What about the other “extra virgin” vegetable oils?

This week I had a conversation with a friend who is taking cooking classes. She asked my opinion on other vegetable oils and how they compare to olive oil. She mentioned that in her classes, olive oil was not often featured, giving room to other ‘extra virgin’ oils. First, I told her, such things don’t exist outside the realms of misleading marketing and honest confusion.
Let me explain: ‘Extra virgin’ is a specific term related to olive oil, its chemistry, and its organoleptic attributes. The definition is an essential part of a European law (Reg.256/1991 amended in recent years) regarding olive oil grades and applies to olive oil only.
Most vegetable oils are extracted using thermal treatments and/or solvents, though in recent years, some of these oils have experienced a significant improvement in the way they’re extracted. Using mechanical means instead of the heat/solvent methods has led to obtaining higher quality products, as in the case of coconut, flax seed, grape seed, and sesame and sunflower oils.

While this is certainly laudable, calling these oils ‘extra virgin’ is wrong for several reasons:

  1. The term ‘extra virgin’ means not only that olive oil was extracted by mechanical means (no thermal treatment, no solvents), but also that the oil has passed a chemical analysis (free fatty acids, peroxides, UV absorbance and now, in California and Australia, two new methods to detect oxidation/rancidity/adulteration), the parameters of which are meant for olive oil only.
  2. The latter also applies for the question of ‘cold press’ status, which some vegetable oils claim as a basis for their self-proclaimed ‘extra virgin’ condition. ‘Cold press’ does not mean EVOO. It is an old term, originating from the time when olive oil was extracted via stone mills, a system that has been abandoned due to its high oxidative aspects. It’s true that EVOO must be made with lower temperatures (under 28C/ 82F), though that does not mean that all oils made under that parameter will be automatically EVOO.
  3. Very importantly (since this establishes the difference between extra virgin and virgin), it also means that the olive oil in question is free from organoleptic defects. No rancidity, fermentations (fusty, winey) or other noticeable defects are allowed for the grade EV.
  4. Olive oil is the only vegetable fat that has a significant endowment of natural anti-oxidants (polyphenols and tocopherols). This unique characteristic is the main factor that sets it apart, making EVOO the only fat subject to sensory evaluation regulated by law. The other vegetable oils don’t have a significant presence of anti-oxidants, if any at all.
  5. The other important difference occurs in the fatty acids composition. Oleic acid (55-85% in olive oil) has a great stability compared to other acids, which predominate in most vegetable oils. The higher presence of linoleic and linolenic acids make the latter highly unstable. In fact, that’s why these oils can’t be subject to sensory evaluation: they become rancid from the early stages of their lives. The lack of polyphenols subjects these oils to inevitable and rapid oxidative decay. This is so important that it also applies to olive cultivars: some are more stable or unstable given their genetic make up in terms of fatty acids and polyphenol count. For instance, Arbequina or Arbosana olives are much more unstable and prone to an early deterioration than Mission or Tuscan varieties.

Some vegetable oils made with better extractive technologies have had a formidable marketing victory, generally thanks to the supposed benefits of Omegas fatty acid 3 & 6 in oil form. This would be another discussion subject entirely, since as we understand, they are much better sources for these, when presented in any balanced diet.

Nevertheless, it’s worth including that olive oil has the same proportion of Omega fatty acids (9-oleic acid, 6-linoleic and 3-linolenic / alpha linolenic) as is found in maternal milk. And most importantly, as long as we’re talking about fresh, good EVOO, let’s remember that it does not deliver them alongside any free radicals, and instead contributes a great deal of beneficial anti-oxidants.
There are good uses of other vegetable oils as multiple as are the traditions for using them. We know of some great dishes coming from the use of coconut oil in Thai or Indonesian cuisine, sesame oil in the case of Indian food, or the use of the famous dendé oil (from an African oil palm) in the rich cuisine of the Brazilian state of Bahia. I see their strength mostly in culinary applications and not as much for health.
Of course, everything is relative and some of these oils are much healthier than other fats. The recent improvements have upgraded their quality and I salute that; the same can be said for when people make fresh oil from seeds at home and consume it immediately, preventing further oxidation. I just wanted to tackle a common misunderstanding and show comparative notes between olive oil and other options, as it was my friend’s question. Hoping that these brings some clarity to the subject and some (healthy) food for thought.
On behalf of the Pacific Sun Olive Oil team,