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25 Apr, 2024

Olive Oil 101: What makes it so 'extra' with Citizens of Soil

Considered a superfood since antiquity, extra virgin olive oil is one of the very few foods so indulgent, yet so incredibly healthy. Across the Mediterranean since antiquity, people have used it to cure and nurture on many levels. But now it’s gaining a new kind of popularity as celebs are taking it by the spoonful and people on Tik Tok are telling us to drink it blended in everything from plant-based milk to coffee. So, let’s dig into what makes it so *extra*.


For some background, I’m Sarah. I’m an olive oil sommelier (yes, that’s a thing) and the founder of Citizens of Soil—an olive oil club which sources award-winning, small-batch, extra virgin olive oils from women around the world who are farming regeneratively.

I travel the back roads of olive regions, harvesting with farmers, going to the mills, and meeting some of the leading voices in the olive oil space today. Here’s what I’ve learned…

What is extra virgin olive oil?

There are a few different oils that come from olives—but not all of them represent the flavourful, nutritional staple that sits as the cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet.

To be classified as “extra virgin olive oil”, it has to be milled without the use of heat, chemicals, or solvents. It’s produced through purely mechanical processes—crushing, squeezing, and pressing the olives.

This is why we often liken extra virgin olive oil to fresh fruit juice, as it does not undergo heat or chemical treatments to turn into oil, unlike vegetable and seed oils. It remains vibrant, teeming with antioxidants, and boasts a shelf-life of approximately 18-24 months when unopened.

What makes extra virgin olive oil so healthy?

You might know that EVOO is full of oleic acid and cholesterol-friendly monounsaturated fats, but there is something extra here…polyphenols.

They are a type of antioxidant. As they fight off oxidation, they neutralise harmful free radicals, which are unstable molecules with unpaired electrons that can damage cells and contribute to disease, illness, and ageing.

Polyphenols are widely found in plants, but there are a few specific to extra virgin olive oil, including oleocanthal—this highly anti-inflammatory compound dubbed “nature’s ibuprofen”. It is also the main contributor to that peppery sensation of olive oil. So, if you want to find out if your oil is has a good amount of poyphenols, take a sip and look out for a tingle at the back of your throat!

What are the health benefits of EVOO?

Polyphenols specific to EVOO have been found to play a role in fighting cancer, heart disease, and dementia. But there's a whole host of broad-spectrum health benefits to the body directly associated extra virgin olive oil, including decreasing:

  • inflammation
  • insulin levels
  • blood glucose
  • blood clotting
  • LDL ("bad") cholesterol
  • the abundance of pathogenic gut bacteria

As well as lowering the mortality risks of:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Cancer
  • Neurodegenerative disease
  • Respiratory disease

How much EVOO to consume for health benefits?

A spoonful a day was a big trend, a year back. Support from Kourtney Kardashian, J Lo, and Beyonce may have had something to do with that. Celebrity endorsements aside, research shows you can benefit from as little as 1-2 tablespoons per day. That said, quantities consumed are much higher around the Mediterranean basin.

A study of more than 7,000 people in Spain found that “those who consumed at least 4 tablespoons (60 ml) of olive oil daily were 30% less likely to develop heart disease, compared with those following a low-fat diet for 5 years.”

To use it like those from the Mediterranean, enjoy across all your mealtimes, such as on your morning toast over yoghurt, through to salads and soups at lunch, and finally to pour over grains and roasted vegetables at dinner.

Research suggests even half a tablespoon a day can cut heart disease risk by 14%. For tangible benefits in your daily life, make it more than just a drizzle—POUR.

What about heating extra virgin olive oil?

While heat will reduce the total polyphenols, cooking with EVOO isn’t just an age-old practice; it’s supported by science. The high monounsaturated fats are stable and unflappable, which makes it more stable than other frying options when heated. Most of your home cooking happens around 200°C, which is within the smoke point of a decent extra virgin olive oil.

In short, it’s not only fine but a healthier option—though if you’re in for the straight polyphenols, then you’ll pour it fresh over your food instead of using it as a prep ingredient.

What to look out for when buying extra virgin olive oil?

The bottle might look nice and they might use a lot of buzz words, but even if it says “Cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil from Greece”—you really know nothing about it. This doesn’t tell you the flavour, the freshness, or even where it really comes from.

Here’s what I always look for when buying olive oil:

  1. Harvest date: The northern hemisphere has one harvest (from autumn to winter). For a nice oil, I’ll get this within one year of the harvest date. Note that the “best before” date isn’t the same thing. That only tells you when it was bottled, which could be months (or lately, a whole year) after harvest. The fresher, the better.
  2. Specific location: I don’t mind a blend, but I need to know from exactly where. If they can’t tell me at least a region within a country, it’s likely a huge bulk blend from anonymised sources—in which case I’m just not interested if this is going to be my “nice” oil.
  3. Varieties: Much like different types of grapes for wine or beans for coffee, the variety of olive will not only completely change the flavours (from something green, peppery and vegetal all the way to mellow, fruity and floral), but it can also affect its shelf life and how you’ll use it.
  4. Packaging style: No clear containers, please! Why do producers even put their oil in clear glass? I’ve asked some premium brands this exact question. Their response: “The consumer wants to see the colour.” Even though they know it’s degrading the oil. A point on colour here is to say that colour is not an indicator of quality in extra virgin olive oil.

So while our eyes might tell us that a bright green oil is better—it’s factually not the case (which is why they used dark coloured glasses at competitions so people don’t assume anything based on colour).

I hope this quick guide into extra virgin olive oil sheds more light on why this ingredient is so healthy, how to make sure you get a good one, and why you should enjoy it like those in the Mediterranean do—across every mealtime, in loads of ways, as a core part of your balanced diet.