There’s an Olive Oil That’s Even Healthier Than Extra Virgin

By Ariane Resnick, CNC
|
March 13, 2022
olive oil being poured into a container

Extra virgin olive oil has long been praised for being a health-promoting culinary oil. It’s a nutritional staple of the Mediterranean diet, which has been shown to promote longevity, and it’s well-proven to be beneficial for our cardiovascular health

Read next: Cardiologists Explain Their Best Tips for Heart Health

But there’s a kind of olive oil out there that’s even better for you than extra virgin: It’s called high phenolic olive oil, and while it doesn’t come cheap, it does come with some pretty impressive wellness benefits. We took a deep dive into the science behind this extra healthy olive oil, so that you can decide if it deserves a place in your kitchen.

What exactly does “high phenolic” mean?

The main reason that extra virgin olive oil is such a healthy food is because of its polyphenols. They’re a form of antioxidants, and they help ward off disease by reversing or preventing the oxidation in our cells. Extra virgin olive oil has been the preferred form of the product because it has more polyphenols than virgin or refined olive oil. The more an olive oil is processed, the lower its polyphenol content, and the less health value it offers.

High phenolic olive oil has more polyphenols than any other type of olive oil, including extra virgin. “​The difference is the level of phenolic compounds in the olive oil and how long they will remain potent,” says Dana Ellis Hunnes PhD, MPH, RD, a senior dietitian at UCLA medical center and author of Recipe for Survival. “What differentiates high phenolic olive oil is the concentration of the phenol compounds.”

The polyphenol content of olive oil is important: More polyphenols translates to more health benefits. “More polyphenols means greater protection for our body against damage and disease,” says Kylene Bogden, RD and co-founder of FWDfuel

Where high phenolic olive oil comes from

You might assume, as I did, that high phenolic olive oil is a recent creation, and that it’s a lab-produced product. In actuality, however, it’s completely naturally occurring, and it’s been in existence for as long as we’ve been pressing olives into oil. 

HP olive oil didn’t hit the mainstream market until recently — simply because there wasn’t a call for it. “Since ancient times, most family-owned olive farms have produced high-phenolic olive oil for their own consumption, not for sale,” says Limor Goren, PhD, molecular biologist and founder of kyoord. “The reason for that is that it costs more to make, but the market demand did not compensate them for that extra expense. So they’d keep the ‘good stuff’  for themselves, and send extra virgin olive oil, which is cheaper to produce, to the market.”

The phenol content of olive oil has only been studied for about thirty years, and studies about the benefits of polyphenols in olive oil are even newer. “Some of the more important, biologically beneficial phenols like oleocanthal were discovered only about 15 years ago, while the medical research into their benefits is still in infancy.”

The benefits of high phenolic olive oil

Due to the larger quantity of antioxidants in high phenolic olive oil, it has stronger health benefits than the extra virgin variety. Polyphenols neutralize the free radicals that damage our cells, so the more of them, the merrier. “Phenol compounds are extremely good at neutralizing free radicals and are thereby extremely anti-inflammatory,” says Hunnes. “They aid cells in avoiding mutations — free radicals are known to increase risk for mutations.”

In addition to protecting us from disease, the polyphenols in high phenolic olive oil help our bodies work more efficiently. “These naturally-occurring micronutrients can help improve mitochondrial function, helping our bodies run like a well-oiled machine, even at the cellular level,” Bogden says.

In mouse studies, polyphenols have been demonstrated to stop the growth of cancerous tumors in their tracks — although they haven’t been as closely studied in people yet. Olive oil is also being studied for its ability to prevent cognitive decline in older adults, and it has been shown to help prevent Alzheimer’s disease

So, what does it taste like?

If you’re a consumer of extra virgin olive oil, you already know that it has a stronger, richer, more grassy taste than refined olive oil. The polyphenols are located in that grassiness. That means that HP olive oil tastes particularly strong. It’s often referred to as peppery, and those who don’t care for it even describe it as bitter.

As a fan of EVOO, I enjoy the taste of high polyphenol olive oil. I’m also a private chef, and I’ve fed it to two of my clients: One never noticed the difference, and the other didn’t like it. This olive oil can take some getting used to, especially if you don’t typically eat foods with strong flavors. 

How to incorporate HP olive oil into your diet

This olive oil is an excellent addition to any diet. That said, it’s an expensive product to purchase. Most people will probably be best off treating high phenolic olive oil as a finishing oil more than a cooking ingredient. However, high polyphenol olive oil does have a higher smoke point than extra virgin olive oil, so if your grocery budget is on the higher end, you should feel free to cook with this as you would other olive oil. 

“You should consider adding a tablespoon of cold-pressed high polyphenol olive oil to items like smoothies and salads,” says Bogden. Hunnes agrees that cooking with this olive oil should be avoided. “​My best recommendation would be to use it as a ‘tincture,’ meaning taking a teaspoon or tablespoonful per day, or to use it in a raw application, as opposed to cooked, as cooking it might kill some of its health properties.” To use it raw, you could drizzle high phenolic olive oil over hummus before serving with crudités, tossed in a fruit salad, or poured into half an avocado along with some balsamic vinegar as a healthy snack. 

And because it is fully unprocessed and so high in phenols, high phenolic olive oil will have a shorter shelf life than other oils. While you’ll want to use it judiciously, you’ll also want to make sure you don’t keep it on hand too long as the polyphenol content will decrease with age. 

Read next: Here’s When Not to Use Olive Oil (and What to Use Instead)

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