Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is widely considered to be one of the healthiest culinary oils, however there is a common misconception about its suitability for cooking. Many people believe that you cannot cook with EVOO at high temperatures due to its smoke point, however this is a myth. Read on as we dispel this myth and present the evidence that not only is EVOO safe for cooking, but it is also one of the healthiest and most stable oils to use in the kitchen.
Understanding smoke point
The smoke point of an oil is the temperature at which it produces a thin, continuous stream of bluish smoke1. It has long been used as a way to determine the stability of a cooking oil when heated, however there is limited evidence to support this.
The smoke point of EVOO varies depending on several factors, including the quality of the oil and the processing methods, however, is between 190 – 210 degrees Celsius2. While this is lower than some refined oils like canola oil and sunflower oil, it is still higher than most common domestic cooking temperatures such as deep frying (160-190C), sautéing (120C) and oven baking (around 200C). Additionally, the smoke point of an oil is calculated in a lab setting, by heating a small sample of oil and watching until it smokes. This setting is very different to a kitchen where other variables such as the pan, the cooking method and the food being cooked can alter the smoke point and allow the oil to be heated to higher temperatures without smoking2.
Busting the myth about smoke point
Research has now proved that the smoke point of an oil is not a good indicator of its stability when heated3. Instead, there are other factors that better predict how the oil will perform – including the fatty acid profile and oxidative stability.
In a 2018 study, researchers conducted two different heating tests (different time points at 180C and different temperatures up to 240C) on 10 common cooking oils, including EVOO, coconut oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, and rice bran oil3. Samples were taken from the oils at various points, and tests were undertaken for common quality parameters, including the formation of polar compounds. Polar compounds are secondary products of oxidation, and have been linked to poor health, particularly with neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease4-7. In this study, EVOO was shown to be the most stable of the oils, producing the least polar compounds3. Interestingly, oils with higher smoke points such as canola oil, sunflower oil and grapeseed oil produced the most polar compounds, indicating that smoke point is not in fact a good marker of stability.
Predictors of stability
With the smoke point myth now busted, it’s time to discuss what factors you should consider when choosing an oil for cooking. Research shows that the level of antioxidants, fat profile, and degree of refinement of a cooking oil are the most important factors to consider3.
As the name suggests, antioxidants protect the oil from oxidation8 so the more antioxidants in an oil the less likely it is to break down. EVOO contains one of the highest levels of naturally occurring antioxidants of any cooking oils.
All cooking oils are made up of different fatty acids, and these different fatty acids react differently to heat. Due to their chemical structure and double bonds, polyunsaturated fats are much more prone to oxidizing, making them far less stable at high temperatures9. On the other hand, monounsaturated fats are much more stable. EVOO is high in monounsaturated fats (around 65%) and low in polyunsaturated fats (around 8%)10, making it a highly stable oil.
Level of refining:
Many cooking oils (such as canola oil and sunflower oil) are refined during their production, and this refinement can expose the oil to high temperatures and chemical solvents. These processes can strip the oils of their natural antioxidants, making them more prone to oxidation11. EVOO is unrefined and is processed only by mechanical methods (no high heat or chemical solvents used) meaning the natural antioxidants are retained.
What does it all mean?
Overall, extra virgin olive oil should be recommended in cooking at all domestic temperatures due to its impressive health benefits, stability, and high levels of antioxidants. The smoke point of an oil doesn’t seem to correlate with how well an oil performs at high heat, and other factors such as the fatty acid profile, the antioxidant content, and the degree of refinement should be assessed instead.
Additionally, it is worth remembering that the enduring culinary traditions of countries like Greece, Italy and Spain stand as a testament to the safety and reliability of using EVOO in cooking. These countries boast lifestyles and dietary habits that have garnered global recognition for their health benefits, with the Mediterranean Diet being voted the healthiest overall diet by health professionals’ multiple years in a row12. The Mediterranean diet uses EVOO liberally in cooking, and research has shown this is a key contributor to the health benefits associated with the diet13.
View article references
- AOCS. Official methods and recommended practices of the American Oil Chemist Society. 2012(6th Edition).
- American Olive Oil Association. Understanding cooking oil smoke points. Accessed August 2023. Available from- https://www.aboutoliveoil.org/understanding-cooking-oil-smoke-points
- De Alzaa F, Guillaume C, Ravetti L. Evaluation of Chemical and Physical Changes in Different Commercial Oils during Heating. ACTA Scientific Nutritional Health. 2018;2(6):2-11.
- Matveychuk D, M. Dursun S, Wood P, B. Baker G. Reactive Aldehydes and Neurodegenerative Disorders2011.
- Pizzimenti S, Ciamporcero E, Daga M, Pettazzoni P, Arcaro A, Cetrangolo G, et al. Interaction of aldehydes derived from lipid peroxidation and membrane proteins. Front Physiol. 2013;4:242.
- Cruz-Haces M, Tang J, Acosta G, Fernandez J, Shi R. Pathological correlations between traumatic brain injury and chronic neurodegenerative diseases. Translational neurodegeneration. 2017;6:20.
- Li J, Li X, Cai W, Liu Y. Comparison of different polar compounds-induced cytotoxicity in human hepatocellular carcinoma HepG2 cells. Lipids Health Dis. 2016;15:30.
- Sharma S, Cheng S-F, Bhattacharya B, Chakkaravarthi S. Efficacy of free and encapsulated natural antioxidants in oxidative stability of edible oil: Special emphasis on nanoemulsion-based encapsulation. Trends in Food Science & Technology. 2019;91:305-18.
- Parker TD, Adams DA, Zhou K, Harris M, Yu L. Fatty Acid Composition and Oxidative Stability of Cold-pressed Edible Seed Oils. Journal of Food Science. 2003;68(4):1240-3.
- Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Australian Food Composition Database - Release 2.0. Canberra ACT, Food Standards Australia New Zealand; 2022
- Ghazani SM, Marangoni AG. Minor components in canola oil and effects of refining on these constituents: A review. Journal of the American Oil Chemists' Society. 2013;90(7):923-32.
- US News. U.S. News & World Report Reveals Best and Worst Diets for 2023. January 2023. Accessed August 2023. https://www.everydayhealth.com/diet-and-nutrition/diet/us-news-best-diet-plans-mediterranean-dash-more/
- Flynn MM, Tierney A, Itsiopoulos C. Is Extra Virgin Olive Oil the Critical Ingredient Driving the Health Benefits of a Mediterranean Diet? A Narrative Review. Nutrients. 2023;15(13):2916.