Scientific name: Olea europaea L.1 (olive tree)

Other common names: Extra virgin olive oil, EVOO, virgin olive oil, pure olive oil, light olive oil, refined olive oil

Description: Olive oil is a natural liquid fat made by pressing the oil out of fresh olives, the ripened fruit of the olive tree.2,3 When the pits are removed, olives contain 20 to 30 percent oil.3 Olive oil originally came from the Mediterranean region, but it is now made and used around the world.3–5 Its color, which can range from clear yellow to dark golden or even slightly green, will depend on the type of olives and refinement processes used.3 Olive oil is a healthy fat that is rich in antioxidants and beneficial for cardiovascular health.4–6 

There are four different types of olive oil:

  1. Extra virgin olive oil is the least processed, highest quality, with the richest taste and is considered to be the healthiest type of olive oil.3,7,8 
  2. Virgin olive oil is similar to extra virgin but is slightly more processed and, therefore, lower in quality.7
  3. Pure olive oil (also labeled as “olive oil”) is usually a mix of virgin and refined olive oils (mostly refined), and has a lighter taste.3,7
  4. Light or refined olive oil is not lower in fat or calories, but it is lighter in taste because of the higher percentage of refined oils and more processing than pure or virgin olive oils.7

In addition to cooking, olive oil is also used in cosmetics, soap, medicine, and as fuel for traditional oil lamps.5 

Nutrients: Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fats and contains moderate amounts of vitamins E and K. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s FoodData Central, a one-tablespoon (15 mL) serving of olive oil contains:9,10

  • Calories: 119
  • Fat: 14.0 g (2.31 g saturated, 10.38 g monounsaturated, 1.36 g polyunsaturated)
  • Protein: 0 g
  • Carbohydrates: 0 g
  • Fiber: 0 g
  • Sugar: 0 g
  • Cholesterol: 0 mg
  • Sodium: 0.27 mg (0.01% Daily Value)
  • Calcium: 0.135 mg (0.01% DV)
  • Potassium: 0.135 mg (0% DV) 
  • Vitamin E: 1.94 mg (12.93% DV)
  • Vitamin K: 8.13 mcg (6.78% DV)

Geographic origin: The exact origin of the olive fruit itself is not known but it is thought to have come from either Syria or sub-Saharan Africa more than 6,000 years ago.11 Some sources say that the production of olive oil was documented no earlier than 2500 BCE,12 while others say there is evidence of 8,000-year-old olive oil remains in Israel.13 What researchers do know is that olive oil was a staple ingredient in the diets of the ancient Romans, Greeks, and many others in the Mediterranean region.11,14 

Today, the main producers of olive oil worldwide are Spain, Italy, Tunisia, Greece, and France.11,15 California produces almost all American-made olive oils.16 

History of use as medicine: Olive oil has been considered a sacred commodity since ancient times.17 It is referenced in the bible as the oil used for anointing,18 and it was seen as a symbol of wealth, joy, and health in Jewish culture.18 The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates called olive oil “the great healer,” and the Greek poet Homer referred to it in The Iliad as “liquid gold.”17 The Hippocratic Corpus, consisting of 60 medical treatises,19 referenced olive oil for treating wounds and skin diseases, gynecological problems, headaches, and body pains; as a contraceptive; and as an emetic to treat mild poisoning.20–22 Ancient Greek and Roman athletes rubbed olive oil on their bodies to help warm and relax their muscles to prevent injuries.17,23 

While olive oil has been a staple of Mediterranean cuisine for thousands of years, it has gained popularity in the United States only in the past two decades.24 In the 1950s, the American physiologist Ancel Keys conducted the Seven Countries Study, which was the first major study to investigate diet and lifestyle along with other risk factors for cardiovascular disease across various populations-–in this case the US, Finland, the Netherlands, Greece, Italy, Yugoslavia, and Japan—over a fifty-year period.25 One of the primary findings, published in 1986, showed that diets using olive oil as the primary source of fat were associated with lower rates of coronary heart disease deaths.26

Despite these findings, throughout the early 1990s, the USDA recommended that Americans consume a diet low in fat, and oils – including olive oil – were to be used “sparingly.”27 In 1994, the World Health Organization, Harvard School of Public Health, and a nonprofit called the Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust created the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, which emphasized the use of olive oil as the primary source of dietary fat.24 These new recommendations, combined with millions of dollars of marketing by the olive oil industry and increasing research into its health benefits, led to the current popularity of including olive oil as a healthy part of one’s diet.24

Current uses and scientific literature review: In both human and animal studies, olive oil has been shown to have many potential health benefits, especially when compared to other fat sources including butter or other oils (e.g. corn, canola, soybean). Following is a brief summary of the scientific literature. Please refer to the list of peer-reviewed articles at the end of this article for more details.

Cardiovascular Health:
Olive oil is often recommended as a heart-healthy fat source, and there is a tremendous amount of literature examining its protective effects for cardiovascular health. However, the ways in which it benefits the cardiovascular system are yet to be determined.28,29 Furthermore, there is a lack of consistency across studies, with some showing no significant benefits30,31 or even potential adverse effects from overconsumption,32 which causes additional uncertainty about exactly how, and how much, olive oil contributes to heart health.33–35 Despite the abundance of literature already available, more research is still needed.33,36,37 

The reported cardiovascular benefits of olive oil include antioxidant effects,29,37–40 anti-inflammation,29,33,36–38,40,41 reductions in LDL (bad) cholesterol,30,42–46 increases in HDL (good) cholesterol (although most studies did not report this outcome),47 improvements in endothelial function (a marker of cardiovascular health),29,39,41 vasodilation (widening of the blood vessels),40 lipid metabolism,39,44,48 anti-atherogenesis (plaque formation in the arteries),58,66,69,72,75 and anti-thrombosis (blood clots in veins or arteries).29 Olive oil consumption has been associated with the prevention of high blood pressure,38,42,49 stroke,38,50 heart attack,38 cardiovascular diseases,51–53 and all-cause mortality.51,52,54,55 

The compounds responsible for these effects may include the many polyphenols (such as hydroxytyrosol)56 and unsaturated fatty acids (primarily oleic acid) the oil contains.29,38,45,47,49 

It is important to note that the greatest health benefits come from extra virgin olive oil or polyphenol-enriched virgin olive oils, rather than refined or mixed olive oils.

Brain Health:
Numerous studies show that olive oil consumption improves cognitive function,57–60 prevents cognitive decline,57,61,62 and slows or delays the progress of Alzheimer’s disease.61–64 These cognitive benefits may be related to the polyphenols in olive oil called secoiridoid oleuropein61 and hydroxytyrosol.65 Olive oil consumption also reduces the levels of a substance in the brain called amyloid beta, which  is associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease62,64 and improves synaptic functions (messaging between the brain and nerves).59 

There is some evidence, although it is by no means conclusive, linking olive oil consumption to reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, specifically in patients with severe cases of depression66,67 or obesity68 and in older adults.69 

Cancer Prevention and Treatment:
Studies have been conducted in laboratory settings, in animals, and in humans to identify the effects of both olive oil and its components on cancer and the mechanisms by which it can prevent or treat the disease. 

Olive oil appears to be most beneficial for colorectal,70–76 breast,71,77–79 prostate,71 and bladder cancers.80 The elements that may be responsible for these benefits are polyphenols called secoiridoids,81,82 including oleuropein71,72,77,78 and its metabolite (an end product of chemical processing in the body) hydroxytyrosol,71,72,75,76,83 and oleocanthal.72,79,83 These compounds may prevent or treat various types of cancers by regulating a range of cell-signaling pathways that reduce the growth and spread of cancer cells and induce cancer cell death72,75,77,80,82–84 without harming healthy cells,82 changing gene expression without altering DNA (epigenetic modulation),70,74,83 breaking down epidermal growth factor receptors (EGFR, an important protein for cell growth and proliferation),76 altering the gut microbiome,73,85 and generally enhancing the effectiveness of chemotherapeutic drugs.79,80 Further research in humans is needed to confirm these benefits and their specific mechanisms of action.74

Diabetes Management:
Olive oil consumption may be linked to the prevention and treatment of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.86–89 It has exhibited blood sugar lowering effects,87,90–93 glucose regulation,94 improved insulin sensitivity,94 and enhanced pancreatic function,94 all of which can help diabetic patients manage their symptoms and even prevent the onset of diabetes among individuals diagnosed with pre-diabetes.88 The same compounds in olive oil that have been credited with other health benefits – specifically, oleic acid, hydroxytyrosol, and oleuropein – are also likely responsible for diabetes symptom management.89 

Gut Health:
Many of olive oil’s health benefits may be related to its ability to positively alter the gut microbiome (microorganisms, such as bacteria, living in the gut), which is associated with reduced inflammation and enhanced immunity and antioxidant activity.95–100 As such, olive oil consumption can also reduce symptoms of gastrointestinal disorders including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).101–103 

Potential negative effects: There are very few known risks or side effects of consuming olive oil.104 Cooking with spoiled olive oil will affect the taste of your food but will not produce any physical side effects.104 Even though it is a fat and high in calories, olive oil consumption is not associated with weight gain.105 An allergy to olives is very rare, and allergic reactions to olive oil are even rarer.106 If applied topically to the skin, olive oil may cause acne or eczema.107

Purchasing and storage tips: When choosing which olive oil to buy, there are some important factors to consider.

  1. Extra virgin olive oil is the best option for flavor and quality,108,109 but it has a lower smoke point than refined varieties and is therefore not suitable for cooking at higher heats.2 
  2. Reputable olive oil brands will use a dark-colored glass or metal container, because light exposure can cause it to spoil.108 Do not purchase olive oil in clear or plastic bottles. 
  3. Beware of fake extra virgin olive oil110 (labeled as olive oil but containing a mixture of seed oils and/or low-quality olive oil). To avoid accidentally purchasing a fake, which may contain allergens, chemicals, and fewer health benefits, make sure the oil is labeled “extra virgin.” When possible, go to a specialty store where you can taste the oils before buying – if the oil tastes good, it likely is good.109 Look for a third-party certification seal109 such as PDO (European origin), DOP (Italian origin), or COOC Certified Extra Virgin (Californian origin). “Best by” or “use by” dates on olive oil are arbitrary. Look for a “harvest” or “pressed on” date109 within 18 months of the current date. Any mention of the level of free fatty acids (FFA) is a good sign that the oil is high-quality.109 Low prices are usually a clear indicator of poor quality, but that does not mean that all expensive options are legitimate.

Olive oil should always be stored in a cool, dark place. Do not store it near the stove, above the oven, or next to any windows that receive direct sunlight.111 Once opened, it should be consumed within six months.111 Unopened, a properly-stored bottle of olive oil will last up to two years past the harvest date.111

Good quality extra virgin olive oil should smell earthy, like a garden,109,111 taste grassy with a peppery finish, and leave your mouth feeling clean.108,109,111 When olive oil has spoiled or is not of high quality, it may be flavorless or taste rancid and will leave a waxy feeling in your mouth.108




Dips and Salad Dressings




Vegetables and Sides

Learn More: 
Online Medical Websites:

News articles: 

Peer-reviewed articles: 
Note: It is important to note that many peer-reviewed studies may be biased because of industry-funded research to promote product sales, and a conflict of interest is not always disclosed (see information on sponsored research from biologist and nutritionist Marion Nestle here). In this article, we have done our best to avoid including any industry-funded studies. As discussed on page 158 of the Food as Medicine Report, more government funding is needed for food as medicine initiatives. 



Health Benefits: General

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56. Lammi C, Bellumori M, Cecchi L, et al. Extra Virgin Olive Oil Phenol Extracts Exert Hypocholesterolemic Effects through the Modulation of the LDLR Pathway: In Vitro and Cellular Mechanism of Action Elucidation. Nutrients. 2020;12(6):1723. doi:10.3390/nu12061723

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66. Foshati S, Ghanizadeh A, Akhlaghi M. Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Improves Depression Symptoms Without Affecting Salivary Cortisol and Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor in Patients With Major Depression: A Double-Blind Randomized Controlled Trial. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2022;122(2):284-297.e1. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2021.07.016

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68. Canheta AB de S, Santos AS e A de C, Souza JD de, Silveira EA. Traditional Brazilian diet and extra virgin olive oil reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression in individuals with severe obesity: Randomized clinical trial. Clin Nutr. 2021;40(2):404-411. doi:10.1016/j.clnu.2020.05.046

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70. Di Francesco A, Falconi A, Di Germanio C, et al. Extravirgin olive oil up-regulates CB1 tumor suppressor gene in human colon cancer cells and in rat colon via epigenetic mechanisms. J Nutr Biochem. 2015;26(3):250-258. doi:10.1016/j.jnutbio.2014.10.013

71. Farràs M, Almanza-Aguilera E, Hernáez Á, et al. Beneficial effects of olive oil and Mediterranean diet on cancer physio-pathology and incidence. Semin Cancer Biol. 2021;73:178-195. doi:10.1016/j.semcancer.2020.11.011

72. Sain A, Sahu S, Naskar D. Potential of olive oil and its phenolic compounds as therapeutic intervention against colorectal cancer: a comprehensive review. Br J Nutr. 2022;128(7):1257-1273. doi:10.1017/S0007114521002919

73. Rodríguez-García C, Sánchez-Quesada C, Algarra I, Gaforio JJ. The High-Fat Diet Based on Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Causes Dysbiosis Linked to Colorectal Cancer Prevention. Nutrients. 2020;12(6):1705. doi:10.3390/nu12061705

74. Borzì AM, Biondi A, Basile F, Luca S, Vicari ESD, Vacante M. Olive Oil Effects on Colorectal Cancer. Nutrients. 2018;11(1):32. doi:10.3390/nu11010032

75. López de las Hazas MC, Piñol C, Macià A, Motilva MJ. Hydroxytyrosol and the Colonic Metabolites Derived from Virgin Olive Oil Intake Induce Cell Cycle Arrest and Apoptosis in Colon Cancer Cells. J Agric Food Chem. 2017;65(31):6467-6476. doi:10.1021/acs.jafc.6b04933

76. Terzuoli E, Giachetti A, Ziche M, Donnini S. Hydroxytyrosol, a product from olive oil, reduces colon cancer growth by enhancing epidermal growth factor receptor degradation. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2016;60(3):519-529. doi:10.1002/mnfr.201500498

77. Elamin MH, Daghestani MH, Omer SA, et al. Olive oil oleuropein has anti-breast cancer properties with higher efficiency on ER-negative cells. Food Chem Toxicol. 2013;53:310-316. doi:10.1016/j.fct.2012.12.009

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