Have you ever looked at all the different kinds of olive oil on your grocery store shelves and wondered what the difference is? There are a confusingly large number of colors and grades among both olive oils and coconut oils. But the colors and labels don’t tell the whole story! If you’re wondering just exactly what the difference is between the different grades of oil, we’ll help you find out!
How Oils Make the Grade
Olive oil comes in many several different grades, but the three that you’ll see most often are extra virgin, virgin and regular (sometimes called “pure”). Coconut oil comes in virgin and regular grades, although you’ll sometimes find the virgin grade labeled as extra virgin.
To understand the differences between these grades, it’s important to know how olive and coconut oils are produced. For olive oil, it all starts with ripe olives that have been ground into a paste. That paste is pressed twice to extract some of the oil, and then the rest of the oil is removed with heat or chemical solvents.
The oil itself is graded by the amount of oleic acid it contains. More oleic acid means that more of the oil has broken down into fatty acids as a result of thermal or chemical production methods. So, the different grades of olive oil are as follows:
- Extra virgin olive oil is the highest quality oil, and comes from the first pressing. It contains less than 1% oleic acid. It is not treated with any heat or chemicals.
- Virgin olive oil is the next in quality. It also comes from the first pressing, but has a slightly higher oleic acid content (3%). It is also an unrefined oil, but the standards aren’t as strict as in extra virgin grade.
- Regular or pure olive oil is a mixture of oil from the second pressing as well as oil released during heat and chemical treatments. It’s called “pure” because there are no other types of oil mixed in, but it’s of a lower quality oil than extra virgin or virgin. The oleic acid content ranges from about 3-4%.
- Light and extra light olive oils are the lowest grade. They’re called “light” because they’re light in color, not low in calories. These oils are often mixed with vegetable oil. It has a neutral taste and a higher smoke point.
Coconut oil follows a similar grading system, but there are only two grades – virgin and regular. Regular coconut oil is extracted with heat and chemical solvents, while virgin coconut oil is made simply by pressing the meat of the coconut.
What About Cold-Pressed and Expeller-Pressed Oils?
Many people who are on raw food diets say many oils are OK to consume as long as they are “cold pressed.” But what does that mean, exactly? Cold-pressed oils are made by first grinding the nuts, seeds, fruits or vegetables (depending on the variety of oil) into a paste. Then, a stone or other tool is used to press the paste which forces the oil out. Many manufacturers can get more oil out of the paste with heat, but it tends to alter the color and flavor of the oils. And if you are on a strict raw food diet, the oils you consume cannot be heated above 115°F.
Expeller-pressed oils are extracted by exposing the food to extreme pressure. This usually does not involve heating. Be sure to read labels.
Color, Flavor, and Nutritional Differences
There are more differences than the color or the amount of oleic acid. Virgin and extra virgin olive oil are darker in color – often green – and it has a much stronger flavor and aroma than the other grades. The best oils taste a little bit like olives and they’ll give you a peppery aftertaste. Regular and light oils have little to no flavor at all, and they’re normally a golden or pale yellow color.
Extra virgin and virgin oils also have nutrients that refined oils lack. They’re rich in antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, vitamins, minerals and monounsaturated fats that can help you maintain a healthy cholesterol level.
Among the two types of coconut oil, virgin oil has more nutrients and a richer flavor. It’s also pure white, whereas regular coconut oil may have a slight tint.
Buying and Using Olive Oil
Extra virgin olive oil tastes better and is better for you, but that doesn’t mean you should cook with it. For one thing, it has a lower smoke point, which means that it will burn much more easily than regular olive oil. In addition, the heat from cooking will destroy much of the flavor and nutritional value. It’s perfectly acceptable to use regular olive oil for cooking and save the pricier virgin and extra virgin oils for dipping, salad dressings, and cold dishes.
The problem is that in the United States, there are no government regulations for the labeling of the different grades of oil, so a bottle with the “extra virgin” label might not be exactly what it claims. If you want to ensure the oil is of high quality, look for North American Olive Oil Association seal. Check out what the official seal looks like here!
The oils marked with the NAOOA seal have been through a battery of tests for purity and flavor, so you’ll know exactly what you’re getting.
Amber Kanuckel is a freelance writer from rural Ohio who loves all things outdoors. She specializes in home, garden, environmental, and green living topics.