Olive oil has many benefits for your brain and overall health. Learn how to choose quality olive oil, why it’s safe for cooking, and how to avoid fake olive oil.
Olive oil is one of the world’s healthiest foods.
It’s a major component in the Mediterranean diet that’s widely considered one of the healthiest ways to eat for health and longevity. (1)
People from this region are some of the healthiest and long-lived people on the planet. (2)
All the evidence points to olive oil being equally beneficial as a brain food.
Let’s take look at five ways olive oil can nourish your brain now and keep you mentally sharp for life.
We’ll also tell you how to buy and use olive oil smartly, including how to dodge the most common olive oil scams.
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.
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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. (9)
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 vitamin E and vitamin K. (10)
Vitamin E prevents mental decline as we age. (11)
Vitamin E, especially in the presence of vitamin C, works to maintain a good memory, slow memory loss, and significantly reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia. (12)
It’s an effective antioxidant which helps protects the brain from free radical damage.
Vitamin K is mainly found 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
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 unhealthy vegetable oils with olive oil, they decreased their risk of depression 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
BDNF is a protein that stimulates new brain cell formation.
BDNF can offset the negative effects of stress on the brain. (22)
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Low levels of BDNF are associated with depression. (23)
Nerve growth factor enhances growth, repair, and signaling of sensory nerve cells which are responsible for transmitting information such as sight and sound. (24)
Monounsaturated fats — the kind found in olive oil — increase levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, the brain chemical of memory and learning.
5. Olive oil protects your brain from degenerative diseases
Higher intake of monounsaturated fats improves memory and other cognitive functions in seniors. (25)
Following a Mediterranean diet high in olive oil can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s 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 reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by an impressive 53%. (27)
If you’ve ever eaten olive oil and noticed it made the back of your throat itch, that sensation was caused by 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)
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Finding the Best 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.”
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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 such as parts of Australia, China, South America, and the United States.
But 98% of all olive trees are still grown in the Mediterranean region. (32)
From Tree to Bottle: How Extra Virgin Olive Oil Is Made
Traditionally, olives were crushed — both flesh and pit — to make a paste.
This paste was then pressed to extract the oil.
The method of extracting oil from olives has not changed much in thousands of years.
Now it’s extracted by centrifugal motion and the tools are stainless steel instead of stone.
There are four levels 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 called extra virgin olive oil.
You’ll often see this abbreviated as EVOO.
This means it’s cold-pressed so the temperature during processing does not exceed 86 degrees Fahrenheit. (33)
It also must meet high standards of low acidity and excellent taste.
If you’re looking for the most health benefits from your olive oil, extra virgin is definitely the place to start.
But there’s quite a bit more to consider.
Why Your Olive Oil May Not Be Genuine EVOO
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.
It’s much more than a story about olive oil.
It 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 stuff 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.
Cheap, unhealthy soy or canola oils are colored with industrial chlorophyll and flavored with artificial flavorings 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 UC Davis Olive 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.
73% of the samples failed to meet International Olive Council extra virgin standards.
Olive oil samples that failed to meet extra virgin standards did so for one or more of these three 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 make up a substantial portion of olive oil imported into the US from Italy.
Most recently, 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.
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Sources for Olive Oil You Can Trust
So by now you’re wondering, “What brands can I trust?”
How do you find a high quality, genuine extra virgin olive oil?
Here are a few trustworthy ways you can find the “real deal.”
Beyond Extra Virgin: Ultra Premium
There’s a new category of olive oil beyond extra virgin — Ultra Premium (UP) — that is now considered the highest quality olive oil in the world.
You’ll find a list of UP Certified Olive Oil producers along with the stringent production qualifications that must be met to be UP certified at UPOliveOil.com.
2016 Award Winning Olive Oils
Every spring, the best olive oils in the world compete in the New York International Olive Oil Competition.
Here’s a list of olive oil producers from the United States that won a gold or silver metal award in 2016:
- Apollo Olive Oil
- Berkeley Olive Grove 1913
- Chacewater Olive Mill
- Dry Creek Olive Company
- Enzo Olive Oil Company
- Frantoio Grove
- Global Gardens
- Grumpy Goats Farm
- Hillstone Olive Oil
- Il Fiorello Olive Oil Company
- Jovia Groves Olive Oil
- Laconia-Crete Olive Oil Company
- Lucero Olive Oil
- McEvoy Ranch
- Moonshadow Grove
- Napa Valley Extra Virgin
- Ojai Olive Oil
- Oregon Olive Mill
- Organic Roots
- Pacific Sun
- Rosenthal Olive Ranch
- Saltonstall Estate
- Sanders & Co
- Sanger Olive Oil Company
- Silverwood Ranch
- Solana Farms
- Spanish Oaks Ranch
- Split Rock Springs Ranch
- The Olive Press
- Winter Creek Olive Oil
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If you live outside the US or are interested in olive oil from around the world, you’ll find lists of the award winners in other countries at BestOliveOils.com.
Some of these can be purchased online directly from company websites.
A few, like California Olive Ranch Miller’s Blend and Pacific Sun Olive Oil Riverview Ranch Tuscan Blend (both 2015 winners), are available on Amazon.
If you are lucky enough to live in a climate where olive trees grow, the best olive oil may be growing right in your backyard, so to speak.
If you buy from a local farm, their oil almost certainly will be fresh and of high quality.
At Truth in Olive Oil, a website run by the author of Extra Virginity, you can find olive oil producers, exceptional olive oils, and specialty olive oil stores 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.
More Tips For Buying the Healthiest Olive Oil
Always buy the freshest extra virgin olive oil you can find.
Light can cause oxidation, so buy your oil in dark glass bottles only.
Modifiers on the label like “light, extra light, or pure” mean you are not getting genuine EVOO.
“Light” in this case means lighter in taste, not lighter in calories.
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.
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)
And remember that when tasting olive oil, “bitter is better.”
Bitter tasting oils are the highest in polyphenols, so 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?
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Tips for Storing
An unopened bottle kept in a cool, dark place should remain in good condition for one to two years.
Once you’ve opened a bottle, keep it away from heat and light as much as possible and use it up promptly.
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
You’ve probably heard that you should never cook with olive oil because it’s not stable when heated.
I always heard and believed this too.
But this is not what the latest 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, the oil was heated for a jaw-dropping 36 hours with no appreciable change in nutritional properties! (39)
- Olive oil’s smoke point — the point at which degradation begins to occur — is 410ºF (210ºC) which is well above the normal temperature for frying food. (40)
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: The Bottom Line
Olive oil may be one of the world’s healthiest foods.
It can nourish your brain now and protect it from degenerative disease in the future.
The benefits of olive oil come mainly from its polyphenols, compounds with potent antioxidant properties.
When buying olive oil, quality matters. A lot.
Buy only extra virgin olive oil, then do your homework before choosing a brand.
Your best bets are to buy locally (if possible) or pick an olive oil from one of the approved sources mentioned above.