Fact or Fiction? You can cook with Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil has so many myths associated with it. The one I hear the most, can you cook with it? The short answer is YES! Not only can you, you should cook with extra virgin olive oil!
In fact, it should be your ‘Go To’ healthy kitchen oil!
Most people have at some point in their life been told that you can’t cook with EVOO. I myself am one of those people. Luckily for me, when I told my Italian grandmother about hearing from a friend's mom that you shouldn’t cook with EVOO, she simply waved her spoon in my face and with her heavy Italian accent said, “if cooking with extra virgin olive oil was going to kill you, we would all have been dead long ago amore”.
That was good enough for me... that is until I went to university and learned about organic chemistry and realized that there must be a more scientific way of supporting my Nonna’s claim.
And lo and behold, there was! The first step in debunking the myth that you can’t cook with extra virgin olive oil starts with looking closer at what the myth claims. The myth states that you cannot cook with EVOO because it has a lower smoke point than other oils. So what does this mean? It means that sometimes, when you are cooking with an extra virgin olive oil, you will begin to see smoke, or vapor, at higher temperatures, such as when you are frying it or broiling in. And with other oils, such as canola or grapeseed, there is no smoke or vapor until much higher temperatures. And so, which no further science than simply observing “smoke”, people assumed that you cannot cook with EVOO because it has too low of a smoke point.
But what even is smoke point? Well, simply put, it is the point when an oil gets heated sufficiently and components of the oil begin to volatilize and become visible. And while smoke in a pan is never a great sign, what is actually going on with the chemical stability of the oil that is still in the pan? Well, according to a recent article published in Acta Scientific Nutritional Health Journal, the smoke point of an oil is a poor indicator of the health and stability of the oil as it is heated. In fact, they state that the “smoke point does not predict the oil performance when heated”.
To come to this conclusion, they tested ten of the most common cooking oils (canola, grapeseed, avocado, coconut, peanut, rice bran, sunflower, virgin olive oil, olive oil and extra virgin olive oil) and exposed them all to variable temperature conditions (one where all the oils were gradually heated in pans to get them up to 464˚F and the other where the oils were heated in a deep fryer to 356˚F for six hours) where they monitored when the oils started smoking, and also the chemistry of the oil both before heating and after heating. They were specifically looking for specific compounds called “polar compounds”. These polar compounds are molecules that have an unbalanced electromagnetic charge. What this means is that they have the potential to disrupt the delicate balance of charges within our bodies, and this disruption has the potential to lead to complicated health issues such as cancer and chronic inflammation.
Moral of the story: polar compounds = bad news. Therefore, the oils that had the most polar compounds in them after the heating tests performed the worst. And guess what? Extra virgin olive oil was found to be one of the most stable oils with some of the least polar compounds after heating. This is due to the fact that EVOO has so many antioxidants that sacrifice themselves during heating (hence the occasional puff of smoke) and protect the structural integrity of the fats in the oil. What was shocking to me about the results was that some of the oils that are recommended for high heat cooking, such as grapeseed and canola, had the highest number of polar compounds, even though there was no smoke.
So there you have it, not only can you cook with extra virgin olive oil, you should cook with extra virgin olive oil because not only will it make your food taste better, it is actually healthier for you do so!
No surprise, turns out Nonna was right along with her age-old Mediterranean wisdom.