The brain benefits of high-quality olive oil make it a best brain food. Learn how to choose genuine extra virgin olive oil (and avoid widespread fake oil).
Table of Contents
The health benefits of olive oil are legendary.
It’s a major component of the Mediterranean diet which is widely considered the healthiest way to eat for health and longevity. (1)
People from this region are some of the healthiest and longest-living people on the planet. (2)
Another equally important, but often overlooked, benefit of olive oil is its contribution to good brain health.
5 Benefits of Olive Oil for Brain Health and Mental Wellness
As a key part of the Mediterranean diet, olive oil may be in part why people who live in longevity zones like Ikaria, Greece rarely suffer from depression, dementia, and Alzheimer’s.
Here’s a look at some of the ways olive oil helps keep your brain healthy now and helps protect it from future degeneration.
1. Olive Oil Is High in Brain-Protective Antioxidants
Your brain uses a lot of oxygen — 20% of your total intake.
This makes it especially vulnerable to oxidation caused by free radicals.
If you’ve ever seen a cut apple turn brown or an old car get rusty, you’ve seen oxidation at work.
A similar process happens in the cells of your brain.
Olive oil is particularly high in natural antioxidants called polyphenols.
The health benefits of olive oil are believed to be largely due to its high level of polyphenols. (7)
Polyphenols also play an important role in keeping bottled oil fresh.
2. Olive Oil Is High in Essential Brain Vitamins
Olive oil is a significant source of vitamins E and K, two vitamins with proven brain benefits: (10)
Vitamin E helps prevent mental decline as we age. (11)
It’s an effective antioxidant which helps protect the brain from free radical damage. (12)
Vitamin E, especially in the presence of vitamin C, helps to maintain a good memory, slow memory loss, and significantly reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia. (13)
Vitamin E can minimize the damage caused by a stroke by redirecting blood supply after the event. (14)
Vitamin K is found mainly in green leafy vegetables.
If you don’t eat as many of these as you should, you can get the vitamin K you need from olive oil.
It can improve your ability to remember words, a big problem for many of us as we get older. (17)
Vitamin K is believed to play a role in preventing Alzheimer’s since patients are often found to be deficient. (18)
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3. Olive Oil Decreases Risk of Depression
One of the most unexpected olive oil benefits is that it can reduce the risk of depression.
The Standard American Diet (SAD) is loaded with unhealthy trans fats from fast food, processed food, and vegetable oils like canola, sunflower, soy, and safflower which are extracted with heat and chemical solvents.
When participants in a large study replaced these less healthy vegetable oils with olive oil, their risk of depression plummeted by almost 50%. (19)
Researchers concluded that the more trans fats consumed, the higher the risk of depression.
4. Olive Oil Increases Brain-Boosting Chemicals
These compounds encourage the formation and repair of brain cells.
BDNF is a protein that stimulates new brain cell formation.
BDNF can offset the negative effects of stress on the brain. (22)
Low levels of BDNF are associated with depression. (23)
Nerve growth factor enhances the growth, repair, and signaling of sensory nerve cells which are responsible for transmitting information such as sight and sound. (24)
Additionally, monounsaturated fats — the kind found in olive oil — increase levels of acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter of memory and learning.
5. Olive Oil Helps Protect the Brain from Degenerative Diseases
The last brain benefit of olive oil is that it can ward off cognitive decline.
Higher intake of monounsaturated fats improves memory and other cognitive functions in seniors. (25)
Eating a Mediterranean diet high in olive oil can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by up to 40%. (26)
Olive oil is an essential part of the MIND diet.
This variation of the Mediterranean diet has been shown to lower the risk of Alzheimer’s by an impressive 53%. (27)
If you’ve ever eaten olive oil and noticed that it made the back of your throat itch, that sensation was caused by a naturally occurring compound called oleocanthal. (28)
Oleocanthal is an anti-inflammatory polyphenol that can cross the blood-brain barrier to clear the brain of the beta-amyloid proteins associated with Alzheimer’s. (29)
The vitamin E in olive oil has also been found to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s. (30)
Why You Should Use Only Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Olive oil comes from the fruit of the olive tree (Olea europae) which originally comes from the Mediterranean Basin.
It has been an important part of Mediterranean cuisine for 5,000 years.
Homer, the famed Greek poet, called it “liquid gold.”
The ancient Greeks so valued olive oil that cutting down an olive tree was a crime punishable by death! (31)
Now there are several thousand olive tree cultivars grown throughout the world in areas with suitable climates including parts of Australia, China, South America, India, and the United States.
But 98% of all olive trees are still grown in the Mediterranean region with the top 3 producers being Spain, Italy, and Greece. (32)
From Tree to Bottle: How Extra Virgin Olive Oil Is Made
Traditionally, olives (both flesh and pit) are crushed to make a paste.
This paste is then pressed to extract the oil.
The method of extracting oil from olives has not changed much in thousands of years except the tools are now stainless steel instead of stone.
There are four grades of virgin olive oil.
The lowest grade is not fit for human consumption and is designated for other uses, like making soap.
The top-of-the-line olive oil is extra virgin olive oil, often abbreviated as EVOO.
This is the kind you want to buy.
By definition EVOO is cold-pressed which, according to the University of California Cooperative Extension, means that the temperature during processing does not exceed 86ºF. (33)
It also must meet high standards of low acidity and excellent taste.
If you’re looking for the most health benefits from olive oil, extra virgin olive oil is definitely the place to start.
But there are other practical matters to consider.
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How to Find Genuine Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Investigative journalist Tom Mueller blew the lid off the fake olive oil industry in his book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.
It’s an engrossing exposé with as many twists and turns as a mystery novel.
But it’s much more than a story about olive oil.
His investigation goes to the very heart of the corruption of our food supply.
Throughout Europe there are large-scale facilities that pump out fake olive oil.
In one Italian bust alone, authorities broke up a criminal gang sitting on $8 million worth of fake oil.
These illicit manufacturers slap an Italian flag and the name of an imaginary producer on the label and dump this oil on what are considered to be unsophisticated markets like the US, Australia, and China.
Fake olive oil can be made from a mix of olive oil diluted with poor quality oils, but sometimes there is no real olive oil at all.
Sometimes cheap, unhealthy soy or canola oils are colored with industrial chlorophyll and flavored artificially to simulate the taste and appearance of real olive oil.
In 2010, the University of California Davis Olive Center rocked consumer confidence when they reported that 69% of imported and 10% of California extra virgin olive oil failed to meet extra virgin olive oil standards.
In 2011, the Center released an updated report on the state of olive oil.
This time, the five top-selling imported extra virgin olive oil brands in the US were tested — Bertolli, Colavita, Filippo Berio, Pompeian, and Star.
Seventy-three percent of the samples failed to meet International Olive Council extra virgin standards.
The olive oils that failed to meet extra virgin standards did so for one or more of these reasons:
- Oxidation by exposure to elevated temperatures, light and/or aging
- Adulteration with cheaper refined olive oil
- Poor-quality oil made from damaged and overripe olives, processing flaws, and/or improper oil storage
In October 2014, class action suits were filed against Filippo Berio and Bertolli distributors for olive oil fraud.
Together, these companies comprise a substantial portion of the olive oil imported from Italy into the US.
A segment of the 60 Minutes television news magazine revealed that the Italian mafia makes an estimated $16 billion per year selling fake food, including olive oil. (34)
It’s estimated that upwards of 80% of Italian olive oil exported to the US is fake.
You can stay abreast of the latest olive oil frauds on the Olive Oil Times fraud alert page.
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Olive Oil Sources You Can Trust
Clearly, if you are buying poor quality or fake olive oil, you can’t expect to experience any of olive oil’s many benefits.
So I imagine you’re wondering, “What brands can I trust?”
“How can I find high quality, genuine extra virgin olive oil?”
Here are a few reliable ways to find “real deal” olive oil.
Beyond extra virgin: Ultra premium
There’s a relatively new category of olive oil beyond extra virgin — Ultra Premium (UP).
This is now considered the standard for the highest quality olive oil.
You’ll find a list of UP Certified Olive Oil producers along with the stringent production qualifications that must be met to be Ultra Premium certified on the UP Extra Virgin Olive Oil website.
Buy award-winning olive oils
Every spring, the best olive oils in the world compete in the New York International Olive Oil Competition.
You’ll find lists of the award winners from around the world at BestOliveOils.com.
Some of these can be purchased online directly from company websites.
A few of these award winners, like California Olive Ranch Miller’s Blend, are available on Amazon.
Buy olive oil locally
If you are lucky enough to live in a climate where olive trees grow, the best olive oil may be growing locally.
If you buy from a local farm, their oil almost certainly will be fresh and of high quality.
If you live near a reasonable size city, you can probably find a specialty olive oil store in your area.
The better olive oil stores have knowledgeable staff and often host tastings, similar to wine tastings, so you can try before you buy.
I now buy all of my olive oil at a local boutique olive oil store.
Besides knowing that I am getting top quality olive oil, shopping there has opened my eyes to flavors of olive oil I never knew existed.
My favorites are olive oil infused with lemon or rosemary, an herb with its own set of impressive brain health benefits.
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More Tips For Getting the Greatest Benefit from Olive Oil
We’re not done yet!
Here are some other things tips and tricks to consider:
Always buy the freshest extra virgin olive oil you can find.
Light can cause oxidation, so buy your oil in dark glass bottles only.
The older the oil is, the fewer polyphenols it will contain due to oxidation. (35)
Some bottles now come with an expiration date to remove the guesswork.
A rule of thumb is that an unopened bottle kept in a cool, dark place should remain in good condition for one to two years.
But once you’ve opened a bottle, keep it away from heat and light as much as possible and use it up promptly.
Avoid “light” olive oil
You should also avoid another kind of “light.”
Modifiers on the label like “lite, light, extra light, or pure” mean you are not getting genuine EVOO.
“Light” in this case means lighter in taste, not lighter in calories.
Choose oil from the best olive varieties
Some olive varieties naturally contain more polyphenols than others.
Olive oil pressed from Coratina, Conicabra, Koroneiki, Moraiolo, or Picual olive varieties contain the most polyphenols. (36)
Bitter is better
And remember that when tasting olive oil, “bitter is better.”
You’ll get more benefits from bitter-tasting oils which are the highest in polyphenols.
It may seem counterintuitive, but, in the case of olive oil, bitterness should be sought out rather than avoided!
“Unfortunately,” reports Olive Oil Times, “studies have shown most people actually will choose a rancid olive oil over a fresh, high-quality one, thanks to years of knowing little else.“
Don’t be like most people, OK? ;)
Don’t count on the “fridge” test
You may have heard that you can test your olive oil to see if it’s genuine with the refrigeration test.
This involves putting your oil in the refrigerator to see if it hardens.
The theory is that if the oil hardens, it’s genuine olive oil.
However the University of California Davis Olive Center tested both low and high-quality extra virgin olive oil, canola oil, safflower oil, and blends of olive oil mixed with other oils.
Surprisingly, none of the oils congealed even after 60 hours in the fridge.
The study concluded that putting vegetable oil in the refrigerator is not a reliable way to judge either the source or quality of the oil.
Why It’s Safe to Cook With Olive Oil After All
You’ve probably heard that heating olive oil will destroy its health-promoting properties.
I had always believed this too, but this is not what research shows.
Here are some reasons that cooking with olive oil is safe after all:
- Olive oil contains mostly monounsaturated fats which are stable when heated. This makes it a better choice for cooking than less stable polyunsaturated vegetable oils like sunflower and soy oils. (37)
- Olive oil contains vitamin E and polyphenols — antioxidants which prevent oxidation. (38)
- Heating, even for very long periods of time, does not degrade extra virgin olive oil’s nutrients. In one study, olive oil was heated for a jaw-dropping 36 hours with no appreciable change in nutritional properties! (39)
- Extra virgin olive oil’s smoke point — the point at which degradation begins to occur — is around 374–405°F (190–207°C) which is no higher than the normal temperature you would saute or stir fry food. (40, 41)
One last anecdotal piece of evidence is that the people of the Mediterranean have been cooking with olive oil for thousands of years and are some of the healthiest people on earth.
Olive Oil Benefits: Take the Next Step
Olive oil nourishes the brain and protects it from degenerative disease.
The benefits of olive oil are mainly due to its polyphenols, compounds with potent antioxidant properties.
But when buying olive oil, quality matters. A lot.
Buy only extra virgin olive oil, and do your homework before choosing a brand.
Picking a quality olive oil may seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be complicated.
Buy locally (if possible) or find a high-quality olive oil from one of the approved sources mentioned in this article.