Olive Oil 101 – Podcast

Written By: Gloria Tsang, RD

Title: Founding Registered Dietitian

Alumni: University of British Columbia

Last Updated on:

Dr. Roger Clemens explains what those olive oil terms really mean, and what you should put your money on.

Host: Gloria Tsang, RD
Guest: Roger Clemens, DrPH

If you ever make a trip to the grocery store to pick up a bottle of olive oil lately, you know how confusing it can be. Dr. Roger Clemens, spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists’ and professor at the USC School of Pharmacy, explain what those olive oil terms really mean, and what you should put your money on.



Gloria Tsang, RD: Welcome to the Nutrition Tidbits podcast. This is Gloria Tsang, Editor-in-Chief for HealthCastle.com. If you ever make a trip to the grocery store to pick up a bottle of olive oil lately, you know how confusing it can be. Joining me today is professor Dr. Roger Clemens. He is the Institute of Food Technologists’ spokesperson and professor at the USC School of Pharmacy. He is here today to explain what those olive oil terms really mean, and what you should put your money on. Thank you for joining me Dr. Clemens.

Roger Clemens, DrPH: It’s a delight to join you and your audience today, thank you for asking.

Gloria Tsang, RD: Now cooking oil is always a hot topic on HealthCastle.com, partly because we cook every day and we use the oil every day. There are so many terms found on a bottle of olive oil; light, extra light, extra virgin, cold pressed, etc… What terms really do matter and which do not?

Roger Clemens, DrPH: For all practical purposes based on the regulations that cover olive oil, the terms which you really look for are this. There are two types of virgin olive oils. These are the kinds of olive oils fit for consumption; and within that category they are called extra virgin olive oil and virgin olive oil. And then there are olive oils which are not fit for consumption and they are olive oil and refined olive oil; which are the terms that are used in the current regulations that cover this particular area.

Gloria Tsang, RD: Now what does cold pressed really mean?

Roger Clemens, DrPH: Cold pressed refers to the squeezing or the crushing of the olive oils without any chemical means; without the use of any particular solvents for extraction.

Gloria Tsang, RD: We understand that there is a new standard by the USDA on olive oil. Can you tell us more about that?

Roger Clemens, DrPH: Yes, it truly is about this new standard which went in to effect just a few days ago. This standard actually is over fifty years old and it was already in the regulations but finally came to surface because there is so much pressure and interest by the consumer to say, what am I buying at the grocery store? So on October 25, 2010, the USDA issued a regulation to talk about what composes of or the standards of grading olive oil and what that olive oil really means in terms of composition.

Gloria Tsang, RD: There are culinary considerations in choosing one type of olive oil over the other, but for this segment we are going to focus on health. We know that olive oil is a rich source of monounsaturated fatty acids, aka Omega-9. Do all grades of olive oil contain the same amount of monounsaturated fatty acids?

Roger Clemens, DrPH: That is a great question, really important for your listening audience. They do not all contain the same amount. Actually, they are intended to contain the same amount but not all olive oil contain the same amount. It really depends on the tree, the location of that tree, the climate in which that tree was grown, whether it was grown in Italy or in the United States, it’s quite variable across the board. The flavor profile is much different as well. The amount of allowable defects in flavor and odor also variable to where the product was grown and the time of year it was harvested. So they had different grades of olive oil. It’s those grades that have have really come to the surface in an effort to education the consumer what the quality of olive oil really means.

Gloria Tsang, RD: I went to the grocery in preparation for this recording today. I was surprised to find that a bottle of olive oil can cost anywhere between $3 to almost $40. So how should a person, how should I choose one for home use? Is cost associated more with quality and does higher costs also mean more health benefits?

Roger Clemens, DrPH: Now that is another really important these days where we really need to be somewhat austere in management. The olive oils are so different. Like you drink a fine wine, you aerate it to get the aromatic compounds. The same thing is true what you get in olive oil, particularly the extra virgin olive oil and there are standards for this. If you were to take a little bit of olive oil, like a teaspoon, and sip through and aerate it like you are whistling inwards, like you do with a fine wine, you will sense different aromatic and get a flavor profile that is truly wonderful. Some olive oils have a peppery note to them, particularly the extra virgin olive oils that come in through parts of Europe like Italy. Then you have olive oils which have a similar fatty acid profile like the oleic acid that you referred, but really smells and tastes more like machine oil. Again, it’s up to the consumer to say gee, what do I want? Do I want something that is peppery and lushes or do I want something that is less vibrant in terms of flavor? It’s those subtle differences that can impact of the cost of the product.

Gloria Tsang, RD: In other words, more expensive olive oils do not always mean that they have more Omega-9. It probably just means that there is a different taste profile or the quality of how it’s made. Is that right?

Roger Clemens, DrPH: That is actually right, very good. You have to look at different qualities. If you look at extra virgin, it is virtually defect free in terms of flavor profile, quality, aromas and odors. That is in the statue, it’s in the law. When it comes to virgin olive oil, there are  more defects; that is more stearic acids that is allowed to be in there; more debris is allowed to be in there; more free fatty acids allowed and more free free acids means that the product will not be as stable on the shelf. We all know that is really important. These gradations or graded systems that the USDA has presented to us are really quite important as we look at quality. But none of these addresses the points that you so nicely presented, they have nothing to do with health. Health is a matter of perception and that would take another assessment or what does this olive oil mean relative to my health. We see a lot of that data coming to the surface to address this very important topic.

Gloria Tsang, RD: We understand that there is also consideration for smoke points. That’s what some of our readers always talked about. Now, not all olive oils are suitable for heating, is that right?

Roger Clemens, DrPH: Well, you can heat them but you will get different results. What is really important for us to consider is that sometimes these smoke points vary on by the degree of processing. Smoke point is that point where there is significant degradation of the oil; it gets to the point where it is smoking on you and where you don’t want to be using that oil. When it comes to olive oil, the unrefined that is, the oil that is just pressed off the tree has a very low smoke point. And you would expect that and there is a lot of material in there from the olive that has not been removed. As you get to the extra virgin and virgin olive oils, you will find the smoke points is actually increased. Then you have the light olive oils which are certainly available on here with the saturated fats have been removed. All plants have some saturated fat and if that increases the unsaturated fats in that olive oil, as a result it has an even higher smoke point; it takes more heat before it will degrade and become unacceptable in terms of eating.

Gloria Tsang, RD: Good to know. In a nut shell, this is probably hard to answer. Are the European imported olive oils better in quality or higher standards than the local American made olive oils?

Roger Clemens, DrPH: That’s another great question. Let me just say that there is an effort to have a uniform or harmonized grading of olive oils around the world. Yet at the same time trees in various parts of the Mediterranean actually give a different type of olive oil, profile, textures and pepper notes then what we have here in the United States. Even though many of the trees we have in the US came from Europe. So it really depends on the geographical location, the soil and climate of where the olives are presented. They vary in their composition when you and I consume them. Personally, having been to Mediterranean many times and enjoyed the olive oils, particularly in Italy, I must admit I really enjoy the olive oil in Italy. It’s just wonderful flavor profile. So I am personally biased as a consumer as well as a scientist as I look and feel and use olive oil that I make to use something that actually I brought home from Italy versus what I have purchased which is available here in the United States.

Gloria Tsang, RD: I guess this is more just like wine, it all depends on what we like. In terms of health benefits, they are pretty much the same regardless where it’s produce and how much processing it has gone through. It’s more just the taste profile that you have been talking about.

Roger Clemens, DrPH: That’s right. It really comes down to personal preference. I think comparing it to wine is so true. As you know, we have so many varieties in wine, we certainly see that in olives. Even thought the genus species remains the same but just like a vineyard, you see some variations from hill to hill, we get variation from tree to tree. So what we look for is a good source of monounsaturated fats, which is heart healthy. And probably in the future, we will be looking at some of these compounds that give these unique pepper notes. Maybe some of these compounds as they are investigated by a number of researchers around the world may be part of that healthful picture of what we have come to enjoy as olive oil.

Gloria Tsang, RD: Great, thank you for joining me Dr. Clemens.

Roger Clemens, DrPH: It was a real pleasure to meet with you and once again, I look forward to working with you and your audience again.

Gloria Tsang, RD: Thank you. We have been talking to professor Dr. Clemens. For more healthy eating tidbits and information about this show, go to HealthCastle.com.


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