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Is Cooking With Extra Virgin Olive Oil Safe?

I'm sure you've had someone tell you that you shouldn't cook with olive oil. This is actually not true, and research debunks this common claim.

The main reason why people say you shouldn't cook with extra virgin olive oil is that heat can damage the oil and cause free radicals, which can damage healthy cells. Typically, when an oil is heated it begins to oxidize. It’s true that when something is oxidized it can create harmful products like free radicals, as well as compounds that are carcinogenic, or cancer-causing. When the oil is able to resist oxidation, this is called oxidative stability.

Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) does a great job resisting oxidation.

Which oil is the most stable to cook with?

In a study by De Alzaa, Guillaume, and Ravetti (1), many different oils, including extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, canola oil, avocado oil, etc. were evaluated and compared based on factors including their smoke point, fatty acid profile, and free fatty acids, to determine which oil was the most stable. When it comes to extra virgin olive oil, I'm sure you're wondering where it lands on the stability scale. De Alzaa, Guillaume, and Ravetti (1) went as far as claiming that, “Extra virgin olive oil has demonstrated to be the most stable oil when heated.”

Why is extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) so stable when heated?

Antioxidants help to lower the rate of oxidation in oils. Because of this, the natural antioxidants and fatty acid profile in extra virgin olive oil allow it to remain stable even while being heated. Another component that contributes to extra virgin olive oil's stability is polyphenols. Polyphenols help by reacting and consuming free radicals (1). This helps to decrease and prevent some of the effects oils typically see when heated and becoming oxidized.

Not only is extra virgin olive oil safe to cook with, but research even shows some health benefits to cooking with extra virgin olive oil over other oils. A recent study by Alvarenga et al. (2) aimed to understand the effect that cooking with extra virgin olive oil had on other bioactive components, such as phenolic compounds and carotenoids, that are found in the foods being cooked in the oil. These compounds are typically found in vegetables and are known to have antioxidant properties and they’re considered healthy to consume. Their research focused mainly on using the sofrito technique of lightly frying onions, garlic, and tomato in extra virgin olive oil. In their research, Alvaregna et al. (2) determined that it may actually help with the extraction of these bioactive components found in the other ingredients. This tells us that cooking with can help extract the bioactive components of your food, as well as making them more bioavailable, or more easily absorbed in our body. This is part of the reason for the positive health effects seen in the Mediterranean diet, which commonly uses the sofrito cooking technique.

Knowing that it’s safe and actually quite beneficial to cook with extra virgin olive oil (and that this is backed by research) allows you to start using extra virgin olive oil in new ways –– it doesn’t have to be limited to dressing salads and finishing dishes. You can use it to saute, fry, and even bake, making it easier to get the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil and the Mediterranean diet. To get your hands on some high-quality extra virgin olive oil straight from the source, Olivaio can help.

Written by Isabelle Hammack
Reviewed by Kelly Powers, MA, RDN, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who takes a holistic approach to nutrition and health. Kelly is a recipe developer with a food blog highlighting whole foods, simple recipes, and her life in San Francisco. She’s the creator of 52 Weeks, a weekly meal plan program that helps users get back in the kitchen and feed themselves well. Kelly is also a co-founder of Olivaio.