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The cultivated olive (Olea europaea, Oleaceae) is one the Mediterranean’s most valuable and important culinary crops. Spain, Italy and Greece, followed by (to a lesser extent) Tunisia, Syria and Turkey, account for most of the world’s olive cultivation, 90% of which is transformed into olive oil.

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In Greek cuisine, there’s an entire category of dishes named lathera, which translates to “cooked in oil”; the Greek word for oil is lathi. Lathera grew out of a simple peasant-style of cooking that was based upon whatever was readily available from the land. An entire Greek meal might consist of nothing more than an assortment of seasonal vegetables cooked with liberal amounts of olive oil and herbs. This style of cooking is a hallmark of the Mediterranean Diet.

The Greek author/poet Homer called olive oil “liquid gold”, although, when freshly pressed, olive oil is often a brilliant, bright shade of green. This is due to the presence of naturally occurring carotenoid and chlorophyll pigments. And, if you’ve ever tried a young, pressed olive oil, you may have noticed a peppery note that tickles the back of your throat. This sensation is due to the presence of polyphenols such as oleocanthal, potent antioxidants in plants that have been linked to a number of health benefits, including decreasing inflammation, regulating blood sugars and potentially reducing the risk of heart disease and cancer.

Olive oil is also an example of a heart-healthy fat source, consisting primarily of monounsaturated fatty acids. Replacing saturated fats (such as those in butter, lard, and coconut oil) with monounsaturated fats (such as those in olive oil) is linked with a significantly lower risk of heart disease. Further, research presented at a recent American Heart Association meeting indicates that eating olive oil once per week may be linked with making blood less likely to clot in people who are obese.

Not surprisingly, all olive oils are not created equally. Nonetheless, there are things you can look for in selecting high-quality olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), in addition to being the best quality olive oil, contains the highest level of health-promoting polyphenols. It’s unrefined, free of chemicals and other “defects.” It comes from the first pressing of olives, normally within 24 hours of harvesting, extracted by non-chemical, mechanical means without the use of excessive heat. EVOO has an acidity of less than 0.8%. These high quality oils should be savored for their unique attributes, drizzled over a finished dish, a salad, or for dipping a piece of crusty bread.

Virgin olive oils also come from the first pressing, though have an acidity of less than 2%, which makes it lower in quality; high acidity indicates that the fruit has undergone more damage and oxidative stress. Virgin olive oils are less common to see in stores. “Pure,” or “classic” olive oil has often been processed using agents such as acids, alkalis and heat, which strip the oil of its polyphenols, to extract as much oil as possible from the pulp that remains after the first pressing. Pure olive oils, or less expensive extra virgin olive oils, can be used for everyday cooking (no need to spend a lot of money on such olive oil, just find one that tastes good to you).

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Look for a harvest date on the bottle (if you can’t find one, look for the “best before” date and subtract 18 months). The longer olive oil is stored, the lower the polyphenol level. Unlike wine, olive oil does not improve with age. Buy olive oil that comes in a dark bottle (light and heat are enemies of olive oil). If possible, choose an olive oil that comes from a single source or country of origin, although labeling can be deceiving. For example, a product labeled “product of” only designates where the oil was packed and shipped, not where the olives were harvested and pressed. To find out where the oil comes from you’ll want to look for the estate name.

Finally, use your palate as a guide. Peppery/pungent, grassy, fruity, and/or bitter notes are a sign of a desirable, high-quality olive oil – one that is newly pressed with strong flavors, low acidity and possessing a high degree of antioxidants. Good EVOO should smell fragrant and fruity and taste like the olives from which it was pressed.


Extra-Virgin Olive Oil: The Core of the Mediterranean Diet
A Q&A with The Olive Wellness Institute’s Simon Poole
Olive the Reasons to Celebrate National Olive Day

Join the Make Every Day Mediterranean Club Facebook group for additional information and support.



Dina Barham
Hi, I love all your articles and read them every month. However, I noticed when you say "Mediterranean Diet" you only refer to Southern Spain, France, Italy and Greece. I am American-Moroccan, our diet is Mediterranean based, along with Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Turkey and parts of Jordan and Israel.
Hi Dina, thanks so much for reading! We appreciate your feedback, and we agree—it would be great to have more articles that feature those countries. Are there certain foods or topics about these cuisines that you think we should cover? We'd love to hear! Meanwhile, I'll link to some of our existing articles below, if you'd like to check them out: https://oldwayspt.org/blog/eastern-mediterranean-delights https://oldwayspt.org/blog/making-mediterranean-splash-us-one-blogger’s-journey-egypt-atlanta https://oldwayspt.org/blog/how-order-best-street-food-koshari-vegan-mediterranean-meal https://oldwayspt.org/blog/chef-ana-sortun-oleana-shares-kitchen-secrets-and-new-cookbook
I would like to buy olive oil from Egypt and Greece and Israel! I can’t find it in the USA in my State. I could order it but I don’t know if it is a real thing! Can you tell me we’ll know store to get it? Thank you
Hi Rosa, I would recommend searching online for shops near you that may have imported olive oils, and then looking closely at the labels. My guess is that most large grocers would carry wide varieties of olive oils, but you could also try a smaller Mediterranean shop if you have one close by. Let us know how it goes!

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