And then, of course, there's the health benefits truly making olive oil liquid gold. It's full of antioxidants and healthy fats, both of which support heart and brain health. But despite this stellar resume, many healthy chefs exclusively use it as a finishing oil because of the oil's low "smoke point." The concern was that if olive oil gets too hot, it starts to burn and smoke—which can mess with the flavor of the finished dish as well as degrade some of the oil's health benefits. Thus, people have been told to use other oils, like avocado or coconut, for any cooking that requires heat.
Watch the video below to learn more about the benefits of olive oil:
Here's the thing: Olive oil's allegedly low smoke point is a total myth. According to Joseph Profaci, executive director of The North American Olive Oil Association, not only can olive oil withstand a high heat, but extra-virgin olive oil is actually the most stable oil when heated, which was tested and confirmed in a 2018 study published in the journal ACTA Scientific Nutritional Health.
Here, Profaci along with Simon Poole, MD, the author of The Olive Oil Diet, an expert scientific consultant on extra virgin olive oil, and a member of the advisory board of the Olive Wellness Institute, set the record straight on cooking with olive oil.
The truth about olive oil's smoke point
Profaci says he's not quite sure where the widespread misconception about olive oil's low smoke point came from, but somehow it's everywhere (even in past Well+Good stories). But he argues that the reputation is undeserved.
All fats, including olive oil, have a smoke point. This term is basically a fancy way of identifying the temperature at which fats start to burn and break down when heated. Olive oil has generally been ascribed a smoke point of around 320 to 460 ℉, depending on whether it's extra-virgin or a more refined type of olive oil. (Extra-virgin oil is made from cold pressed olives; its unrefined nature, people argued, made it more prone to smoking at lower temperatures.) This range places it at a lower smoke point than avocado oil (520℉), coconut oil (350℉), or butter (350℉).
However, Profaci says that the ACTA study debunks a lot of people's concerns about olive oil's smoke points. For one thing, researchers found that both regular olive oil and extra-virgin olive oil can withstand temperatures over 475℉, whether on the stove or in the oven. (When sautéing, the temperature is typically 248℉.)
Additionally, the study found that olive oil, even after being heated in a deep fryer for six hours, showed very few signs of chemical breakdown or any harmful by-products that people have feared when eating oils that are heated for too long past their smoke point. "When the olive oil is heated up in these ways, it still maintains the majority of its health benefits," Profaci says. The benefits may decrease slightly, similarly to how some specific nutrients in vegetables can degrade with cooking, but heat does not destroy the health properties of olive oil.
In fact, Dr. Poole says that olive oil's nutrients are likely why it can withstand high heat relatively intact. "The polyphenols and antioxidants in particular are so plentiful in extra-virgin olive oil that they prevent oxidation in prolonged heating," he says. "Coming directly from the fruit of the olive tree—which unlike a seed, has to protect itself much more competently from oxidative pressure in its dynamic relationship with the hot, arid and demanding outside world—nature has demanded that the olive tree with the capacity to preserve its precious fruit from the stress of oxidation in the environment." These protective benefits, he says, carry over from nature and into the kitchen, too.
What type of olive oil is best for cooking?
Since both refined and extra-virgin olive oil can, in fact, both withstand a high smoke point, you may wonder which one it's best to cook with. Profaci says this really comes down to two factors: price and flavor. Extra-virgin olive oil, he points out, has more health benefits than refined (or regular) olive oil, as well as more flavor, but it's also more expensive. It may be more cost effective to cook with refined olive oil and use extra-virgin olive oil as a finishing oil.
"Also, sometimes, you might not want the flavor of olive oil in your food," Profaci points out. "Since extra-virgin olive oil definitely has a flavor to it, that will depend on whether you want to use it when cooking a certain dish, or if you would rather go with refined olive oil, which has less flavor," he says. If you're using olive oil when baking—which yep, you can absolutely do—refined may be a better way to go because of this.
But if you want the food you're cooking to be as rich in nutrients as possible, Profaci says to go for the extra-virgin, which is more nutrient dense (since it's less processed). However, whichever type of olive oil you go for, cooking with it will only make your meal healthier.
So, it's settled: Not being able to cook with olive oil is one cooking myth that's going up in smoke.
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