debates about animal fats, seed oils, and everything in between in full force.
That said, most people agree that extra virgin olive oil is incredibly healthy.
Part of the Mediterranean diet, this traditional oil has been a dietary staple for some of the world’s healthiest populations.
Studies show that the fatty acids and antioxidants in olive oil can offer some powerful health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease.
This article reviews why extra virgin olive oil is one of the healthiest fats.
What is olive oil and how is it made?
Olive oil is oil that has been pressed from olives, the fruits of the olive tree.
The production process is incredibly simple — olives are pressed to extract their oil.
However, lower quality versions can be extracted using chemicals, or even diluted with other, cheaper oils.
Therefore, buying the right type of olive oil is crucial.
The best type is extra virgin olive oil. It’s extracted using natural methods and standardized for purity and certain sensory qualities like taste and smell.
Olive oil that is truly extra virgin has a distinct taste and is high in phenolic antioxidants, the main reason why it’s so beneficial.
Also, there are refined or “light” olive oils, which have often been extracted with solvents, treated with heat, or even diluted with cheaper oils like soybean or canola oil.
For this reason, it’s essential to inspect the label carefully and buy from a reputable seller. Even oil that is labeled extra virgin may have been adulterated with cheaper oils.
True extra virgin olive oil is 100% natural and very high in antioxidants. Many of the lower quality olive oils have been processed and adulterated with cheaper oils.
Nutrient composition of extra virgin olive oil
Extra virgin olive oil is fairly nutritious.
It contains modest amounts of vitamins E and K and plenty of beneficial fatty acids.
One tablespoon (13.5 grams) of olive oil contains the following (1):
Saturated fat: 14%
Monounsaturated fat: 73% (mostly oleic acid)
Vitamin E: 13% of the Daily Value (DV)
Vitamin K: 7% of the DV
Notably, extra virgin olive oil shines in its antioxidant content.
Antioxidants are biologically active, and some of them can help fight serious diseases (2, 3Trusted Source).
The oil’s main antioxidants include the anti-inflammatory oleocanthal, as well as oleuropein, a substance that protects LDL (bad) cholesterol from oxidation (4Trusted Source, 5Trusted Source).
Some people have criticized olive oil for having a high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio (over 10:1). However, its total amount of polyunsaturated fats is still relatively low, so this shouldn’t be a cause for concern.
Olive oil is very high in monounsaturated fats and contains a modest amount of vitamins E and K. True extra virgin olive oil is loaded with antioxidants, some of which have powerful health benefits.
Extra virgin olive oil contains anti-inflammatory substances
Chronic inflammation is believed to be among the leading drivers of many diseases, including heart disease, cancer, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and arthritis.
Some speculate that olive oil’s ability to fight inflammation is behind its many health benefits.
Oleic acid, the most prominent fatty acid in olive oil, has been found to reduce inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein (6, 7Trusted Source).
However, the oil’s main anti-inflammatory effects seem to be due to its antioxidants, primarily oleocanthal, which has been shown to work like ibuprofen, a popular anti-inflammatory drug (8Trusted Source, 9Trusted Source).
Researchers estimate that the amount of oleocanthal in 50 ml (about 3.4 tablespoons) of extra virgin olive oil exerts effects similar to those of 10% of the adult ibuprofen dosage for pain relief (10Trusted Source).
Also, one study showed that substances in olive oil can reduce the expression of genes and proteins that mediate inflammation (11Trusted Source).
Keep in mind that chronic, low-level inflammation is usually fairly mild, and it takes years or decades for it to do damage.
Using extra virgin olive oil may help prevent this from happening, leading to a reduced risk of various inflammatory diseases, especially heart disease.
Olive oil contains oleic acid and oleocanthal, two nutrients that can fight inflammation. This may be the main reason for olive oil’s health benefits.
Extra virgin olive oil and cardiovascular disease
Cardiovascular diseases, such as heart disease and stroke, are among the most common causes of death in the world (12Trusted Source).
Many observational studies show that death from these diseases is low in certain areas of the world, especially in countries around the Mediterranean Sea (13Trusted Source).
This observation originally spurred interest in the Mediterranean diet, which is supposed to mimic the way the people in those countries eat (14Trusted Source).
Studies on the Mediterranean diet show that it can help prevent heart disease. In one major study, it reduced heart attacks, strokes, and death by 30% (15).
Extra virgin olive oil protects against heart disease via numerous mechanisms (16):
Reducing inflammation: Olive oil protects against inflammation, a key driver of heart disease (17, 18).
Reduces oxidation of LDL (bad) cholesterol: The oil protects LDL particles from oxidative damage, a key factor in the development of heart disease (19Trusted Source).
Improves blood vessel health: Olive oil improves the function of the endothelium, which is the lining of the blood vessels (20Trusted Source, 21Trusted Source).
Helps manage blood clotting: Some studies suggest that olive oil can help prevent unwanted blood clotting, a key feature of heart attacks and strokes (22Trusted Source, 23Trusted Source).
Lowers blood pressure: One study in patients with elevated blood pressure found that olive oil reduced blood pressure significantly and lowered the need for blood pressure medication by 48% (24Trusted Source).
Given the biological effects of olive oil, it’s not surprising that people who consume the greatest amounts of it are significantly less likely to die from heart attacks and strokes (25Trusted Source, 26).
Dozens — if not hundreds — of animal and human studies have shown that olive oil has major benefits for the heart.
In fact, the evidence is strong enough to recommend that people who have or are at a high risk of developing heart disease include plenty of extra virgin olive oil in their diets.
Olive oil may be one of the healthiest foods you can eat for heart health. It reduces blood pressure and inflammation, protects LDL particles from oxidation, and may help prevent unwanted blood clotting.
Other health benefits of extra virgin olive oil
Although olive oil has mostly been studied for its effects on heart health, its consumption has also been associated with a number of other health benefits.
Olive oil and cancer
Cancer is a common cause of death and characterized by the uncontrolled growth of cells.
Studies have shown that people living in the Mediterranean countries have a fairly low risk of cancer, and some have speculated that olive oil has something to do with it (27Trusted Source).
One potential contributor to cancer is oxidative damage due to harmful molecules called free radicals. However, extra virgin olive oil is high in antioxidants that reduce oxidative damage (28Trusted Source, 29Trusted Source).
The oleic acid in olive oil is also highly resistant to oxidation and has been shown to have beneficial effects on genes linked to cancer (30Trusted Source, 31Trusted Source).
Many test-tube studies have observed that compounds in olive oil can help fight cancer at the molecular level (32, 33, 34Trusted Source).
That said, controlled trials in humans have yet to study whether olive oil helps prevent cancer.
Olive oil and Alzheimer’s disease
Alzheimer’s disease is the world’s most common neurodegenerative disease and a leading cause of dementia.
One feature of Alzheimer’s is a buildup of protein tangles called beta-amyloid plaques in certain neurons in the brain.
A study in mice observed that a substance in olive oil can help clear these plaques (35).
Additionally, a controlled study in humans showed that a Mediterranean diet enriched with olive oil improved brain function and reduced the risk of cognitive impairment (36Trusted Source).
Preliminary evidence suggests that olive oil can help fight cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, although human studies need to confirm this.
Can you cook with it?
During cooking, fatty acids can oxidize, meaning they react with oxygen and become damaged.
The double bonds in fatty acid molecules are mostly responsible for this.
For this reason, saturated fats (no double bonds) are resistant to high heat, while polyunsaturated fats (many double bonds) are sensitive and become damaged.
Olive oil, which contains mostly monounsaturated fatty acids (only one double bond), is fairly resistant to high heat.
In one study, researchers heated extra virgin olive oil to 356°F (180°C) for 36 hours. The oil was highly resistant to damage (37Trusted Source).
Another study used olive oil for deep-frying, and it took 24–27 hours for it to reach damage levels that were deemed harmful (38Trusted Source).
Overall, olive oil seems to be very safe even for cooking at a fairly high heat.