Understanding olive oil

Posted May 06, 2013, at 2:45 p.m.

What do you really know about olive oil, other than it comes from olives?

There are many different varieties of olives than can be used for oil, and each has a unique flavor and quality. The variety of the olive, as well as the maturity of the fruit, contributes to the flavor of the oil. Olive oil is classified for flavor and quality, with extra virgin being the top quality, as it comes from the first pressing of the olives.

To be top quality, the oil must be produced entirely by mechanical means without the use of solvents and under temperatures that do not allow the oil to degrade (less than 86 F). Extra-virgin olive oil has less acid, a fruitier flavor and stronger aroma than pure or virgin olive oil, so a little can go a long way.

Olive oil labeled as “light” is often lighter in hue or flavor but is not lighter in calories.

For an oil to qualify as “extra virgin” it must pass an official chemical test in a laboratory and a sensory evaluation test by a trained tasting panel. Extra-virgin olive oil has the highest monounsaturated fat content of all oils (77 percent), second only to hazelnut, a strongly flavor oil which isn’t suitable for most cooking. Monounsaturated fats help lower total and LDL (bad) cholesterol and also help raise HDL (good) blood cholesterol levels, reducing the risk of heart attack or stroke.

Olive oil has been used to moisturize and rejuvenate damaged skin since ancient times. As we age our skin deteriorates and the outer layers grow thinner, resulting in a loss of elasticity and the beginning of the wrinkling process. There are many creams and lotions available that reduce the damage done to cells, but olive oil is a natural inhibitor which has a lipid profile closely resembling that of human skin. Olive oil contains vitamins A, D, K and E, all beneficial in the fight against free radicals.

One tablespoon of olive oil provides 119 calories, 14 grams of total fat of which 2 is saturated fat, 10 grams monounsaturated and 1.4 grams polyunsaturated fatty acids, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 0 milligrams protein, 0 milligrams carbohydrates, 0 milligrams sodium

Olive oil and sunlight don’t mix. Oil should be stored in a cool, dark place and should be replaced if it starts to smell bitter or tastes a little off.

Over time, oils can degrade and lose their nutritional value. You can keep a small container of olive oil close at hand for cooking, but store the rest away to avoid repeated exposure to air.

Olive oil shouldn’t be stored next to the stove where it is exposed to heat. It should be consumed within two years of pressing.

Olive oil can be used to dip bread in, fry vegetables and meats and in dressings, marinades, sauces and pasta dishes. Olive oil has a low smoking point so it is best not to fry with it at high temperatures as it will cause food to brown quickly.

The USDA regulates olive oil standards. The following are the requirements for extra-virgin to refined olive oil:

U.S. Extra Virgin Olive Oil is virgin olive oil that has excellent flavor and odor and a free fatty-acid content, expressed as oleic acid, of not more than 0.8 grams per 100 grams. The lower the acidity level, the more desirable an oil becomes.

U.S. Virgin Olive Oil is virgin olive oil that has reasonably good flavor and odor and a free fatty-acid content, expressed as oleic acid, of not more than 2 grams per 100 grams. This oil also comes from the first pressing of the olive.

U.S. Olive Oil is the oil consisting of a blend of refined olive oil and virgin olive oils fit for consumption without further processing. It has a free fatty-acid content, expressed as oleic acid, of not more than 1 gram per 100 grams, has acceptable odor and flavor characteristic of “virgin olive oil.” This is an oil that you might see labeled with the term “pure.”

U.S. Refined Olive Oil is the olive oil obtained from virgin olive oils by refining methods that don’t lead to alterations in the initial glyceridic structure (basic glycerin fatty-acid structure). It has a free fatty-acid content, expressed as oleic acid, of not more than 0.3 grams per 100 grams, is flavorless and odorless

In addition to olive oil, there is a product called olive-pomace oil available. This oil is derived from further treatment of the crushed olives (pomace) after the initial oil from the first pressing has been extracted. This oil may be obtained with the use of solvents and has to be further refined to make it edible. Refined olive-pomace oil blended with a small amount of extra virgin olive oil can be sold as “olive-pomace oil” but cannot be called olive oil.

Olive Oil and Balsamic Dressing

Makes about 1 1/4 cups of dressing

1/4 cup aged balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon minced shallots

1 tablespoon minced Italian parsley

Salt and pepper to taste

3/4 cups extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons blue cheese, crumbled


1. Whisk together ingredients except for olive oil and cheese.

2. While continuously whisking, drizzle in olive oil and whisk until emulsified. Add blue cheese right before serving.

Nutrient analysis per 2 tablespoons

Calories: 158; Total fat: 17 grams: Saturated fat: 3 grams; Poly fat: 2 grams; Mono fat: 12 grams; Cholesterol: 1 milligram; Sodium: 61 milligrams; Carbohydrate: 2 grams; Dietary fiber: 0 grams; Protein: 0 grams.

Recipe Courtesy Paso Robles Downtown Mainstreet Association.

Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified diabetes educator at Penobscot Community Health Care in Bangor. She provides nutrition consultant services through Mainely Nutrition in Athens. Read her columns and post questions at or email her at