4 Olive oil facts that may surprise you (and how to get the health benefits of this versatile oil)

  • 2 Minutes Read
Martha M. Henze
Martha M. Henze, MPH, MS, RDN - Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Global Public Health Epidemiologist

Here are four fascinating olive oil facts I learned while touring an olive grove and processing plant in southern Spain.

Olive oil facts

Come join me as we hike through fields of 1,000-year-old "millennium" olive trees and visit an olive farm in Andalusia, the southernmost province of Spain, the source of 75% of Spanish olive oil.

Winter is olive harvest season in southern Spain. The countryside buzzes with the sound of hand-held machines, featuring a giant claw that hooks onto olive tree branches and shakes the tree until most of the olives drop onto a tarp on the ground below. These olives are cold-pressed into EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) the same day and sold throughout the world.

Guess the answers of four surprising olive oil facts

1. This country produces the largest amount of olive oil

You might guess Italy or Greece, but it is Spain which produces an impressive 45 percent of the world's olive oil! Italy produces 25 percent, and Greece produces 20 percent. Thus, 90 percent of olive oil comes from the region known for the delicious and healthy Mediterranean diet.

2. These are the most important indicators of olive oil quality

We sampled three different types of olive oil in small blue-colored glasses during our olive oil tasting. We soon discovered that smell and flavor were the most important indicators of quality, rather than color.

We were instructed to take a small sip of oil and take a deep breath, so the oil coated the back of our throats. We evaluated EVOO, virgin olive oil, and olive oil.

I was surprised at how distinct the differences were among the samples. The EVOO smelled like olives and burned on the back of my throat like a strong pepper taste. According to our host, this sensation was due to the high amount of polyphenols or antioxidants found in olive oil. The lowest quality olive oil was odorless and tasteless to me. Since EVOO is so flavorful, one needs just a small amount for a delightful taste experience.

Olive oil fact for weight loss: "Light" or "Extra Light" olive oils receive those descriptions because of their mild flavor. They are not lower in calories or fat than other olive oils.

3. This is what gives EVOO its health benefits

The small, local, olive co-op we toured used a temperature-controlled centrifuge to cold press the olives within 24 hours of being harvested. Although less oil is extracted from the cold-press method, fewer nutrients are lost, increasing health benefits. As a result, EVOO retains about 30 polyphenols. The antioxidants in EVOO contribute to the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet.

Polyphenols are highest in olives from older trees (yes, 1,000 years is old!) and in green olives. Interestingly, the same tree produces both green and black olives. Green olives are harvested earlier in the season, though it's easier to extract more oil from ripe black olives.

Buying EVOO is so vital to Spaniards that good-intentioned hosts have read to me from their one-gallon bottles, emphasizing the words "extra virgin olive oil" as if I were a kindergartener learning to read.

4. This is the best way to use olive oil in a Mediterranean diet

Maximize the benefits of a Mediterranean diet by enjoying EVOO in moderation with foods where you can really taste the difference! If you are trying to lose weight, remember all fats still contain nine calories per gram. More is not necessarily better. Living and cooking in Spain this year, I use EVOO for flavorful salads and dipping. However, I still use canola oil for baking because it is low in saturated fats, has a neutral flavor, and is cheaper. I hope you enjoyed this quick tour of olive oil processing and learned a few valuable olive oil facts for your everyday health. Aprovecha!

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This blog was reviewed and updated by: Sue Heikkinen, RDN and Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist

Updated on July 8, 2020

Foods & Recipes->Oils Travel->Regional Foods
Jul 9, 2020

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