August 14 2019

Primal Guide to Olive Oil: Why and When to Use It

By Mark Sisson
64 Comments

Olive oil is the great uniter of the dietary tribes. While your Ray Peatians might grumble at the 10% PUFA content and hardcore carnivores will balk at its vegetal origins, the vast majority of dietary camps—vegans, vegetarians, paleo, Primal, keto, Mediterranean, Weight Watchers, etc.—consider olive oil to be a healthy fat. I have it on good authority that Walter Willet oils his mustache with Croatian olive oil, Dean Ornish conditions his hair with Cretan olive oil, and Peter Attia keeps a bathtub full of Damascan olive oil behind a secret panel in his library that only unlocks if you complete a tabata session on his Peloton. I even saw Shawn Baker sneaking sips from a flask with green oily fingerprints when we recently hung out. Everyone likes olive oil. There are almost no exceptions.

This is about where I usually step in to make a contrarian claim about the super-popular food, citing some arcane study or pointing out an evolutionary argument against it.

Not with olive oil. As much as I love my avocado oil, I see no reason to question the legitimacy of extra virgin olive oil as a valid member of your diet. Personally, I include both. Here’s why….

Healthy Components of Olive Oil

Its MUFA content. Monounsaturated fats are pretty much universally lauded. Almost as resistant to oxidation as saturated fats, they raise HDL and lower LDL. Cellular membranes and mitochondria with a lot of monounsaturated fat function better than ones with more polyunsaturated fats. They’re the rock of the fatty acid world.

Its polyphenol content. Extra virgin olive oil is rich in polyphenols. Polyphenols are the plant nutrients that act as antioxidants in the plant—protecting it from predators and oxidative stress and heat and light. They act as minor toxins in us, provoking an adaptive hormetic response that makes us stronger, fitter, and healthier. Polyphenols get mixed reviews from different dietary camps. Carnivores often call them outright toxins with no benefit. Conventional skeptics usually miss the whole “hormesis” thing altogether and assume proponents think polyphenols are antioxidants that directly block oxidative stress in us. My nuanced take is that polyphenols can be pretty useful, but that there’s likely a U-shaped relationship: Too little is suboptimal, and too much is too much, just like with exercise, sun exposure, and any other type of adaptive stress we experience.

Its prominent role in classic Mediterranean cuisine. Olive oil has been eaten (and used in cosmetics, to cleanse gladiator champions, etc.) in the Mediterranean (including areas of Africa, Europe, and Asia) for thousands of years. It’s got a good track record of human use.

Those are all good theoretical reasons to use olive oil. What do human studies say?

Research Supporting Olive Oil Consumption

  1. Overweight women ate one of two breakfasts for a year. The first was supplemented with soybean oil. The second was supplemented with extra virgin olive oil. Both breakfasts were identical save for the fat source. At the end of one year, those who ate the EVOO breakfast had higher HDL, lower inflammatory markers, better blood pressure, and lower body weight.
  2. Type 2 diabetics with bad blood lipids either took a statin or EVOO. The statin was slightly better at reducing LDL and increasing HDL, but not by much, and the EVOO didn’t impair any physiological pathways or cause any undesired second order effects. I’d take the EVOO every time.
  3. Among a Mediterranean population, high EVOO consumption was linked to a reduced risk of fractures and osteoporosis. High consumption of regular olive oil was not.
  4. Extra virgin olive oil, but not corn oil, reduces postprandial oxidative stress.
  5. Women who ate high-polyphenol EVOO every day for 8 weeks enjoyed reduced oxidative damage to their DNA.
  6. Dietary EVOO reduced the number of oxidized LDL and increased HDL in proportion to the phenolic content of the oil; the more phenolics, the greater the effect. Tested LDL was also more resistant to oxidation after being removed from subjects and exposed to oxidative stress. Similar effects were found in a more recent study, in which men were given either EVOO with high phenolic content or refined olive oil with zero phenolics present. Men consuming high phenolic EVOO had less oxidized LDL and more phenolics present in LDL, indicating that olive phenolics reach serum LDL and exert antioxidant effects in real live actual humans.

Tips For Incorporating Olive Oil

There aren’t many foods you can’t make better by topping off with a little olive oil. The flavor of a good olive oil is nuanced enough to elevate the simplest dishes, and that’s what I enjoy about it. Think everything from marinated nuts and olives to a light dinner of Cacio e Pepe zoodles.

Cream of garlic (or cream of anything) soup? Better with a drizzle of olive oil before serving. Savory Labneh yogurt? Also better “finished” with olive oil. And don’t forget olive oil sauces. I just shared one of my favorites this week: pesto. It’s a totally modular sauce you can make with your favorite oil, nuts and herbs, but extra virgin olive oil remains the traditional choice.

And salads? Like extra virgin avocado oil, extra virgin olive oil is good with anything you throw together, this Turkish Salad being one great example. Sardine Nicoise Salad is another. Speaking of canned fish, choosing those packed in genuine extra virgin olive oil can be a flavorful option. No need to discard the oil here, especially if you incorporate the oil into the dish itself like this Olive Oil Packed Tuna and Seared Tomatoes recipe does.

Okay, so drizzling extra virgin olive oil across your dinner salad is healthy, but isn’t olive oil sensitive to heat? Aren’t you supposed to avoid cooking with it? Actually, no. Extra virgin olive oil is resistant to low and medium heat.

Despite being heated at 180 ºC (356 ºF) for 36 hours, two varieties of extra virgin olive oil exhibited strong resistance to oxidative damage and retained most of their “minor [phenolic] compounds.” Another study added olive phenols to vegetable oil, then heated it. Adding the olive phenols made the vegetable oil more resistant to oxidation and preserved the vitamin E content, offering more protection than even a synthetic antioxidant designed to do the job.

It’s not just that nothing bad really happens when you cook with EVOO. It’s also that uniquely good things happen when you cook with it.

When you cook sofrito, that Spanish staple of sauteed onions, garlic, peppers, and tomato that forms the basis of many recipes, with olive oil, it gets healthier. Cooking sofrito using olive oil has been shown to protect and enhance the polyphenols found in the various vegetables increase the bioavailability of the polyphenols. The same thing happens to other vegetables cooked in olive oil. Tomato lycopene content, too, is enhanced after cooking with olive oil.

Now, how do I use olive oil?

How I Use Olive Oil

I’ll occasionally take a teaspoon straight up, if it’s good stuff (and I only have good stuff). I really relish that peppery bite you get in the back of your throat—that’s the polyphenol burn.

I drizzle it on cooked lamb—often marinated in nothing but the same olive oil—and follow with flaky salt. Lamb stands up well to more complex marinades, but it’s also great grilled plain and drizzled with good EVOO and salt. Nothing else.

Tomato and cucumber salad. Tomato, cucumber, EVOO, balsamic vinegar, salt. Nothing fancy.

If you haven’t noticed, I like to use good EVOO where I can taste it.

I love preparing fish with olive oil. There’s even evidence that olive oil and fish fat have a synergistic effect on blood lipids and oxidative stress, combining to exert greater benefits than either fat alone or through simple addition.

To sum up…

Olive oil is great for eating cold and dressing salads. This really brings out the flavors and preserves the polyphenols.

But olive oil is great for many cooking methods, too. Olive oil is resistant to heat damage in low and medium heat applications like slow roasting, baking and light sauteing, thanks to the stability of the fatty acids and antioxidant capacity of the polyphenols. It preserves and even enhances nutrient content of vegetables when used to cook.

Olive oil has been around for millennia, and it will continue to stick around. I happen to love Mediterranean food, so you’ll always find it in my kitchen.

In fact, when researchers tried to justify replacing EVOO with canola oil as the primary fat in the Mediterranean diet, they couldn’t do it. Wanted to, but couldn’t. Can you imagine? You’re on your honeymoon, traveling through Tuscany. You stop at a rustic vineyard. The proprietor, Giancarlo, wants to show you his prized homegrown oil, just pressed. He brings in a cask of the finest canola oil; you can still smell the hexane residues.

No thanks.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Do you like olive oil? How do you use it? What’s your favorite way to consume it?

Take care.

References:

Galvão cândido F, Xavier valente F, Da silva LE, Gonçalves leão coelho O, Gouveia peluzio MDC, Gonçalves alfenas RC. Consumption of extra virgin olive oil improves body composition and blood pressure in women with excess body fat: a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Eur J Nutr. 2018;57(7):2445-2455.

Khan TM, Iqbal S, Rashid MA. Comparison Of Lipid Lowering Effect Of Extra Virgin Olive Oil And Atorvastatin In Dyslipidaemia In Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus. J Ayub Med Coll Abbottabad. 2017;29(1):83-86.

García-gavilán JF, Bulló M, Canudas S, et al. Extra virgin olive oil consumption reduces the risk of osteoporotic fractures in the PREDIMED trial. Clin Nutr. 2018;37(1):329-335.

Carnevale R, Pignatelli P, Nocella C, et al. Extra virgin olive oil blunt post-prandial oxidative stress via NOX2 down-regulation. Atherosclerosis. 2014;235(2):649-58.

Salvini S, Sera F, Caruso D, et al. Daily consumption of a high-phenol extra-virgin olive oil reduces oxidative DNA damage in postmenopausal women. Br J Nutr. 2006;95(4):742-51.

Marrugat J, Covas MI, Fitó M, et al. Effects of differing phenolic content in dietary olive oils on lipids and LDL oxidation–a randomized controlled trial. Eur J Nutr. 2004;43(3):140-7.

De la torre-carbot K, Chávez-servín JL, Jaúregui O, et al. Elevated circulating LDL phenol levels in men who consumed virgin rather than refined olive oil are associated with less oxidation of plasma LDL. J Nutr. 2010;140(3):501-8.

Allouche Y, Jiménez A, Gaforio JJ, Uceda M, Beltrán G. How heating affects extra virgin olive oil quality indexes and chemical composition. J Agric Food Chem. 2007;55(23):9646-54.

Casal S, Malheiro R, Sendas A, Oliveira BP, Pereira JA. Olive oil stability under deep-frying conditions. Food Chem Toxicol. 2010;48(10):2972-9.

Fullana A, Carbonell-barrachina AA, Sidhu S. Comparison of volatile aldehydes present in the cooking fumes of extra virgin olive, olive, and canola oils. J Agric Food Chem. 2004;52(16):5207-14.

Esposto S, Taticchi A, Di maio I, et al. Effect of an olive phenolic extract on the quality of vegetable oils during frying. Food Chem. 2015;176:184-92.

Rinaldi de alvarenga JF, Quifer-rada P, Westrin V, Hurtado-barroso S, Torrado-prat X, Lamuela-raventós RM. Mediterranean Sofrito Home-Cooking Technique Enhances Polyphenol Content In Tomato Sauce. J Sci Food Agric. 2019;

Rinaldi de alvarenga JF, Quifer-rada P, Francetto juliano F, et al. Using Extra Virgin Olive Oil to Cook Vegetables Enhances Polyphenol and Carotenoid Extractability: A Study Applying the Technique. Molecules. 2019;24(8)

Ramírez-anaya Jdel P, Samaniego-sánchez C, Castañeda-saucedo MC, Villalón-mir M, De la serrana HL. Phenols and the antioxidant capacity of Mediterranean vegetables prepared with extra virgin olive oil using different domestic cooking techniques. Food Chem. 2015;188:430-8.

Vallverdú-queralt A, Regueiro J, De alvarenga JF, Torrado X, Lamuela-raventos RM. Carotenoid profile of tomato sauces: effect of cooking time and content of extra virgin olive oil. Int J Mol Sci. 2015;16(5):9588-99.

Hoffman R, Gerber M. Can rapeseed oil replace olive oil as part of a Mediterranean-style diet?. Br J Nutr. 2014;112(11):1882-95.

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64 thoughts on “Primal Guide to Olive Oil: Why and When to Use It”

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  1. I’ve read that some “olive oil” has canola or other oils mixed in, fraudulently. Is that still an issue, and is there any way to be sure (reliable brands or sources) that what you are buying is pure and authentic?

    1. I second this. I always buy either Whole Foods Mediterranean EVOO or Trader Joe’s EVOO because they’re both only $7 for a liter bottle, which is cheaper than I’ve seen anywhere else, even at walmart. I have tried more expensive brands from Trader Joe’s that were still not too pricey that had a much more unique flavor and wonder if these were better quality. If I can’t be sure the brands I buy are pure, and canola oil is a concern, I will stop using olive oil immediately and just stick to butter…

  2. I’ve done a lot of research on EVOO and love the quality stuff. However there’s a lot of adulterated EVOO’s out there, so beware. I like Bragg’s or Lucini brand.
    As for the canned fish with olive oil …. although it’s a good combination, most all canned fish with olive oil is made with cheap adulterated oils. It’s better to buy it without and add your own quality EVOO. Personally the thought of eating fish that’s been marinating in the cheap stuff for who knows how long is a nasty thought 🙁

    1. I call BS on this comment……the same article you linked says..”.Stanford Coronary Risk Intervention Project, have demonstrated that diets VERY LOW IN TOTAL FAT and cholesterol can not only prevent atherosclerosis but actually shrink plaque and reverse atherosclerosis.” It’s the carbs and sugars that cause inflammation, not the fats! And after checking the Stanford article, I noticed it’s dated 1994…..we’ve come a long way since then….

  3. Thanks for the article on EVOO. Does it matter what origin you use? I heard that California variety is better than Mediterranean variety.

  4. “Type 2 diabetics with bad blood lipids”

    Mark, do you subscribe to the cholesterol hypothesis of heart disease?

    1. “Bad” blood lipids in diabetics are an indication that damage to vessels has already occurred due to glycation and the damage is being repaired by the cholesterol.

  5. I like it drizzled over cottage cheese for lunch or brunch, topped with cracked pepper, yum!

  6. We make all our salad dressings at home (I do by some primal kitchen from time to time) and olive oil is always the base. Since I have one salad minimum most days I get a fair amount of it in my diet. We roast veggies with it sometimes too but I have to admit butter and avocado oil get used way more often.

    A helpful tip for folks that I believe even Mark pointed out is the organic Kirkland brand olive oil at Costco is an excellent choice and super affordable!

  7. I typically use an EVOO spray on meats before searing on the grill. Could this be harmful with the flame on high?

  8. About that U-shaped curve – do you have any idea regarding the optimal content?
    There are some “high phenolic” EVOOs out there that can be 2, 5, 10, even 20x richer in phenols than average EVOOs. I’m wondering when there would be a risk to err on the too much side, especially on a high fat diet.

    1. Only problem is that unlike in Europe where it’s required, most brands in the USA don’t mark the acidity level. Reader be aware the the olive oil with the blue label that says California in bold letters, isn’t local. It mentions several nation and there’s no way to know which, or if it’s a bland. Someone, mentioned braggs. To me it’s just a hyped brand and I say this as someone who grew up nursing olive oils. (: You can do better

      Mark, I glad you explained again the way our body reacts to ingested antioxidant. Many don’t understand the hormetic response and think the more the merrier. As a result, they are harming themselves

  9. Dear Mark,
    Amazing and excellent article. Thank you for being fair and honest. Again, your frank conversation gives the world a chance to see all the good. Really so very important to share these facts, as well as your personal opinion to enlighten all of us that are so bombarded and burdened with biased information. A sincere “Thank You!!”

  10. I was kind of hoping this would touch on olive oil fraud. I’m always concerned about whether the olive oil I’m purchasing is just a bunch of soybean oil.

    1. It’s a good thing to worry about! I recently ate at a Whole Foods salad bar and used the salad bar olive oil. I react to vegetable oils with a face rash and itchy lips. After I ate what they insisted was 100% extra virgin olive oil I got that same reaction within 20 minutes. So, beware, even at Whole Foods there can be a problem in the supply chain! I have never reacted to quality olive oil btw.

  11. “Speaking of canned fish, choosing those packed in genuine extra virgin olive oil can be a flavorful option.”

    Mark,
    How can one be assured that they’re packed in genuine EVOO? Is there some source/website that lists those that have been tested and verified? Call me a skeptic. If I’m Crown Prince, King Oscar, Starkist, or whoever, I’m buying massive quantities of olive oil for my fish packing operation. And the cheaper price gets my business. I’m not sending samples off to a lab to test if it’s authentic EVOO.

    1. Sometimes we just have to quit being afraid and suspicious of every morsel of food while eating. Just eat them without the fear they may not have your standards in mind. No one does. We have enough to really fear these days without adding the fear of every bite of food we eat. I did that for awhile and it was soul sucking. I like Marks approach. Real food chosen for what works for you. Do the best you can. Step back and step out into the rest of your life. Peace.

  12. I make kale chips with evoo tumeric and black pepper. I also get the burn in this back of my throat and thought it was bad, almost quit eating it, glad to hear its good!

  13. I use EVOO, but I get slightly ill when watching “celebrity ” chefs adding “just a dash’ then pouring on half a bottle! I’m not a gigantic fan of any oils (h=this may be the result of a period in early childhood when Mother used to dose us weekly with castor oil in orange juice,. I don’t drink fruit juice either, or a truly revolting diet from my teens of eggs & a quarter glass of “delicious’ oil. It wasn’t delicious and I was violently ill about 20 minutes later! However if I do use oil it is proper EVOO & Avocado. Avoid Canola (merely rape seed with a fancy name) or any of those other not so wonderful manufactured oils at all costs.

  14. Please share the “good” olive oil brands you personally use. Thanks!! Great article.

  15. You only have the good ones among EVOOs… any suggestions on brands?

    The options in my area are all filtered crap with pretty-sounding label, and ordering blindly online isn’t the greatest alternative.

    1. Zoe olive oil (from Spain, in the tin can) is a reasonably-priced brand that has been third-party tested for purity. It is the only brand I buy now (available at Amazon, Ebay, and lots of other sellers). Tastes great…….fruity, but with a slight peppery bite. I use it on everything……

  16. Only problem is how to get pure one.

    200 brands, and none to trust.
    India is most fraudulent when it comes to evoo.

    Most of them even fail the basic fridge test. Haven’t ever seen a fresh olive in my country to test it’s oil by taste alone.

    1. I’m by no means promoting anyone’s product, but I trust Braag organic olive oil. I did buy the fancier ones before but it became a hassle to find them. And super expensive. I think it may be harder to do fakery with organic evoo, but who knows for sure?

  17. Terrific info, thank you!
    Can you do the same breakdown and analysis of algae oil? Please. I’m using ‘thrive’ brand. Thanks!

  18. After reading a while back that you said the polyphenols in olive oil protected the oil from oxidizing with heat, I found out I LOVE eggs fried in olive oil. I have been doing this almost every day for over a year now. I use a teensy bit more than medium heat to fry them on cast iron. Is this too high for the oil to resist oxidation? Or is it fine because the oil isn’t heated for long (only a few minutes)? I literally don’t eat eggs any other way now because fried in olive oil just tastes too good (i also season with coconut aminos, it never gets old).

  19. I use avocado oil. It has a very high smoke point and tastes great. Also, many olive oils are tainted with other oils.

  20. To what extent do you get the same benefits from just eating olives? I’m usually more inclined to do that… wondering if there’s any research on the health benefits?

    1. Very good point Susan. I concur when you eat the “whole” food your getting the micronutrients along with the fiber and all the other properties that come with it. Instead of having another food that has been heated, processed and solvents added to maintain shelf life.

  21. Though mostly low carb, my favorite occasional treat is a cup of popcorn doused with a good fruity or peppery olive oil

  22. I use olive oil when I have to make a fried dish. I am from India and we Indians generally use mustard oil as a daily cooking oil. But when is something special and we have to prepare special fried dishes like samosas, kachori, and puri, olive oil is the best option.
    But I personally have felt olive oil works best in winters. In summers, I have found it causing burns to stomach and skin.

  23. The say Steve Jobs chef killed him cooking everything
    in “Extra Virgin Oilv Oil.” Just sayin…

  24. Thanks for taking the time to do this deep-dive on olive oil, Mark (and your “worker bees!”). It’s a little odd how the purists have done so much fearmongering about EVOO. I, too *love* a good, peppery oil…one that really stings the back of the throat, and I also will just take a spoonful, straight up, from time to time.

    Now I have a link I can send people to when they ask me about olive oil because various and sundry (self-proclaimed) internet experts have scared them away from it. I use high-quality EVOO very often, and I also love my Primal Kitchen dressings, too. 🙂

  25. I had 4 centenarians in my family in my family who lived in Greece and if they had to give blood, it wood have been 90% Olive oil and 10% lunatic juice.

  26. What about just plain (and more processed but neutral tasting) olive oil?
    I make my mayonnaise with an olive oil blend that’s 95% olive oil and 5% extra virgin olive oil. Is this really any better than using sunflower oil?

  27. This was really well written and I am relieved at your conclusions. I married a Greek 20 years ago and so olive oil is a way of life and the oil I use for 98.3% of things. Often when we go to the village we return with a giant canister secured in a wooden crate that a man in the village makes specially for this purpose. The oil comes from the family trees and it is green and cloudy and burns the throat. It is incredible. We try to spare it but often it goes quickly. All the more reason to return again the following year.

  28. I use olive oil (Bragg brand), avocado oil and coconut oil in my bone broth and for cooking, spreading on veggies etc. I figure using all three will cover my oil bases. 🙂

  29. You do not mention the different grades or better or worse Evoo on the market. Any thoughts

  30. I am using it to shave but I switch between olive oil and coconut I come to the conclusion that coconut oil is a bit cheaper and I’d rather consume all of olive oil

  31. When the harvest is good, I make a few bottles of oil. I have long believed that cooking with olive oil has no bad repercussions, despite the poor reputation that it has. My Spanish friends pour it on almost everything. If an orchardist loves his harvest, he will bottle it in colored glass, and urge his friends to drink it up quickly. It doesn’t benefit by ageing, oxidation, or plastic containment. Eat well.

  32. Haven’t there been olive oil scams over the years, where the country of origin is fake, and the oil may be from oils that are similar? I remember reading about hazelnut oil being used as a cheap substitute. Which is weird because I love hazelnuts and would prefer it to olive oil, if it was unrefined. I probably gave that book to a library, it was all about olive oil tasting and also talked about the fakery. I did buy some of their recommended types of olive oil, but it’s so arcane to find the suppliers I gave up. I stick with an organic one now and figure that’s probably getting rid of the worst shenanigans.

    I cook with extra virgin olive oil. As long as you don’t try to roast spices in it, the temperature shouldn’t go farther than 300 degrees. I don’t think I could deep fry in it, but besides that, I use it. You’d never do it again if you burn it once, the smell is acrid and not subtle. Just add veggies sooner rather than later and sautee away.

  33. Every time I see these claims about EVVO, I think:
    1. EVOO is rich in MUFAs; so is BEEF FAT.
    2. BEEF FAT is rich in SFAs; so is EVOO.
    3. EVOO is rich in polyphenols. Does polyphenols show some improvement in healthspan and longevity in humans in a prospective study?
    4. EVOO is a liquid fat. There are some studies showing that liquid fats increases intestinal permeability.
    OBS.: yes, I´m doing carnivore.

  34. Dr. Stephen Gundry recommends consuming 1 liter/week? What do you think, Mark?

    Also, apparently there’s a lot of “cheap” olive oils that are “cut” with cheap canola oils, etc…Can you shed some light on this and recommend some quality brands or what we should look for?

    thanks!

  35. I have a subscription to the olive oil hunter and I get 3 bottles every three months. The EVOO is amazing. It is expensive but worth it.

  36. Great article. We get 10 litre glass containers filled yearly from a very small farm in Abruzzo, Italy. (I live near Venezia). The family grow, pick, and press the olives without any outside interferences on century-old mills. Certified organic, it’s the best oil I’ve ever tasted. Unfiltered and peppery, it’s the only oil I use to dress, cook, and bake with. I use coconut oil in my coffee but other than that it’s EVOO above all.

  37. You can drink olive oil, but can you carbonate it? I’m going to test this when I get home. I’ll report back.

    1. Wow. Do not do this. It’s like the bubbles have little knife edges. It’s like drinking grit or filings.

  38. I had to throw out a bottle today; it had gone bad after being outside for months. I did a big cleanup today, clearing a bunch of stuff out of a shed I was staying in. Someone ratted me out and called the police even though the shed wasn’t used for anything else but storing junk and I heard people talking about tearing it down soon. Sheesh, I’m sick of the war on homeless people.