Updated 29 July 2015

How to shop for olive oil

Olive oil has long been known for its many health benefits. But just how do you select the right olive oil when there are so many choices available?

Olive oil has long been known as one of the healthier oils, with some beneficial properties like its healthy (monounsaturated) fat content and abundant supply of polyphenols (powerful antioxidants that may prevent heart diseases, stroke and lower blood pressure).

A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that participants who followed the Mediterranean diet (compared to those who didn’t) and consumed just 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive a day (along with having at least 3 or more servings of fish per week, 3 servings of fruit, 2 servings of vegetables per day and replacing red meat with chicken) had a 30% lower risk of having a heart attack, stroke and dying of heart disease after 5 years.

But just how do you select the right olive oil when there are so many choices available? Here’s some practical advice to help you make that choice:

  • Buy extra virgin olive oil, in a dark bottle or metal can and store in a cool dry place as exposure to light can cause the oil to become rancid and lose its healthful properties
  • "Extra virgin" oils are of higher quality as the olives are processed within 24 hours of picking and also have more antioxidants in them than "virgin" oils.
  • "Pure" olive oil, or just olive oil, is heavily processed to remove flavours and aromas and, although still a good source of healthy fats, it is stripped of some of its antioxidant content.
  • Filtered/unfiltered: oils that are unfiltered basically mean that there are tiny particles of olive flesh in them and because of this, they tend to have a reduced shelf life and also have a cloudy appearance if the particles have not settled at the bottom.
  • The colour of the oil is not indicative of quality – but merely variety and ripeness of the olives that were used to make the oil.
  • "Light," "lite" and "extra-light" are purely marketing terms used on highly refined oils that refer to mild flavour and/or colour, not reduced energy content.
  • "Product of Greece" or "Product of Italy" – when you see this on the bottle, it means that the oil was processed in that country but not necessarily that the olives were grown there. However, there are oils that are made solely from Italian or Californian olives for example – these tend to be quite expensive as well as have a more distinct flavour.
  • Smoke point – avoid heating any oil (not just extra-virgin olive oil) to smoking point, as overheating may create harmful substances and alter the healthful properties of any oil.
  • Abide by the expiration dates as these are good indications of shelf life.
Tip: If you don’t use olive oil frequently, buy smaller bottles as air exposure can diminish the flavour and antioxidant content.

  - (SA Heart and Stroke Foundation. Sign up for their monthly newsletter)

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