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Article updated: 1/23/2013 12:08 PM

Ask the Nutritionst: Olive oil explained

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Q. What is the difference between pure olive oil, light olive oil, virgin olive oil and extra-virgin olive oil?

A. In the United States we categorize olive oils into extra virgin (sometimes referred to as EVOO), virgin, light and classic (pure) olive oil. All these oils are made by extracting the juice of olives.

All olive oils, like any other fat, contain about 120 calories per tablespoon. Extra-virgin olive oil is the first product of the extraction process, and thus has the strongest flavor and aroma of the three types. Virgin olive oil is also from the first pressing but is of slightly lower quality. Light olive oil refers to the absence of flavor, which makes it appropriate for dishes that would otherwise clash with the stronger flavored oils. Classic or pure olive oil typically results from a mixture of virgin olive oil and refined oil.

Nutritionally, the fat in all three types of olive oil is mainly monounsaturated fat (MUFA). When MUFA is substituted for saturated fat, it lowers LDL ("bad") cholesterol without reducing HDL ("good") cholesterol.

Studies linking greater use of olive oil with lower risk of heart disease generally don't look at specific types of olive oil. However, both heart health and other possible health benefits may also relate to anti-inflammatory, antioxidant benefits of several natural compounds in olive oil. Extra virgin oil offers the most potential health benefits because it is the least processed and retains more of these compounds, including squalene, polyphenols and tocopherols (related to vitamin E).

Provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research.

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