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Is “Extra Virgin” Worth It?

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It’s Q&A Day at 10almonds!

Have a question or a request? We love to hear from you!

In cases where we’ve already covered something, we might link to what we wrote before, but will always be happy to revisit any of our topics again in the future too—there’s always more to say!

As ever: if the question/request can be answered briefly, we’ll do it here in our Q&A Thursday edition. If not, we’ll make a main feature of it shortly afterwards!

So, no question/request too big or small 😎

❝I was wondering, is the health difference important between extra virgin olive oil and regular?❞

Assuming that by “regular” you mean “virgin and still sold as a food product”, then there are health differences, but they’re not huge. Or at least: not nearly so big as the differences between those and other oils.

Virgin olive oil (sometimes simply sold as “olive oil”, with no claims of virginity) has been extracted by the same means as extra virgin olive oil, that is to say: purely mechanical.

The difference is that extra virgin olive oil comes from the first pressing*, so the free fatty acid content is slightly lower (later checked and validated and having to score under a 0.8% limit for “extra virgin” instead of 2% limit for a mere “virgin”).

*Fun fact: in Arabic, extra virgin is called “البكر الممتاز“, literally “the amazing first-born”, because of this feature!

It’s also slightly higher in mono-unsaturated fatty acids, which is a commensurately slight health improvement.

It’s very slightly lower in saturated fats, which is an especially slight health improvement, as the saturated fats in olive oil are amongst the healthiest saturated fats one can consume.

On which fats are which:

The truth about fats: the good, the bad, and the in-between

And our own previous discussion of saturated fats in particular:

Can Saturated Fats Be Healthy?

Probably the strongest extra health-benefit of extra virgin is that while that first pressing squeezes out oil with the lowest free fatty acid content, it squeezes out oil with the highest polyphenol content, along with other phytonutrients:

Antioxidants in Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Table Olives: Connections between Agriculture and Processing for Health Choices

If you enjoy olive oil, then springing for extra virgin is worth it if that’s not financially onerous, both for health reasons and taste.

However, if mere “virgin” is what’s available, it’s no big deal to have that instead; it still has a very similar nutritional profile, and most of the same benefits.

Don’t settle for less than “virgin”, though.

While some virgin olive oils aren’t marked as such, if it says “refined” or “blended”, then skip it. These will have been extracted by chemical means and/or blended with completely different oils (e.g. canola, which has a very different nutritional profile), and sometimes with a dash of virgin or extra virgin, for the taste and/or so that they can claim in big writing on the label something like:

a blend of
and other oils

…despite having only a tiny amount of extra virgin olive oil in it.

Different places have different regulations about what labels can claim.

The main countries that produce olives (and the EU, which contains and/or directly trades with those) have this set of rules:

International Olive Council: Designations and definitions of Olive Oils

…which must be abided by or marketers face heavy fines and sanctions.

In the US, the USDA has its own set of rules based on the above:

USDA | Olive Oil and Olive-Pomace Oil Grades and Standards

…which are voluntary (not protected by law), and marketers can pay to have their goods certified if they want.

So if you’re in the US, look for the USDA certification or it really could be:

  • What the USDA calls “US virgin olive oil not fit for human consumption”, which in the IOC is called “lamp oil”*
  • crude pomace-oil (oil made from the last bit of olive paste and then chemically treated)
  • canola oil with a dash of olive oil
  • anything yellow and oily, really

*This technically is virgin olive oil insofar as it was mechanically extracted, but with defects that prevent it from being sold as such, such as having a free fatty acid content above the cut-off, or just a bad taste/smell, or some sort of contamination.

See also: Potential Health Benefits of Olive Oil and Plant Polyphenols

(the above paper has a handy infographic if you scroll down just a little)

Where can I get some?

Your local supermarket, probably, but if you’d like to get some online, here’s an example product on Amazon for your convenience 😎


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