By Deane Alban
Olive oil is one of the world’s healthiest foods.
It’s a major component in the Mediterranean diet that’s widely considered the healthiest way to eat for health and longevity. (1)
People from this region are some of the healthiest and long-lived people on the planet. (2)
Proven olive oil benefits include boosting the immune system, increasing bone density, preventing heart disease, and reducing risk of diabetes. (3, 4, 5, 6)
All the evidence points to olive oil being equally beneficial as a brain food.
Let’s take look at five ways olive oil can nourish your brain now and keep you mentally sharp for life.
We’ll also tell you how to buy and use olive oil smartly, including how to dodge common scams.
1. Olive oil is high in brain protective antioxidants.
Your brain uses a lot of oxygen — 20% of your total intake.
This makes it especially vulnerable to oxidation caused by free radicals.
If you’ve ever seen a cut apple turn brown or an old car get rusty, you’ve seen oxidation at work.
A similar process happens in the cells of your brain.
Olive oil is particularly high in natural antioxidants called polyphenols.
It contains over 30 phenolic compounds that are potent antioxidants and free radical scavengers. (7, 8).
The health benefits of olive oil are believed to be largely due to its high level of polyphenols. (9)
Polyphenols also play an important role in keeping bottled olive oil fresh.
2. Olive oil is high in essential brain vitamins.
Olive oil nutrition data shows that it’s a good source of vitamins E and vitamin K. (10)
Vitamin E prevents mental decline as we age. (11)
Vitamin E, especially in the presence of vitamin C, works to maintain a good memory, slow memory loss, and significantly reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia. (12)
Vitamin E can minimize the damage caused by a stroke by redirecting blood supply after the event. (13, 14)
It’s an effective antioxidant which helps protects the brain from free radical damage.
Vitamin K is mainly found in green leafy vegetables.
If you don’t eat as many of these as you should, you can get the vitamin K you need from olive oil.
It can improve your ability to remember words — a big problem for many of us as we get older. (17)
Vitamin K is believed to play a role in preventing Alzheimer’s since patients are often found to be deficient. (18)
3. Olive oil decreases risk of depression.
The Standard American Diet (SAD) is loaded with unhealthy trans fats from fast food, processed food, and heated vegetable oils like canola, sunflower, soy, and safflower.
When participants in a large study replaced unhealthy vegetable oils with olive oil, they decreased their risk of depression by almost 50%. (19)
Researchers concluded that the more trans fats consumed, the higher the risk of depression.
4. Olive oil increases brain boosting chemicals.
Olive oil boosts levels of two important brain chemicals — brain-derived neurotrophic factor(BDNF) and nerve growth factor (NGF). (20, 21)
BDNF is a protein that stimulates new brain cell formation.
Low levels of BDNF are associated with depression and Alzheimer’s. (23)
Nerve growth factor enhances growth, repair, and signalling of sensory nerve cells which are responsible for transmitting information such as sight and sound. (24)
5. Olive oil protects your brain from degenerative diseases.
Higher intake of monounsaturated fats — the kind found in olive oil — increases memory and other cognitive functions in seniors. (25)
Following a Mediterranean diet high in olive oil can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by up to 40%. (26)
If you’ve ever eaten olive oil and noticed it made the back of your throat itch, that sensation was caused by oleocanthal. (27)
Oleocanthal can cross the blood-brain barrier and clear the beta-amyloid proteins associated with Alzheimer’s. (28)
The vitamin E in olive oil can also slow the progression of Alzheimer’s. (29)
How to Choose the Best Olive Oil
Olive oil comes from the fruit of the olive tree (Olea europae) originally from the part of the world known as the Mediterranean Basin.
It has been an important part of Mediterranean cuisine for 5,000 years.
Homer, the immortal Greek poet, called it “liquid gold.”
The ancient Greeks so valued olive oil that cutting down an olive tree was a crime punishable by death. (30)
Now there are several thousand olive tree cultivars grown throughout the world in areas with suitable climates such as parts of Australia, China, South America, and the United States.
But 98% of all olive trees are still grown in the Mediterranean region. (31)
From Tree to Bottle: How Extra Virgin Olive Oil Is Made
Traditionally, olives were crushed — both flesh and pit — to make a paste. This paste was then pressed to extract the oil.
The method of extracting olive oil has not changed much in thousands of years.
Now it’s extracted by centrifugal motion and the tools are stainless steel instead of stone.
There are four levels of virgin olive oil.
The lowest grade is not fit for human consumption and is designated for other uses, like making soap.
The top of the line olive oil is called extra virgin olive oil.
You’ll sometimes see this abbreviated as EVOO.
This means it’s cold-pressed so the temperature during processing does not exceed 86 degrees Fahrenheit. (32)
It also must meet high standards of low acidity and excellent taste.
If you’re looking for the most health benefits from your olive oil, extra virgin is definitely the place to start.
But there’s quite a bit more to consider.
Tips For Buying the Healthiest Olive Oil
Always buy the freshest extra virgin olive oil you can find.
Light can cause oxidation so buy olive oil in dark glass bottles only.
Modifiers on the label like “light, extra light, or pure” mean you are not getting the real deal.
“Light” in this case means lighter in taste, not lighter in calories.
The older olive oil is, the fewer polyphenols it will contain due to oxidation. (33)
Some bottles now come with an expiration date to remove the guesswork.
Some olive varieties naturally contain more polyphenols than others.
Coratina, Conicabra, Koroneiki, Moraiolo, and Picual olive varieties contain the most polyphenols. (34)
Is Your Olive Oil the “Real Deal”?
Investigative journalist Tom Mueller blew the lid off the fake olive oil industry in his book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.
It’s an engrossing and explosive exposé with as many twists and turns as a mystery novel.
It’s much more than a story about olive oil. It goes to the very heart of the corruption of our food supply.
Throughout Europe there are large scale facilities that pump out fake olive oil.
In one Italian bust alone, authorities broke up a criminal gang sitting on $8 million worth of fake oil.
These illicit manufacturers slap an Italian flag and the name of an imaginary producer on the label and dump this stuff on what are considered to be unsophisticated markets like the US, Australia, and China.
Fake olive oil can be olive oil diluted with poor quality oils, but sometimes there is no real olive oil at all.
Cheap and unhealthy soy or canola oils can be colored with industrial chlorophyll and flavored with artificial flavorings to mimic olive oil.
University of California Davis Olive Center Findings
In 2009, independent tests done at the University of California Davis Olive Center found that 69% of all store-bought extra virgin olive oil purchased in California failed to meet extra virgin olive oil standards.
The following brands failed to meet EVOO standards:
- Filippo Berio*
- Newman’s Own
- Rachel Ray
- Whole Foods
*Class action suits have been filed against Filippo Berio and Bertolli distributors for olive oil fraud in October, 2014. Together these companies make up a substantial portion of olive oil imported from Italy.
According to the 2009 report, these brands met genuine extra virgin olive oil standards:
- Corto Olive
- California Olive Ranch
- Kirkland Organic
- Lucero (Ascolano)
- McEvoy Ranch Organic
In 2011, the UC Davis Olive Center released an updated report on the state of olive oil.
This time, 73% of store-bought EVOO sold in California did not meet extra virgin olive oil standards.
This time, the following brands failed to meet EVOO standards:
- California Olive Ranch
- Cobram Estate
- Filippo Berio
Notice that the standings of California Olive Ranch have changed between the 2009 and the 2011 test.
EVOO oil samples that failed did so for one or more of these three reasons:
- oxidation by exposure to elevated temperatures, light, and/or aging
- adulteration with cheaper refined olive oil
- poor quality oil made from damaged and overripe olives, processing flaws, and/or improper oil storage
Consumer Reports Findings
In its September 2012 issue, Consumer Reports published results of their taste test of 138 bottles of extra virgin olive oil from 23 manufacturers.
The oil was sourced from a variety of countries including the US, Argentina, Greece, Chile, and Italy.
Their general finding was that the quality of those produced in California surpassed those from Italy.
The two that earned the highest scores were McEvoy Ranch and Trader Joe’s California Estate, both from California. (35)
This is great news if you shop at Trader Joe’s. Keep in mind that this super rating applies only to their California Estate label.
If you can’t find these top rated brands, you may find some of the other genuine EVOO brands at Amazon:
Buy Locally Produced Olive Oil
If you are lucky enough to live in a climate where olive trees grow, the best olive oil may be growing right in your backyard, so to speak.
If you buy from a local farm, their oil almost certainly will be fresh and of high quality.
At "Truth in Olive Oil", a site run by the author of Extra Virginity, you can find olive oil producers, exceptional olive oils, and olive oil stores in your area.
Some olive oil stores host tastings, similar to wine tastings.
Depending on the variety of olive and growing conditions, olive oil’s taste can be described as fruity, herbal, bitter, peppery, sweet, grassy, nutty, or buttery with hints of apple, pear, almond, or fig.
Bitter tasting olive oils are higher in polyphenols than those that taste sweet or buttery.
According to Olive Oil Times, “Unfortunately, studies have shown most people actually will choose a rancid olive oil over a fresh, high-quality one, thanks to years of knowing little else.”
Tips for Storing
Unlike wine which gets better with age, olive oil is meant to be consumed as soon as possible.
An unopened bottle kept in a cool, dark place should remain in good condition for one to two years.
Once you’ve opened a bottle, keep it away from heat and light as much as possible but don’t keep it in the refrigerator.
Don’t Count on the “Fridge” Test
You may have heard that you can test your olive oil to see if it’s genuine with the refrigeration test.
This involves putting your olive oil in the refrigerator to see if it hardens.
The theory is that if your olive oil hardens, it’s genuine olive oil.
However the University of California Davis Olive Oil Center tested both low and high quality extra virgin olive oil, canola oil, safflower oil, and blends of olive oil mixed with other oils.
Surprisingly, none of the oils congealed even after 60 hours in the fridge.
The study concluded that testing olive oil in the refrigerator is not a reliable way to judge whether it’s truly made from olives. Nor does the refrigerator test provide information on the quality of the oil.
Cooking with Olive Oil
You’ve probably heard that you should never cook with olive oil because it’s not stable when heated.
I always heard and believed this, too.
But looking at the latest research, this is not what I found.
Here are some reasons that cooking with olive oil is safe after all.
- Olive oil contains mostly monounsaturated fats which are stable when heated. (36) This makes olive oil a better choice for cooking than less stable polyunsaturated vegetable oils like sunflower and soy oils.
- Olive oil contains vitamin E and polyphenols — antioxidants which prevent oxidation. (37)
- Heating — even for very long periods of time — does not degrade extra virgin olive oil’s nutrients. (38) In this study, olive oil was heated for a jaw-dropping 36 hours!
- Olive oil’s smoke point — the point at which degradation begins to occur — is 410ºF (210ºC) which is well above the ideal temperature for frying food. (39)
One last anecdotal piece of evidence is that the people of the Mediterranean have been cooking with olive oil for thousands of years and are some of the healthiest people on earth.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil in a Nutshell
Olive oil may be one of the world’s healthiest foods.
It can nourish your brain now and protect it from degenerative disease in the future.
The benefits of olive oil come mainly from its polyphenols — compounds with potent antioxidant properties.
When buying, quality matters. Buy only extra virgin olive oil, then do your homework before choosing a brand.
Your best bets are to buy locally (if possible), buy from California, or pick an olive oil from the approved choices mentioned above.