When you’re shopping for cooking oil, reaching for olive oil is a no-brainer. Loaded with good-for-you monounsaturated fat, it’s a cornerstone of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. But knowing which olive oil to pick -- and how to use it once you get home -- is where things get a little murkier. Turns out, there’s a lot of misinformation out there about olive oil. Time to clear it up!
You’ve heard: “Pure” olive oil is the best quality.
The term “pure” sounds promising. But it merely means there aren’t other ingredients or oils in the product. Pure olive oil is actually a lower grade than extra-virgin, considered the healthiest because it has the highest concentration of polyphenols, a natural plant compound in olives that acts like an antioxidant in the body. “Pure” olive oil has fewer polyphenols but still has potential health benefits. It also has a more neutral flavor.
You’ve heard: “Light” olive oil has less fat and fewer calories.
“Light” on food packages can mean the product is lower in fat and calories. But in the case of olive oil, the word just refers to its flavor. All olive oils have the same number of calories and fat grams per tablespoon. One perk of light olive oil: It tends to be less expensive than other grades.
You’ve heard: You can’t cook with extra virgin olive oil.
Some people say that extra virgin olive oil is too delicate to cook with -- that it’s best used for dressings and sauces. It’s true that it has a lower smoke point than some cooking oils like canola, but it is stable enough for everyday home cooking. Keep in mind that extra virgin olive oil tends to have more flavor than other grades of olives oil. So if you’re looking for a neutral flavor, pick light or pure olive oil or one simply labeled "olive oil"(or use another oil like canola). If you’ve got an expensive, flavor-packed olive oil, save it for dressings, dipping, and drizzling on top of finished dishes.
You’ve heard: Cooking destroys olive oil’s benefits.
You won’t cancel out the health benefits of olive oil while heating it. It may lose some flavor, but you’re still getting most of the polyphenols that occur naturally in the oil.
You’ve heard: Most olive oil is fake.
There are rumors that a lot of olive oil on store shelves isn’t real olive oil at all, but spiked with other, cheaper oils -- and that you’ve got to spring for the pricey stuff to get the real deal. But according to an analysis of extra virgin olive oils by the FDA, only three of the 88 oils tested failed to meet purity standards (and researchers acknowledged those may have been "false positives"). So unless the label states it’s mixed with another oil, know you’re getting the real thing and buy the kind of olive oil you can afford and that has the flavor you like. (Here’s a list of olive oils, including some low-cost varieties, that have the North American Olive Oil Association's About Olive Oil Quality Seal, so they’re certified for purity and quality).
Also, if you can, choose a darker bottle, since that protects the oil from light that can degrade it. Once you get your olive oil home, keep it in a cool, dark place (like a cabinet) and use it within 1-3 months once opened.