Economic powers and lobbyists have made olive oil the oil of choice even though canola oil, for example, contains three times more omega-3 fatty acids. Either way, you should only use cold-pressed oils. There are a wealth of studies to support this. Dr. Dean Ornish and other American health researchers recommend avoiding oil as much as is possible.
Cold-pressed olive oil is used to make salad dressings and to add a finishing touch to soups and various cooked dishes. In Mediterranean cuisine, olive oil is a staple ingredient with which many dishes couldn’t do without. Virgin olive oil has a smoke point of 180 °C and can therefore be used for frying and deep-frying. However, at this point the heat already destroys the antioxidant substances of the phenol and tocopherol group.1
Without heating, olive oil is used to season raw and cooked vegetables, meat, potatoes, grains, pasta, and cheese dishes. Olive oil is one of the main ingredients in pestos, tapenades, and other Mediterranean spreads. You can also make herb- or spice-infused oil by placing dried herbs or spices in olive oil (in a sealed container) for a few weeks. Garlic, mushrooms, dried tomatoes, olives, cream cheese, hard cheese, red chili peppers, eggplants, artichokes, carrots, and other foods can also be preserved in olive oil and then kept for longer.2 This is how many of the traditional antipasti (Italy) and tapas (Spain) were created.
No question about it. You can purchase olive oil in every grocery store and from large chains such as Coop, Migros, Denner, Volg, Spar, Aldi, Lidl, Rewe, Edeka, and Hofer. Just make sure to buy olive oil that is organic and cold-pressed (e.g., in organic grocery stores, organic sections of large grocery stores, and health food stores).
Since olive oil contains low levels of healthy and high-quality polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), it can easily be stored for long periods of time. It is best to store it in a place where it does not have direct exposure to light.
The main component of olive oil (and other vegetable oils) are fatty acids bound to glycerol (triglycerides). It also contains 55–83 % oleic acid, 7–20 % palmitic acid, 3–21 % linoleic acid, 0–5 % stearic acid, and 0–4 % palmitoleic acid. Unsaponifiable substances such as sterols, squalene, and chlorophyll are also in olive oil as well as very small amounts of phospholipids, carotenoids, α-tocopherol, and vitamin A.
The ratio of polyunsaturated to saturated fatty acids (P/S ratio) is far below the recommended value of 1.0. Of the better known oils, only coconut oil and palm kernel oil (palm oil) contain higher amounts of saturated fatty acids. However, the amounts are much higher! Soybean oil, cottonseed oil, and some other lesser-used oils, as well as margarine also have a high proportion of saturated fatty acids.
Olive oil is a direct counterpart of canola oil as they can be used for the same purposes. As compared to olive oil, canola oil has about half the amount of saturated fats. But this isn’t the main reason why canola oil is much healthier than olive oil. The most important difference is the ratio between the omega-3 fatty acids, which are called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), and the omega-6 fatty acids, called linoleic acid (LA). Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory effects, and, after they are converted into AA, omega-6 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory effects. This important difference was not really given the attention it deserved until the twenty-first century.
The ideal ratio for LA:ALA would be 1:1 because both serve the same receptors in the body. These two types of fatty acids are the only essential fatty acids. However, we tend to forget the animal omega-3 fatty acids EPA (20:5) and DHA (22:6), which humans produce from ALA. However, older people in particular tend to not convert enough of ALA into EPA and DHA — and given a typical diet with a ratio of 10:1 between LA and ALA, this would be impossible anyway. For vegetarians and vegans who don’t focus on omega-3 fatty acids, the ratio is even worse: between 17 and 24 to one. To find out more, follow the link in the box above and also the other links in the text.
In this respect, cold-pressed flaxseed oil (flax oil, linseed oil) would be the best oil ever, but that’s exactly why you can’t heat it. And this is another reason why it can only be stored for longer periods of time if you follow the method described in the link; not doing so causes it to take on a rancid flavor. But as a salad oil, flaxseed oil would be by far the healthiest oil. Only “no oil” would be even healthier — you can instead eat seeds and nuts and use apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, and spices as dressing.
Natural olive oil contains oleocanthal and oleoropein.3 Oleocanthal is believed to have anti-inflammatory properties similar to those of Ibuprofen.4
Olive oil and olives themselves can help prevent gallstones as they have a cholagogue effect (stimulate bile secretion).8
A laboratory study from 2008 took the position that because of the high content of oleic acid consuming olive oil may lead to an increased risk of arteriosclerosis and other cardiovascular diseases. As suspected, this is because of its high oleic acid content. Other organizations such as the Deutsche Herzstiftung (German heart foundation) hold a different opinion: In vitro studies disregard normal biological processes such as digestion and metabolism. 6
At the request of Switzerland’s Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), the FCN was commissioned in 2003 under the leadership of the working group led by Prof. Dr. Ulrich Keller. At the time, Prof. Jacques Diezi was the President of the FCN. The 50-page report was prepared by Dr. sc. nat. Paolo Colombani (SGE, ETH), Prof. Dr. med. Ulrich Keller, Dr. Ulrich Moser (DSM), and Monika Müller and concluded that the existing recommendations from 1992 needed to be adapted to conform with the latest scientific findings regarding fats and oils.
We should reduce the amount of saturated fatty acids with 12 to 16 carbon atoms that we consume. This change can lead to a reduction in LDL cholesterol and as such to a reduction in the risk of atherosclerosis and diabetes. Saturated fatty acids should account for less than 10 % of the calories we consume. This can be achieved by reducing our intake of animal fats and baking oils.9 As the example of coconut oil and to a lesser extent olive oil shows, vegan and vegetarian diets can also be unhealthy. See the link in the box above.
Trans fatty acids (TFA) should be avoided. Foods can contain a maximum of 1 g TFA per 100 g product — for oils and margarines, a max. of 1 % of the total fat content — without this information being included on the package. The daily amount consumed should not exceed 1 % of the total calories. TFAs are produced during partial hydrogenation, frying, and deodorization of oils. TFAs have adverse effects on blood lipids (e.g., cause an increase in LDL cholesterol and decrease in HDL cholesterol), which increase the risk of atherosclerosis.9
Monounsaturated fatty acids should make up the largest category of fatty acids that you consume and come in at 10–15 % or 20–30 g/2000 kcal (8400 kJ) of the energy consumed per day.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids are essential and are divided into two main groups: linoleic acid and its derivatives as a group of the n-6 or omega-6 fatty acids (LA) and α-linolenic acid or alpha-linolenic acid — which is often just called linolenic acid or ALA (omega-3 or n-3) — and its derivatives. Vegetable oils are the main source of LA 9, but nuts and seeds also contain significant amounts. The main sources of healthy omega-3 for LA include canola oil, nuts, and leafy vegetables.9
Health-conscious people get omega-3 from flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, and leafy vegetables because they have a particularly good LA:ALA ratio. You can click on an ingredient in the ingredient list for any recipe and then scroll down to the end of the text. There you will find detailed nutrient tables for the ingredient (with only a few exceptions). The recipes also include detailed nutritional information in table form. For example, Erb Muesli has an ideal combination of ingredients that yield a LA to ALA ratio of 1:1.
Excessive consumption of n-6 fatty acids can promote thrombosis and inflammation. It is therefore a good idea to focus on reducing the ratio from n-6:n-3 to a maximum of 5:1. Today, most people consume these fatty acids in a ratio of approx. 10:1. There is evidence that lowering this ratio can reduce the risk of atherosclerosis and prevent or slow inflammatory processes.9
LA, the n-6 fatty acid, should be about 2.5 % of the daily energy intake or 6 g/2000 kcal (8400 kJ). And ALA, the n-3 fatty acid, should be about 0.7 % of the daily energy intake or 1.7 g/2000 kcal (8400 kJ). Despite these study recommendations, we know that achieving a better ratio (i.e., with more ALA) has remained a utopia. Twelve years later, we’re still pretty much in the same place: much too much LA and too little ALA!
The working group recommended that infants and young children should also get long-chain N-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) from fatty fish, fish oil, and/or capsules. Original quote: It is recommended that people eat fish 1–2 times a week (100–240 g in total). The requirement for these essential fatty acids can also be met by taking 500 mg eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) per day in the form of native fish oil or capsules. In consultation with a doctor, taking native fish oils or fish oil capsules (1'000 mg per day and more) may be advisable for adults who have suffered a heart attack as this supplement can help prevent further heart complications.9 To put it another way, this means that older people should also make sure that they are getting enough omega-3 fatty acids. Our body’s ability to convert ALA to EPA and DHA decreases as we age, but the amount of these nutrients we need most likely increases.
The large monocultures of millions of olive trees and the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa, which has spread quickly since 2013 are an entirely different topic. The bacterium is deadly to olive trees, and the original containment plan required infected trees to be uprooted and destroyed. Now, some trees can be left standing and monitored. The EU has promised several million euros for research and breeding of new varieties of olive trees that are resistant to this bacterium.
The olive fruit fly (Bactrocera oleae) is another pest that must be kept under control. And then there are also scale insects, spider mites, and aphids as well as fungal diseases (olive peacock spot disease). Stem rot and tubercle disease (Pseudomonas syringae subsp. savastanoi pv. oleae) that are caused by a cushion-shaped fire sponge (Fomitiporia punctata) require further measures to be taken that are detrimental to nature.
In 2017, olive trees took up 10.8 million hectares of land worldwide and 20.9 million tons of olives were harvested. At 6.5 million tons, Spain produced more than twice as much as Greece (2.7 million) and Italy (2.5 million) together. However, in order to get enough water for the olives, deep boreholes have to be dug and other plants die off as a result. Drinking water shortages are slowly becoming more common, and now in the south of Spain drinking water has to be rationed. Drought zones and forest fires are becoming increasingly common — not only, but partially because of global warming.
The blossoms of the olive tree are hermaphrodites, but it is advisable to have other trees nearby so that varying DNA can provide for better fertilization. Wind pollination usually takes place without insects. There are few self-pollinating varieties such as Leccino, Frantoio, Cailletier, and Agandou, but if you want to have a good yield, it is best to have another type of tree as well. Olive trees thrive best on barren, sandy soils.
According to FAO trade statistics (2013), Spain is the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter (846,137 t) and Italy the world’s largest importer (583,967 t). These are very large industries with corresponding lobbies and outstanding marketing that even nutritionists are susceptible to — which means that even they often pass on false statements about olive oil.
Unfortunately, the quality of olive oil is compromised because certain producers mix oils such as Tunisian, Turkish, or Greek oils, bottle and process them in Italy, and then sell it as Italian olive oil. This form of oil is permitted in the EU.
In order to obtain quantities large enough to dominate the market, Italian distributors purchased Tunisian, Turkish, and Greek oil in large amounts and transferred it illegally so that it could later be sold as ʽItalianʼ and also be approved in the EU. Olitalia found a different way. The company simply chose a name that suggests the oil is of Italian origin, but if you read the small print you will see that it is actually a mixture of oils from a number of EU countries.
In 2016, Stiftung Warentest (German consumer organization) investigated 26 “extra virgin” olive oils. Of these, it rated 13 products as inadequate, and 5 oils were highly contaminated with mineral oil, 20 with pesticides, and 5 with plasticizers.7 Either way, you should only use cold-pressed oil.