How to Choose the Best Olive Oil

home cook drizzling extra virgin olive oil in a panWhen you go to a grocery store, you’ll see a lot of different kinds of olive oil – different colors, from almost clear to yellow to deep green, different descriptors on the label, and vastly different price ranges.

Which one goes with which application? How does the taste compare? Is the expensive stuff worth the money? In this article, we’re going to go through it all.


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Types of Olive Oil

Virgin, extra virgin, light, blended… what does it all mean? Here, we will go through the different types of olive oil and the pros and cons of each.

Virgin Olive Oil

Virgin olive oil is produced only by physical means, rather than by chemical treatment. The best stuff comes from only ripe olives (as green and overripe olives produce bitter and rancid oil, respectively) ground into a paste using millstones or steel drums. By definition, a virgin olive oil has not undergone any processing other than washing, decanting, centrifuging, and filtering (although none of these are required for virgin oil, nothing else is permitted). Some heat can be applied and, as long as it doesn’t alter the composition of the oil, the process can still be dubbed virgin pressing.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Extra virgin olive oil is extracted from the first press. As with virgin olive oil, processing involves only washing, decanting, centrifuging, and filtering. Low heat can be applied as long as it does not alter the quality of the olive oil.

Extra virgin olive oil is widely regarded as the pinnacle of olive oils. According to the International Olive Oil Council, extra virgin olive oil must contain at most 0.8% acidity, with a “superior taste.” Extra virgin can also be unfiltered (which deepens the flavor and reduces shelf life) or cold-pressed (wherein the pressing is slow and gradual, without generating much frictional heat, and which results in better flavors). Most extra virgin also contains the most polyphenols, which are some of my favorite antioxidants.

Extra virgin olive oil will generally be more expensive than virgin olive oil of similar quality.


Primal Kitchen® Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil available here 


Light Olive Oil

Light olive oil doesn’t have fewer calories than the other varieties of olive oil. It just lacks flavor and color. It may also contain less of the beneficial polyphenol compounds that make olive oil so appealing.

Refined Olive Oil

Refined olive oil takes poor quality (either due to acid content or other defects) virgin oil and processes it until it is edible. Refining is usually done with charcoal filters or chemical processes. Refined olive oil is more shelf-stable, but it’s also essentially flavorless.

Olive Pomace Oil

Olive Pomace oil is extracted from the olive solids (pomace) leftover from the pressing, usually using chemical solvents. This isn’t culinary olive oil, and it’s definitely not meant to be eaten. Most olive oil-based soaps you see are made with olive pomace oil.

Blended Olive Oil

Blended olive oils are, in my opinion, to be generally avoided. While it can be a blend of different olive oil varieties, most often you’ll find it blended with cheaper industrial seed oils like canola or some other vegetable oil. You’ll get increased shelf life and polyunsaturated fat content along with less monounsaturated fat. No thanks.

What to Look For When You Buy Olive Oil – A Few Things to Keep in Mind

Just because something is labeled “extra virgin,” though, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good. In fact, rather than buying a mid-priced or inexpensive bottle of Italian or Greek extra virgin olive oil, you might look for a domestic brand. Those extra virgins are fragile oils, and the journey from the Mediterranean can result in a bland bottle. I’ve also read that a lot of the extra virgin that makes it over here in mass quantities isn’t worth it (and that’s been my experience, sadly).

When choosing an oil, treat it a bit like wine and engage your senses. Smell it – it should smell like olives, very clean and almost like grass and apples. Don’t rely too much on sight – the color of an oil is easily manipulated. Instead, go with the one that really matters: taste. Take a half teaspoon or so into your mouth and swirl it around (again, like wine). First and foremost, it should taste like olives, but there are other flavors in the best oils. Grassiness, apples, even fennel are pretty common in really great olive oil. If it’s metallic-tasting or has a faint paint thinner scent, it’s probably rancid. If it’s light, delicious, and barely coats your mouth (without feeling greasy), it’s probably great stuff. And then my favorite part, the finish. The best oils from the first harvest with the highest antioxidant content will leave a spicy finish on your throat, like mild peppers.

Just experiment. Keep trying them until you find one you like. The different varietals are all unique, so your journey might be a long one. Of course, I have a favorite. I kept these qualities in mind when sourcing and developing it.

The thing with olive oil is that you need to use it the right way. The best extra virgin, unfiltered, cold-pressed olive oil should never be used to sauté something because heat can mar the delicate flavor. Instead, use high quality stuff as a finisher. Cook with butter then top the dish off with your prized extra virgin oil. That way, the taste and nutritional benefits are retained without wasting any of your precious nectar on a cast iron skillet.

Olive Oil Storage

Store your oil in a cool, dark place. Heat and light are now your biggest enemies (be sure to buy an oil in a dark bottle). Extra virgin is the least stable, so keep it at a good temperature (somewhere between 57 and 65 degrees, like a wine cellar). You can refrigerate other olive oils if your kitchen is too hot, but refrigerating extra virgin olive oil can disrupt the delicate flavors. If you get extra virgin that’s tasty enough, of course, you won’t have to worry about long-term storage – you’ll be guzzling it straight out of the bottle.

Further Reading:

The Definitive Guide to Fats

The Definitive Guide to Saturated Fats 

The Definitive Guide to Collagen

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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58 thoughts on “How to Choose the Best Olive Oil”

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  1. I like to cook with organic ghee or coconut oil & drizzle w/ EVOO…though sometimes I get lazy & just cook with the good stuff. Sad but true.
    I wish I knew of some wonderful oils to recommend. I like to go to Williams-Sonoma and sample the oils they have – there’s always a dozen or so to try. They are like fine wine and often just as expensive!
    I read recently that places like the Hill Country in Texas are producing olive oils now so if any Apples live near Austin you can get some local EVOO at Farmers Markets or the famous Central Market now. Lucky you!

  2. I love making homemade salad dressings with just olive oil and balsamic vinegar… lettuce coated with that combo just tastes amazing!

  3. Most (all?) light olive oils are not olive oil at all, but some other oil. If you read the fine print on the bottle you will see that it is really OLIVE tasting OIL, with the tasting in tiny print.

    I love some good olive oil combined with a splash of aged 10 years balsamic vinegar (There is a noticeable different between aged 3 years and aged 10 years, I haven’t been able to find anything aged longer) on my salads.

  4. Well, it’s not in Southern California, but I got some great olive oil from St. Helena Olive Oil company in Napa. It was actually gift, but I received the rosemary infused oil. The olive oil plus their aged balsamic made a delicious combo for my salads. I’m a college student and it’s fairly expensive so I’ve been holding out on buying my own. Lately I’ve been getting my olive oil from Trader Joe’s as well. I found the website if anyone wants to check it out. The website is https://www.sholiveoil.com

  5. Look into the Italian oils imported by the Rare Wine Company in CA. I buy a case of oil from them every year and they are the most amazing oils. The oils they import are the best olive oils I’ve ever tasted – period. If stored properly, they age reasonably well also.

    I still have a few bottles of oil from the 2007 harvest and my case of 2008 oils should arrive shortly.

  6. Being on Paleo, I drink olive oil a few times a day – about a mouthful each time, then chase it with either milk or coffee so I don’t gag. I’ve noticed that even after years of doing this I still hate the taste of olive oil! I think I’m going to try better oil rather than the huge, cheap jug-o-oil I usually get from Publix. Thanks for the article Mark!!

  7. Mark, what is the brand of California olive oil you found and liked at Trader Joe’s? I want to look for it!

  8. Of all olive oils, i’d use extra virgin, and YES, definitely buy it in a dark glass bottle.

    What i’m a big fan of is almond oil, i really love the flavor it gives meat when i saute’ and it’s great drizzled on a salad.

  9. Kim –

    The most recent one I picked up is:

    “Extra Virgin CA Estate Olive Oil” (unfiltered and cold pressed from arbequina olives)

    Pretty good stuff for the price.

  10. Thanks! I will definitely look for this at TJ. I’m glad you pointed out the benefit of looking for local brands. I’d always thought the imported stuff was supposed to be better.

  11. How long can I reasonably keep a bottle of olive oil after opening it? What if I store it at room temp varying from 68-74 degrees? I have usually purchased large bottles that take me a year to go through…seems like a bad idea now!

  12. What do you think of the Costco Kirkland brand of olive oil that comes in the big jugs?

    1. There’s an interview with Dr Phinney where he says he had Costco olive oil analyzed and found that it’s the real thing (not diluted with other oils).

  13. I LOVE the Trader Joe’s CA cold pressed olive oil. Best cheap stuff around (I keep a bottle at work 😉

    I would add that if you use extra virgin olive oil you should be careful to not use it in a blender or food processor, as it can become unpleasantly bitter. I’ve ruined hummus and pesto with this mistake. I wrote an article about the scientific explanation for this phenomenon if anyone is interested.

  14. Bariani EVOO is stone-crushed, cold-pressed, pesticide-free, decanted and unfiltered. Bottled in dark glass and every batch is labeled with a harvest date so you know exactly how long it’s been on the shelf. (A boon for those of us concerned about the notoriously fast oxidation of pricey oils!) It’s usually deep green in color, with that spicy bite that comes from loads of polyphenols.

    You can order online from them directly (https://www.barianioliveoil.com/) or via Amazon, as well as through a lot of health/raw food websites. The (family-owned and -run) business is located in Sacramento. I never have trouble finding their product in Whole Foods and other markets here in the SF Bay Area, but your grocery-hunting mileage may vary.

    Truly, Bariani is the Cadillac of olive oils. I tried switching back to a cheaper variety once–never again. Salads just don’t have the same kick without it!

    …And no, I don’t work for the company. 🙂

    Hope that helps!

    –Longtime reader, first-time commenter.

  15. I have been buying the California Estate Cold Press Olive Oil from Trader Joe’s, and for the first time, after having read your blog post, tried it by itself. I tasted exactly what you described: olives, slight hint of grass, subtle taste of fennel, and finally, the peppery tingling on the back of the tongue and down the throat. Wonderful! Thanks for an awareness of olive oil beyond its healthfulness.

  16. Great article Mark!

    Aussie girl here and I buy the big 4 litre tins and keep refilling my small bottles. I always buy a Spanish Olive Oil produced and packed in Spain called “Moro – Aceite De Oliva Espanol”. I use the ‘Extra Virgin’ for all my salad dressing and light sauteing or drizzling over food and ‘Pure’ for all my other cooking needs that may require more heating or quantity for recipes or cooking. I also use the Extra Virgin with added chilli or lemon for a dipping oil when I serve things like Dukkah.

    I simply love olive oil for its versatility, texture and flavour and always say it’s good for the coat 🙂

  17. Grok never had olive oil.

    Why not use something more natural, like lard?

    Much better for you…

  18. Thanks Mark for another very informative article. I always hated EVOO, thought it tasted crappy. But now I realize I was just buying crappy EVOO. lol. I will look for the good stuff at Trader Joes and report back.

  19. Good article. Beware though. A few years ago, the was a case of fraud involving olive oil. Some small time producers were labeling their olive oils as higher quality oils, and charging a huge premium.

  20. Hahaha, one more day and I would just ask why you advertise something that has terrible plastic taste. Now I now I just bought wrong oil

  21. Mark, I buy the Costco Kirkland organic ex. virgin. Tastes pretty good to me.

  22. EVOO rocks. I have about 8oz a day, mostly just drizzled over anything I eat, so it’s worth it to pay a few extra bucks for better oils.

    I also use EVOO in my morning smoothie but have never had an issue with bitterness.

    Two notes about using olive oil for salad dressing:
    1. Since EVOOs have very distinct taste profiles, if you want the flavor of your vinegar or other ingredients to play a larger role, use regular olive oil.
    2. Fastest and simplest way to mix a salad dressing: throw 3T oil in a large bowl, add a dash of your favorite vinegar, some dulse flakes (or salt), plus a liberal sprinkling of black pepper. Whisk briskly, throw in your veggies, mix with your hands to coat, wash hands, and enjoy. (Using your hands is very Primal!)

  23. Don’t skimp with the cheap stuff. Suppliers have been know to dilude them.

    Tips for buying EVOO:
    1. Get the fresh stuff. It’s supposed to be green, cloudy and flaky.

    2. Buy in a tinted container. I like glass over tin so I can see the oil.

    3. Avoid supermarkets. They sell low quality stuff. Look for a local market. Ethnic (spanish especialy) grocers are the best.

    In MA, *TJ* sells one of the worst oils. It fails the standard above. You can tell it degrades in it’s journey from Italy > CA > MA.

    But *Whole Foods* sells a wonderful bottle. It’s the 365 brand — the $7.99 (in MA) bottle.

  24. I’m with Bob. Grok didn’t have olive oil.

    I simply don’t use it any longer. My lipids come from flesh, nuts and seeds. Plus that wonderful fruit, the avocado.

    Olive oil is created with some pretty harsh chemicals. Most of what I buy in the store is of poor quality. I live in Austin, so there is no shortage of good stores, just a shortage of good oil.

    By the time I can buy decent olive oil, it is more expensive than caviar. It’s simply not on my list any longer.

  25. Arbequena from the Olive Press near Napa is amazing. It won best of california in 2008. The Olive Press is actually in the same building as Jacuzzi winery. Skip the wine and try the oils. They have several oils but Arbequena is by far the best.

  26. Hey Mark, I bake a lot and have a question. Is light tasting olive oil safe to consume, or has it been processed to the extent that it’s damaged? I need a neutral tasting liquid oil for baked goods (made with almond flour and coconut flour) that can’t be made with butter. EVOO imparts too much of a floral quality. Coconut oil is too firm at room temperature for some applications. Thanks!

  27. I personally don’t care if Grok didn’t have Olive Oil, I absolutely love it!

  28. Bariani out of Sacto,CA is the best I’ve tried.Dark bottle,green cloudy oil,nutty taste up front and peppery in the back.Places to buy are Whole Foods and farmers markets.

  29. Mark, I invite you to give our oils a try. Each oil is selected and evaluated each harvest to make sure it is a high quality oil. It is wonderful to see someone who has done the research, and who understands the difference between olive oils. Please take a look http://www.avantisavoia.com.

  30. I used to work for O & Co. and will vouch for the amazing quality of the products, although the price tag for most of it seems outrageous, the flavor of some of them (olive oil from Tuscany, for instance) is unique and worthwhile if you’re an oil snob. When I still thought buying European was worthwhile, I skipped the pricier Italian and French variety and went for the Spanish (Andalusian). It was half the price and went with a wider variety of foods (mellow flavor).

    1. I should also add that now I buy domestic organic for the same reasons mentioned above.

  31. I also use the Trader Joe unfiltered locally grown, EVOO. It taste really good and fruity. It makes an excellent salad dressing.

  32. My fiancee gets the credit here she is a UC Extension Farm Advisor and one of her crops is olives…there is a BIG reason why CA Olive Oil is better than 98% of the imported extra virgin olive oil. The CA Olive Oil industry is relatively new and composed of very enthusiastic growers focused on quality and using the latest technology available. CA oil olives are processed within hours of picking so the amount of fermentation and oxidation is virtually nil. In Europe and Turkey etc. most of the oil olives are picked then can sit in piles for 24-48 hours before processing so there is a fair amount of fermentation and oxidation….I suggest tasting the two side by side and you can taste the oxidation in the import (unless you pay a fortune for it).

  33. i love the chipotle extra virgin olive oil from the olive oil shops (www.theoliveoilshops.com) it’s delicious! they also carry a picual EVOO with a polyphenol count of 500 (!)

  34. A neat trick to prevent oxidation of olive oil is to add a drop of astaxanthin (squeezed out of a supplement capsule) into the oil. The astaxanthin will turn the oil slightly red, letting you know that it’s there and working.

    Buy olive oil in small bottles and don’t leave the cap off more than you have to.

  35. Thanks Mark – I’ve always preferred virgin olive oil for its culinary superiority but I never really knew what made it different – or why it’s healthier. Now I know.

  36. Hello my family member! I want to say that this article is awesome, nice written and come with almost all significant infos. I would like to peer more posts like this.

  37. I found some Bariani all the way out here in South Carolina. It was harvested 2 years ago, but still has a nice peppery bite. I figure it’s probably still good.

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  39. I can’t wait for next month, it olive pressing time here in Italy. Wine making this month and then olive oil next 🙂 The oil is amazing, that first press is sooooo yummmy and yes you must NEVER cook with it.

  40. After reading this I’m confused. What oil should I use for high heat cooking if I don’t have lard?

  41. Mark,

    It’s now been a while since your brand was picked up by Heinz (congratulations, again), and I was hoping you could give an update…

    You mention that you “[keep] these qualities in mind when sourcing and developing…” and I’m curious how much input or veto power you still have with these products. I haven’t personally witnessed anything to make me doubt the quality, but I have a nagging concern that I will someday see your products ship in plastic bottles. Business is business, and the quality associated with your name might not always be worth the reputation, alone.

  42. Surprised to see no mention of the widespread counterfeit “extra virgin” olive oils which either aren’t extra virgin or aren’t olive oil.