What is olive oil?

Olive oil is the liquid fat, or natural oil, obtained by pressing whole olives. The fruit, from a tree native to the Mediterranean, has a unique flavour that's dependent on its country of origin – some mild, others peppery or even bitter. Processing techniques result in olive oils of different ‘grades’, either refined and unrefined. Unrefined oils are pure and untreated, meaning no heat or chemicals have been used in the extraction process. This produces a purer oil with stronger taste. Refined oils have been treated to remove any flaws, and are usually lighter in colour and milder in taste.


Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is an unrefined oil made from the first 'virgin' press of the fruit. No heat is used in the extraction process, preserving beneficial plant compounds called polyphenols. Deemed the highest quality, you can expect to pay more for EVOO. It also has a stronger flavour and is darker in colour. Regular or light olive oils are typically a blend of both cold-pressed and refined oils.

Discover our full range of health benefit guides and find out more about the health credentials of other oils.

Nutritional profile of olive oil

One 1 level tbsp (11ml) serving provides:

  • 99 kcals / 407 kJ
  • 11g fat
  • 6g saturates
  • 0g monounsaturates
  • 9g polyunsaturates
  • 56mg vitamin E

What are the 5 main health benefits of olive oil?

1. May improve heart health

Olive oil is a key component of the Mediterranean diet, and there has been plenty of research conducted that demonstrates its benefits (especially that of EVOO) for heart health. This includes its ability to reduce blood pressure and improve cholesterol levels, both of which contribute to a reduced risk of heart disease.

A large review of these studies demonstrated how olive oil was the only source of monounsaturated fat associated with a reduced risk of both stroke and heart disease.

2. May reduce inflammation

Inflammation is thought to be one of the key drivers behind some of our most chronic health problems, including Alzheimer’s and type-2 diabetes. Research looking at the role of antioxidants and their anti-inflammatory effect, including oleic acid found in olive oil, has discovered that these play a role in reducing inflammation and the marker for inflammation, known as C-Reactive Protein (CRP).

EVOO is rich in polyphenols, one of which is called oleocanthal. This compound appears to share the same pharmalogical activity as ibuprofen, and acts as a natural anti-inflammatory. Interestingly, this useful property has been associated with positive changes in those with rheumatoid arthritis.

3. May improve mood

As part of a healthy diet that includes a high intake of fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and oily fish, olive oil has been found to play a role in reducing the risk of depression.

4. May improve brain function

A 2015 study found that in older populations, a Mediterranean diet supplemented with olive oil or nuts was associated with improved cognitive function, and may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.

5. May protect against chronic disease

Other early research has suggested that olive oil and its high polyphenol content may have a protective effect against type-2 diabetes and some forms of cancer. However, more research is needed before definitive conclusions can be drawn.

Is olive oil safe for everyone?

A dietary staple for many of the world’s healthiest populations, olive oil is considered a good choice for the majority of people. That said, rare reports of allergy have been recorded, although these are typically to the pollen of the olive tree rather than the oil of the fruit.

Being calorie-dense, olive oil’s use should be moderated, with it being chosen as a replacement for other fats used in the diet.

Recipes that use olive oil

Garlic, basil & olive oil mash
Spinach & green bean salad
Homemade hummus
Spaghetti with leeks, peas & pesto
Chicken breast with avocado salad
Quinoa, lentil & feta salad
Simple mashed black beans

This article was reviewed on 10 February 2021 by Kerry Torrens.

Nicola Shubrook is a nutritional therapist and works with both private clients and the corporate sector. She is an accredited member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and the Complementary & Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC). Find out more at urbanwellness.co.uk.


All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other healthcare professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local healthcare provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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