Is Your Olive Oil Really Olive Oil?

03/28/2016 10:30 am ET | Updated Mar 28, 2016

"I get so confused choosing the right oils and differentiating between different kinds of fats," writes this week's house call. "I watched a 60 Minutes episode that showed olive oil imported from Italy wasn't really olive oil. And the other day, I went to the supermarket to pick up coconut oil and it said palm oil on the back. How can I make sense about these healthy fats amidst the confusion and deception?"

Honestly, even among people "in the know," it can be a real challenge choosing the right kinds of fats and oils. Quality ultimately becomes key here. Fortunately, you can find a ton of helpful resources to navigate through the confusion in my new book, Eat Fat, Get Thin.

Here, let's focus on oils. Today we will discuss olive oil, coconut oil, and palm oil -- to help you make the best choices.

Olive Oil

In his book Extra Virginity, Tom Mueller takes us through the sublime, scandalous world of olive oil. He discusses how resellers add lower-priced, low-grade oils filled with artificial coloring to extra-virgin olive oil!    

In fact, one study demonstrated about 69 percent of olive oil imported and labeled "extra-virgin" failed to meet standards in an expert smell and taste test (standard testing for this type of labeling). That's outrageous! When it comes to olive oil (or really, any oil), you have to do your research and pick the right ones.

While most oils are refined, olive oil is one of the few oils we still consume mostly unprocessed.

Here is what I look for when choosing olive oil:

  • Always choose extra-virgin, which is the oil that is derived from the first pressing of the olives. This version of the oil contains many nutrients (such as polyphenos) that protect it from heat damage.  One study compared the anti-inflammatory power from the oil resulting from the first pressing of olives with that of later pressings. Researchers found extra-virgin olive oil lowered inflammation, while oil from later pressings did not. 
  • Choose unfiltered.  Unfiltered olive oil will appear to be cloudy because it contains naturally occurring elements like antioxidants and buffer acids  which protect against oxidative damage.
  • Also look for cold-pressed olive oil, which means
    manufacturers use very little heat when processing olives to get the oil.  Cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil provides the strongest possible nutrient value because of low-heat processing, coupled with the oil's first pressing high phytonutrient content.
  • Be aware of misleading claims by big food companies who throw around misleading terms like "pure olive oil." These somewhat misleading phrases, which are aimed for your wallet more than your health, often signify a mix of unrefined and refined virgin olive oils.
  • Also avoid extra-light olive oil. Companies love slapping this "light" term on foods because it plays into your low-fat fears. These terms subtly suggest all fats are bad and make you fat, yet if you've read my books or blogs you know fats are not bad. Low-fat or "light" foods are typically highly refined and processed. Remember, nothing in nature comes in "low-fat" form!

Other tips to get the best out of your olive oil...

Storage is important because heat and other factors can trigger oxidation and other problems. Always store olive oil in a dark, cool place.  Keep it sealed tight and out of direct sunlight or away from other heat sources like near the stove.

Use olive oil within one to two months once you open it for optimal health benefits. Research shows quality and health benefits decline after two months, even among properly stored olive oils. I love to use olive oil for low-heat cooking, dressings salads, or drizzled over veggies, meat, and fish. Some people take two tablespoons before meals to help with digestive health. 

Coconut Oil

I have discovered coconut oil and love it because of its it medium-chain triglycerides, a beneficial fat that can speed up metabolism and convert to energy quickly in your body. I discuss this in more in this recent blog.

Always choose coconut oil that is organic, virgin, cold-pressed and unrefined.  And avoid products that are deodorized or bleached.

Coconut oil is one of the most versatile oils you can own.  Because it's very stable, you can bake with it and use it when cooking meat, veggies and sauces over medium-high heat. You can put it into your smoothies, stir it into hot beverages like tea or coffee, mix it into soups, stir in with nut butter, or just eat it right out of the jar by the spoon full. 

Palm Oil

Palm oil is a vegetable oil pulled from the palm tree's fruit. About 85 percent of the world's palm oil comes from Malaysia and Indonesia.

It is important to note that most palm oil in our food supply is "conflict palm oil" that involves deforestation, disruption of ecosystems, and human rights violations. These versions are by Big Food companies. 

All that said, I do like unrefined red palm oil because of its nutritional value.

When choosing palm oil, the color of the oil is important.  True, virgin, unrefined red palm oil is naturally reddish in color and comes loaded with vitamins and antioxidants. Refined palm oil, on the other hand, is highly processed and loses its red color, as well as its taste and health benefits. Only buy products with sustainable palm oil. Look for the Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) label.

Avoid "palm kernel oil," refined palm oil or crude oil -- all of which is extremely processed.  Palm oil can be listed under many names, including palmitate, glyceryl stearate, and palm kernel oil.

6 Strategies for Buying Oils

The next time you purchase olive oil, coconut oil, red palm oil, or really any other type of oil, consider these six strategies.

  1. Always choose organic, unrefined, cold-pressed, or expeller pressed. These terms ensure you're purchasing a quality, highly nutritious and sustainable product. Organic production prohibits genetically modified ingredients (GMOs) and the use of toxic solvents (such as hexanes) for extraction in oils. 
  2. If possible, check out the company directly. Ensure the product is truly cold-pressed and lives up to its claims and standards, and that the manufacturer does not use toxic solvents in the refining process. Check out websites and don't hesitate to email or call them with any concerns.
  3. Choose oils in dark, not clear bottles. The dark color helps protect the oil from direct sunlight exposure, which can cause it to go rancid. Store the oil in a cool, dark place away from heat and light exposure such as cabinets or the fridge in airtight containers.  Never store oils on kitchen counters or next to the stove.
  4. Always tightly close the lid after using. Oxygen can make oil go rancid quickly.
  5. Purchase the correct size and consume in the time recommended. Remember oils tend to go bad after a span of a few months or years depending on the type of oil. Those mega-store gargantuan containers, aren't such a great buy if you don't use the oil that often.
  6. Choose the right oil for the job.  Because different oils have different smoke points, it's important to choose the right oil for the task at hand.  Here are the temperatures at which some of the more popular oils reach their smoke points (lowest to highest):
  • Sunflower oil, unrefined: 225 F
  • Red Palm Oil: 302 F
  • Walnut oil, Unrefined: 320 F
  • Coconut oil unrefined: 350 F
  • Extra-virgin olive oil: 375 F
  • Macadamia oil: 413 F
  • Almond oil: 420 F
  • Hazelnut oil: 430 F
  • Avocado oil: 520 F

My top picks

Readers and patients often ask for my favorite oil brands, so here are my top picks for my favorite go to's.

For coconut oil I like Nutiva (available from Thrive Market) because it's cold-pressed, virgin, organic, never refined and ethically sourced. Nutiva also carries a red palm oil.

I've included a link to olive oil expert Tom Mueller's picks for the best quality and best-priced brands here. 

Armed with these strategies, you can feel confident you're buying not only quality oils but also the right oils. To learn more about oils and other fats that keep you lean and healthy, check out for my new book Eat Fat, Get Thin.

Wishing you health and happiness,

Mark Hyman, MD