Olive Oil 101

You’ve probably heard that olive oil is good for you, but do you know why? And since oils are source of fat, can they be part of a healthy diet? Here’s the skinny on this fabulous oil and tips on how to enjoy it even if you’re watching your weight.

Olive oil is the default healthy cooking oil these days. No doubt, you've heard it's good for you, but do you know why or the different kinds? Learn their benefits and when to use them.

Nutrition Info

All oils have about 120 calories and 14 grams of fat per tablespoon. With those high tallies, it's always a good idea to measure precisely when cooking to avoid sneaking extra calories into your dishes. Olive oil is high in healthy monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs). MUFAs may help lower cholesterol when you swap them for the saturated fat in your diet (like using olive oil instead of butter). Olives are also rich in antioxidants called polyphenols, plant compounds with cancer-fighting properties.

Types of Olive Oil

Olive oil is commonly available in extra-virgin, virgin and light varieties. Extra-virgin oil comes from the first press of the olives; it has a low amount of acidity and is typically the most expensive. It has a green color and strong olive flavor, making it best for dipping bread or drizzling over salad and veggies (more usage tips below). Virgin oil is produced in a similar fashion to extra-virgin (from pressing already crushed olives) and it’s slightly more acidic.

Extra-virgin and virgin olive oils haven't been refined (oils can be refined -- or "processed" -- by exposure to heat or chemicals). An oil just labeled “olive oil” may be a blend of refined and virgin oils. Light olive oil is often further refined to remove any color and flavor. Don’t be fooled by the word “light” -- that refers to flavor and color only, not calories or fat (light olive oil has just as much as the other types).

Varieties of oils also have varying smoke points, which means you can heat certain types to a higher temperature before they start to smoke and burn. Extra-virgin and virgin oils have a much lower smoke point than refined olive oils. This means they're not good for high-heat cooking -- frying and stir-frying or even some extended sautéing. (Read up on the smoke points for oils.)

Storage and Uses

Store olive oil in a cool, dark place, away from direct sunlight or heat (your kitchen cupboard or pantry is perfect -- as long as it's not directly above the oven). Most olive oils have a shelf life of up to two years.

Since olive oil is high in calories, use it in small amounts at a meal. But since it’s so versatile, you can incorporate it in your diet in many small ways. I keep two bottles on hand -- one full of extra-virgin oil for cold preparations such as salad dressings, or simple appetizers. I also keep a milder (and less expensive) bottle of olive oil around for sautéing or roasting chicken, veggies and fish.

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