How Olive Oil Benefits Your Brain (& Smart Buying Tips)

How Olive Oil Benefits Your Brain (& Smart Buying Tips)

The brain benefits of high-quality olive oil make it a best brain food. Learn how to choose genuine extra virgin olive oil (and avoid widespread fake oil).

The health benefits of olive oil are legendary.

It’s a major component of the Mediterranean diet which is widely considered the best way to eat for overall health and longevity. 

Some of the well-known health advantages of olive oil include its ability to help boost the immune system, increase bone density, prevent heart disease, and reduce risk of diabetes

But another equally important benefit of olive oil is its contribution to good brain health and mental well-being.

5 Benefits of Olive Oil for Brain Health and Mental Wellness

As a key part of the Mediterranean diet, olive oil may be why people who live in longevity zones like Ikaria, Greece rarely suffer from depression, dementia, and Alzheimer’s.

When participants in a large study called “The SUN Project” replaced less healthy vegetable oils with olive oil, their risk of depression plummeted by almost 50%.

Here’s a look at some of the ways olive oil helps keep the brain healthy and protected against future degeneration.

1. Olive Oil Is High in Brain-Protective Antioxidants

The brain uses a lot of oxygen — 20% of our total intake.

This makes it especially vulnerable to oxidation caused by free radicals.

If you’ve ever seen a cut apple turn brown or an old car get rusty, you’ve seen oxidation at work.

A similar process happens in the cells of your brain.

Olive oil is particularly high in natural antioxidants called polyphenols.

The health benefits of olive oil are believed to be largely due to its high level of polyphenols

Olive oil contains over 30 phenolic compounds that are potent antioxidants and free radical scavengers. 

Polyphenols also play an important role in keeping bottled olive oil fresh.

2. Olive Oil Is High in Essential Brain Vitamins

Olive oil is a significant source of vitamins E and K, two vitamins with proven brain health benefits: 

Vitamin E

Vitamin E helps prevent mental decline as we age. 

It’s an effective antioxidant which protects the brain from free radical damage

Vitamin E, especially in the presence of vitamin C, helps to maintain a good memory, slow memory loss, and significantly reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia. 

The Vitamin E can minimize the damage caused by a stroke by redirecting blood supply around the stricken area after the event. 

Vitamin K

The Vitamin K is found mainly in green leafy vegetables.

If you don’t eat as many of these as you should, you can get the vitamin K you need from olive oil.

Vitamin K helps keep our brains sharp as we age

It can improve the ability to remember words, a big problem for many of us as we get older. 

Vitamin K is thought to play a role in preventing Alzheimer’s since patients are often found to be deficient. 

3. Olive Oil Decreases Risk of Depression

One of the most unexpected benefits of olive oil is that it can reduce the risk of depression.

The Standard American Diet (SAD) is loaded with unhealthy trans fats from fast food, processed food, and vegetable oils like canola, sunflower, soy, and safflower which are extracted with heat and chemical solvents.

When participants in a large study called The SUN Project replaced these less healthy vegetable oils with olive oil, their risk of depression plummeted by almost 50%. 

Researchers concluded that the more trans fats consumed, the higher the risk of depression.

4. Olive Oil Increases Brain-Boosting Chemicals

Another surprising benefit of olive oil is that it boosts levels of two critical brain chemicals, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and nerve growth factor (NGF). 

These compounds encourage the formation and repair of brain cells.

BDNF is a protein that stimulates new brain cell formation.

BDNF can offset the negative effects of stress on the brain; low levels are associated with depression.  

Nerve growth factor enhances the growth, repair, and signaling of sensory nerve cells which are responsible for transmitting information, such as sight and sound. 

Additionally, monounsaturated fats — the kind found in olive oil — increase levels of acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter of memory and learning.

5. Olive Oil Helps Protect the Brain From Degenerative Diseases

The last brain health benefit of olive oil is that it can ward off cognitive decline.

Higher intake of monounsaturated fats improves memory and other cognitive functions in older people.

Eating a Mediterranean diet high in olive oil can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by up to 40%

Olive oil is an essential part of the MIND diet.

This variation of the Mediterranean diet has been shown to lower the risk of Alzheimer’s by an impressive 53%. 

If you’ve ever eaten olive oil and noticed that it made the back of your throat itch, that sensation was caused by a naturally occurring compound called oleocanthal

Oleocanthal is an anti-inflammatory polyphenol that can cross the blood-brain barrier to clear the brain of the beta-amyloid proteins associated with Alzheimer’s. 

The vitamin E in olive oil has also been found to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s

Why You Should Use Only Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Olive oil comes from the fruit of the olive tree (Olea europae) which originated in the Mediterranean Basin.

It has been an important part of Mediterranean cuisine for 5,000 years.

Homer, the famed Greek poet, called it “liquid gold.” 

Hippocrates, widely regarded as “the father of medicine,” called olive oil “the great healer.”

Now, there are several thousand olive tree cultivars grown throughout the world in areas with suitable climates, including parts of Australia, China, South America, India, and the United States.

But 98% of all olive trees are still grown in the Mediterranean region with Spain, Italy, and Greece together producing 77% of the world’s olive oil.

From Tree to Bottle: How Extra Virgin Olive Oil Is Made

Traditionally, olives (both flesh and pit) are crushed to make a paste.

This paste is then pressed to extract the oil.

The method of extracting oil from olives has not changed much in thousands of years except that the tools are now stainless steel instead of stone.

There are four grades of virgin olive oil.

The lowest grade is not fit for human consumption and is designated for other uses, like making soap.

The top-of-the-line olive oil is extra virgin olive oil, often abbreviated as EVOO.

This is the kind you want to buy.

By definition, EVOO is cold-pressed which, according to the University of California Cooperative Extension, means that the temperature during processing does not exceed 86ºF (30ºC). 

It also must meet high standards of low acidity and excellent taste.

If you’re looking for the most health benefits from olive oil, extra virgin olive oil is definitely the grade to buy.

But there are other practical matters to consider.

How to Find Genuine Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Investigative journalist Tom Mueller blew the lid off the fake olive oil industry in his book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.

It’s an engrossing exposé with as many twists and turns as a mystery novel.

But it’s much more than a story about olive oil.

His investigation goes to the very heart of the corruption of our food supply.

Throughout Europe, there are large-scale facilities that pump out fake olive oil.

In one Italian bust, authorities broke up a criminal gang sitting on $8 million worth of fake oil.

These illicit manufacturers slap an Italian flag and the name of an imaginary producer on the label and dump this oil on what are considered to be unsophisticated markets like the US, Australia, and China.

Fake olive oil can be made from a mix of olive oil diluted with poor quality oils, but sometimes they contain no real olive oil at all.

Sometimes cheap, unhealthy soy or canola oils are colored with industrial chlorophyll and flavored artificially to simulate the taste and appearance of real olive oil.

In 2010, the University of California Davis Olive Center shook consumer confidence when they reported that 69% of imported and 10% of California extra virgin olive oil failed to meet extra virgin olive oil standards.

In 2011, the Center released an updated report on the state of olive oil.

This time, the five top-selling imported extra virgin olive oil brands in the US were tested — Bertolli, Colavita, Filippo Berio, Pompeian, and Star.

Seventy-three percent of the samples failed to meet International Olive Council extra virgin standards.

The olive oils that failed to meet extra virgin standards did so for one or more of these reasons:
  • Oxidation by exposure to elevated temperatures, light, and/or aging
  • Adulteration with cheaper refined olive oil
  • Poor-quality oil made from damaged and overripe olives, processing flaws, and/or improper oil storage

In October 2014, class action suits were filed against Filippo Berio and Bertolli distributors for olive oil fraud.

Together, these companies comprise a substantial portion of the olive oil imported from Italy into the US.

Agromafia, a segment of 60 Minutes new magazine, revealed that the Italian mafia makes an estimated $16 billion per year selling fake food, including olive oil. 

Experts estimate that upwards of 80% of Italian olive oil exported to the US is counterfeit.

You can stay abreast of the latest olive oil frauds on the Olive Oil Times fraud alert page.

Olive Oil Sources You Can Trust

Clearly, if you are buying poor quality or fake olive oil, you can’t expect to experience any of olive oil’s many benefits.

So I imagine you’re wondering, “What brands can I trust?”

“How can I find high quality, genuine extra virgin olive oil?”

Here are a few reliable ways to find “real deal” quality olive oil.

Beyond Extra Virgin: Ultra Premium

There’s a relatively new category of olive oil beyond extra virgin — Ultra Premium (UP).

Now, experts consider this the standard for the highest quality olive oil.

You’ll find a list of stores that carry UP Certified Olive Oil along with the stringent production qualifications that must be met to be Ultra Premium certified at

Buy Award-Winning Olive Oils

Every spring, the best olive oils in the world compete in the New York International Olive Oil Competition.

You’ll find lists of the award winners from around the world at

This site also has information on where to buy award-winning olive oils in stores or online. 

Buy Olive Oil Locally

If you are lucky enough to live in a climate where olive trees grow, the best olive oil may be growing locally.

If you buy from a local farm, their oil almost certainly will be fresh and of high quality.

The better olive oil stores have knowledgeable staff and often host tastings, similar to wine tastings, so that you can try before you buy.

I now buy all of my olive oil at a local boutique olive oil store.

Besides knowing that I am getting top quality olive oil, shopping there has opened my eyes to flavors of olive oil I never knew existed.

I favor olive oil infused with lemon or rosemary, each with its own impressive set of brain health benefits.

More Tips for Getting the Greatest Benefit From Olive Oil

We still have more to do!

Here are some other tips and tricks to consider:

Freshness Matters

Always buy the freshest extra virgin olive oil you can find.

Light can cause oxidation, so buy your oil in dark glass bottles only.

The older the oil is, the fewer polyphenols it will contain due to oxidation. 

Some bottles now come with an expiration date to remove the guesswork.

A rule of thumb is that an unopened bottle kept in a cool, dark place should remain in good condition for one to two years.

But once you’ve opened a bottle, keep it away from heat and light as much as possible and use it up promptly.

Avoid “Light” Olive Oil

You should also avoid another kind of “light.”

Modifiers on the label like “lite, light, extra light, or pure” mean you are not getting genuine EVOO.

Also, beware that in this case, “light” refers to lighter taste, not fewer calories.

Choose Oil From the Best Olive Varieties

Some olive varieties naturally contain more polyphenols than others.

Olive oil pressed from Coratina, Conicabra, Koroneiki, Moraiolo, or Picual olive varieties contain the most polyphenols

Bitter Is Better

And remember that when tasting olive oil, “bitter is better.”

You’ll get more benefits from bitter-tasting oils which have the highest levels of polyphenols.

In the case of olive oil, seek out bitterness rather than avoid it, though it may seem counterintuitive.

Most people don’t know how to detect rancid olive oil just by tasting it,” reports Olive Oil Times. “In fact… when people blind-taste an old, rancid olive oil and a fresh, healthful one, they preferred the rancid, thanks to years of being familiar with the taste and an aversion to the bitterness in high-quality EVOOs.

Don’t be like most people, OK?

Don’t Count on the “Fridge” Test

You may have heard that you can use the refrigeration test to test whether olive oil is genuine.

This involves putting the oil in the refrigerator to see if it hardens.

The theory is that if the oil hardens, it’s genuine olive oil.

However, the University of California Davis Olive Center tested both low and high-quality extra virgin olive oil, canola oil, safflower oil, and blends of olive oil mixed with other oils.

None of the oils congealed even after 60 hours in the fridge.

The study concluded that putting vegetable oil in the refrigerator is not a reliable way to judge either the source or quality of the oil.

Why It’s Safe to Cook With Olive Oil

You’ve probably heard that heating olive oil will destroy its health-promoting properties.

I had always believed this too, but this is not what research shows.

Here are some reasons that cooking with olive oil is safe:

  • Olive oil contains mostly monounsaturated fats which are fairly stable at room temperature and when heated. This makes it a better choice for cooking than less stable polyunsaturated vegetable oils like sunflower and soy oils. 
  • Olive oil contains vitamin E and polyphenols, antioxidants which help prevent oxidation. 
  • Heating, even for very long periods of time, does not degrade extra virgin olive oil’s nutrients. In one study, olive oil was heated for 36 hours with no appreciable degradation or change in nutritional properties. 
  • Extra virgin olive oil’s smoke point — the point at which degradation begins to occur — is around 350-410°F (176-210°C) which is no higher than the normal temperature at which you would sauté or stir fry food. 

One last anecdotal piece of evidence is that the people of the Mediterranean have been cooking with olive oil for thousands of years and are some of the healthiest people on Earth.

Recommended: Upgrading brain health is key to making your brain work better.

Brain supplement can help you:

  • Improve your mental clarity and focus.
  • Boost your memory and your ability to learn.
  • Increase your capacity to think critically, solve problems, and make decisions.

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