Extra virgin olive oil has long been touted as a health food and has been shown to support the improvement of one's overall wellness. It's a key ingredient in the Mediterranean Diet which may support increased life expectancy for those who follow it.
However, if you think your grocery store EVOO is as beneficial for your health as olive oil can be, think again. While that oil is quite healthful (and we wouldn't suggest you stop using it), an even better version has come along. Like many healthy ingredients with wellness properties, high phenolic olive oil has been around for ages but recently gained popularity in the United States.
High phenolic olive oil is a fabulous find for anyone looking to increase their wellness through food. Ahead, Dr. Limor Goren, a molecular biologist and founder of high phenolic olive oil brand Kyoord, breaks down everything you need to know about the cooking oil that's taking the wellness world by storm.
Meet the Expert
- Dr. Limor Goren is a molecular biologist and the founder of the phenolic olive oil brand Kyoord. She has a PhD in molecular biology from City University of New York.
What Does High Phenolic Mean?
Polyphenols are a type of antioxidant. They're naturally found in various plant foods, and they're the main element of what makes olive oil healthy. You've likely heard of some types of polyphenols, such as tannic acid and flavonoids. Polyphenols can reduce your risk of disease by preventing or even reversing the damage to your cells caused by aging, environment, diet, and lifestyle. "High phenolic" simply means that a food is high in polyphenols.
What Makes High Phenolic Olive Oil Different
All extra virgin olive oil contains polyphenols. Dr. Goren says extra virgin olive oil is made without excess heat or chemicals. "As a result, it has low acidity, more fruity or bitter flavor (the flavor of olives) and is associated with health benefits," she explains. On the other hand, refined olive oil is treated differently. "Refined olive oil is made in a process that includes very high heat or chemical refinement that damages or depletes phenols—so those have no health benefits," she says. As for high phenolic olive oil, Dr. Goren says that multiple factors make high phenolic olive oil different from extra virgin:
- Olive varietal: Not all olives are created equal, and, according to Dr. Goren, not all olives can produce high phenolic olive oil. She notes that some varieties of olives contain more polyphenols than others.
- Harvesting: Timing is key for polyphenol content. "The olives must be harvested while still green and unripe," Dr. Goren says. "This is what 99% of producers don't do since they get much lower yields at that stage, and it doesn't make economic sense. They'd rather wait till the olives are ripe, and they can get double or triple the amount of olive oil."
- Storage Conditions: To reap the benefits of any olive oil, it needs to get to you quickly. Dr. Goren says that any extra virgin olive oil—even high-phenolic—will lose its phenols over time to oxidation. "So storage condition and freshness are key to ensure that it is still high in phenols when you purchase and use your olive oil," she says.
Dr. Goren founded Kyoord after studying olive oil and its components in a lab. "When I studied oleocanthal in my lab, I became fascinated with olive oil," she says. "I started designing experiments to see if some olive oils can kill cancer cells (in a dish) the same way that pure oleocanthal does." Dr. Goren discovered that olive oils with levels of antioxidants that can kill cancer were available in Europe but not in the United States, so she set about to change that.
The History of High Phenolic Olive Oil
If high phenolic olive oil has been around for as long as humans have been pressing olives, why haven't we heard about it until recently? As a special diet private chef and food writer, I like to consider myself on the pulse of wellness-related food trends, but I was unfamiliar with HP olive oil until a PR connection reached out to me about it.
Dr. Goren tells us that there are several reasons this oil hasn't been drizzled all over our salads before. First is the industrialization of olive oil, which Dr. Goren says caused manufacturers to focus on quantity, not quality. "Also, the global market for olive oils rewarded high-yield, low-quality olive oil, over the lower yield but higher quality necessary to produce high phenolic."
Additionally, olive oil manufacturers have found it wise to hold on to supplies of the high phenolic version themselves. "Most family-owned olive farms have produced high-phenolic olive oil for personal consumption—not for sale," Dr. Goren says. "The reason is that it costs more to make it, but the market demand did not compensate them for that extra expense, so they kept the good stuff for themselves, and extra virgin olive oil with lesser phenols (which are cheaper to produce) to the market."
Lastly, science didn't catch up on the polyphenol content of olive oil until recently. Dr. Goren says scientists only recently discovered the various phenols in olive oil in the last 30 years. According to Dr. Goren, the more important, biologically beneficial phenols like oleocanthal were found only about 15 years ago, while the medical research on benefits is still in infancy. So only in the last decade or so, some innovative producers started measuring and publishing the phenolic content of their olive oil."
It makes sense, then, why this oil is new to us. As for those health claims, though, you still won't be finding them on labels if you live in the United States. Let's examine why.
Why The U.S. Doesn't List Its Health Claims on Labels
If you purchase high phenolic olive oil in Europe, which is where most olive oil is produced, you will see the health claims that olive oil polyphenols contribute to the protection of blood lipids from oxidative stress on the label. That isn't the case stateside, though.
"The label health claim for HP olive oil was approved by the EU in 2016 and can be put on any olive oil that contains five milligrams of hydroxytyrosol and its derivatives per 20 g of olive oil," says Dr. Goren. "Europeans consumers and researchers tend to have more awareness of olive oil's medicinal importance than their American counterparts."
Because of the lack of awareness surrounding the benefits of polyphenols in olive oil, we don't appear to be on track to an FDA-approved label in the United States. "I am skeptical that this would happen soon," Dr. Goren says.
What Does High Phenolic Olive Oil Taste Like?
You might expect that high phenolic olive oil would also be more pungent in taste because it's more robust in antioxidants than standard EVOO, and it is. For those who love the flavor of olive oil, this stuff is a bit intense.
Dr. Goren says that the benefit is in the burn when it comes to HP olive oil. "Polyphenols are bitter by nature, so that is the desired taste you should always look for," Dr. Goren explains. "The most important olive oil phenol for human health—oleocanthal—activates taste receptors in our throat and is associated with a peppery sensation that often even makes us cough."
According to Dr. Goren, if you don't feel a slight burn at the back of your palate, it means there is no oleocanthal in your olive oil, which isn't a good sign. I'm a fan of punchy olive oil, so I enjoyed this version immensely.
How to Use High Phenolic Olive Oil
Fair warning, this oil does not come cheap. Unless money isn't a concern for you, HP olive oil should not replace your bottle used for cooking, which is unfortunate because it has a higher smoke point and enhances a food's nutritional benefits.
To get acquainted with HP olive oil, Dr. Goren suggests trying it straight. She suggests starting with a spoon or small short of raw high phenolic olive oil on an empty stomach. "That's what many people in the Mediterranean do, and it has been associated with higher life expectancy and a lower rate of disease," she says.
If you aren't an olive oil straight shooter, consider using this product as you would any expensive condiment: in ways where it can shine. Drizzle over a Caprese salad, grilled fish, or mix with other oils in your salad dressing.
High phenolic olive oil is something special for your health, and it's making waves accordingly. It has higher amounts of the components that make olive oil so healthy in the first place, and it packs a punch of flavor as much as it does of polyphenols. It's always existed, but it didn't become commercially popular until recent years.
Due to its price, it likely can't replace your usual cooking oil, but it can certainly add flavor and health value to your diet. It's worth a try for anyone interested in supporting their wellness through their food.
Pandey KB, Rizvi SI. Plant polyphenols as dietary antioxidants in human health and disease. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2009;2(5):270-278.
Vauzour D, Rodriguez-Mateos A, Corona G, Oruna-Concha MJ, Spencer JPE. Polyphenols and human health: prevention of disease and mechanisms of action. Nutrients. 2010;2(11):1106-1131.