Living longer: Benefits and dangers of olive oils

By Mike DuBose with Surb Guram, MD

Olive oil is part of the formula for healthier lives, especially when combined with regular exercise and consuming foods found in the Mediterranean Diet. Its use was documented in Greece and Italy dating back 6,000 years. While beneficial for cooking, salads, and dips, it’s also utilized in fuel production, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and soaps. There are 1000 different varieties produced by 8,000 companies.

While olive oils shouldn’t be perceived as quick, miracle wonders, the Cleveland Clinic reported they have “beneficial effects on almost every bodily function.” In fact, the American College of Cardiology published a long-term study in 2022 consisting of 92,000 Americans tracked for 28 years. The valid research revealed individuals who ingested a daily tablespoon experienced 19 percent lower risks of early death. In addition, scientists determined olive oils lowered risk of mortality in cardiovascular, cancer, neurodegenerative (Parkinson), and respiratory diseases. Yale University likewise found olive oils assist in decreasing bad LDL cholesterol and raising good HDL lipids. Researchers also recommended reducing fatty-food products such as butter, fried foods, sugar, margarine, ice cream, mayonnaise, and animal fats that contribute to LDLs.

Best “extra virgin” olive oils contain elevated levels of anti-inflammatory plant substances called “polyphenols.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports polyphenols are abundant sources of micronutrients that increase likelihood of reducing blood inflammation and certain diseases like cancer, improving artery health, and preventing DNA genetic damage. To achieve sufficient polyphenols, in addition to olive oil, Harvard Medical School recommends consuming five daily servings of fruits and vegetables. Polyphenol chemicals are found in fruits: (blackberries, apples, blueberries, strawberries, oranges, raspberries, grapes, and grape juices); herbs and spices: (cinnamon, oregano, and sage); vegetables and legumes: (peas, black beans, broccoli, cabbage, onions); and other sources: (honey, nuts, red wine, dark chocolate, and oatmeal). Olive oil contains many other helpful nutrients, including beta carotene and vitamins A-D-E-K.

Although olive oil has documented health benefits and tastes great, just “one tablespoon” contains 120 calories. Like any other foods containing fats, excessive olive oil amounts can cause weight gain and obesity is linked to health problems. Consider eating tasty breads and delicious pesto olive oils at our favorite restaurant, Bonefish Grill, where one could consume 600+ calories…before drinks, hors d’oeuvres, meals, and desserts arrive.. Cautiously enjoy your healthy olive oil in moderation.

Beware. Some companies falsely claim olive-oil certifications, often adding substantial amounts of cheaper canola, vegetable, and soybean oils. Others “doctor” their goods with worthless liquids that fake appearances, tastes, and scents of olive oil. Studies verify half of the olive oils sold worldwide is fraudulently labeled, lacking heart and health benefits. We were stunned to learn our well-known Italian brand contained uncertified, inferior olive oils. In fact, University of California’s studies reported 69 percent of products sold as “extra virgin olive oil” failed USDA standards. So, proceed with caution in getting “good deals on unhealthy olive oils.”

There are many different olive oil classifications. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) stated, “When considering health, tastes, and other benefits, the only olive oil worthy of consideration is ‘extra virgin.’ Anything else, labeled pure, natural, virgin, or organic could be refined into anemic substances with a little extra virgin oil added for color and flavor.”

“Extra virgin” are products which contain oily olive juices from which water is removed. WSJ reports the highest-grade extra virgin olive oils are made from hand-gathered olives and milled locally soon after being picked. They’re more expensive, but better tasting and healthier. Superior extra virgin olive oils are “cold pressed” and manufactured without heat or chemicals which damage helpful polyphenols.

Although there’s no world-wide olive oil regulatory agency, independent, unbiased-organizations that award certifications for authentic products include North American Olive Oil Association-NAOOA, California Olive Oil Council-COOC, and International Olive Council-IOC. Seek bottle or can certification markings from these organizations. Although Italy’s Tuscany region is the famous olive oil producer, some fine olive oils originate from other countries (Spain, Morocco, Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Portugal, Tunisia, Algeria, and US).

In November 2023, we examined overwhelming numbers of confusing olive oil brands on grocery store shelves and found plenty labeled “Product of Italy.” However, many revealed in fine print their olives were grown and processed in other nations. Look for “Produced and Bottled” to indicate oils were made as advertised. We identified these NAOOA-certified “extra virgin olive oil” brands: Botticelli, Carlini, Colavita, Filippo Berio, Gova, Iliads, La Tourangelle, Moresh, Napa Valley Naturals, Olitalia, Origin 846, Pompeian, Primal Kitchen, Scalifani, Star, Terra Delyssa, and Zoe.

Even legitimate olive oils go stale, diminishing benefits and tastes in brief time periods. Secure freshest oils to enjoy best flavors and greatest health rewards. The time when olives are collected from trees to being pressed are highly-desired. Transparent producers display their dates of harvests and production (when processed into oil). Look for olive gathering times less than one year and consider “Best-By” or expiration dates. Ideally, olive oils should be consumed within 12 months of processing and 30-days after opening.

Olive oils are overly sensitive to light and heat. When purchasing, select dark bottles or cans that provide protection against the elements. Once your oils arrive home, locate them in cool, dry, and dark places (cabinets or pantries instead of well-lit, warm stove or countertops). Once they are opened, seal containers tightly to prevent air entering and diluting the oil’s merits.

The bottom line: Researching and purchasing certified extra virgin olive oils and maintaining their freshness are important towards reaping maximum health, flavor, and cooking advantages. Bon Appetit.

Write to Mike at [email protected]. Visit his nonprofit website and register to receive his monthly articles or Daily Thoughts plus free access to his books, including “The Art of Building Great Businesses.” The website includes 100+ published articles he has written on business, travel, personal topics, and health research.

Surb Guram, MD is a board-certified internist and partner with the SC Internal Medicine Associates in Irmo, ( He has practiced internal medicine for 30+ years.

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