Article image
Original photo by apomares/ iStock
What Exactly Is “Extra-Virgin” Olive Oil?
Read Time: 5m
Article image
Original photo by apomares/ iStock

Olive oil is a vital crop in many countries around the world, and it has so many uses — some you might not even be aware of. You may like to pour it on your pastas and salads, but do you know where it originally comes from, or what "extra-virgin" really means? Here are eight rich facts about delicious, nutritious olive oil for you to soak in.

1of 8

Olive Oil Has Been Produced by Humans for Millennia

A wooden shelf with many clay jugs of olive oil.
Credit: Irina Khabarova/ iStock via Getty Images Plus

Although it’s not definitively known which culture first began pressing olives for culinary uses, the earliest historical evidence of olive oil being produced by humans is a clay pot relic found near Galilee, Israel, that bore olive oil residue. The pot was made between 7,000 and 7,600 years ago, and it’s thought that the Neolithic people in this area were only just learning how to make clay pots at the time. The oldest known olive oil press was also found in this region, near the modern-day city of Haifa, Israel; the press is slightly younger than the oil pot, at only 6,500 years old.

Make Every Day More Interesting
Receive Facts Directly In Your Inbox. Daily.

By subscribing you are agreeing to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.

2of 8

Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Is Defined as the Pure, Unprocessed, Unrefined Oil of an Olive

Oil pouring and dripping onto a spoon close up.
Credit: DUSAN ZIDAR/ Shutterstock

Although it’s well known that extra-virgin olive oil is the highest grade of olive oil, many people don’t know how its method of production differs from that of other kinds of olive oil. In order for olive oil to be classed as extra-virgin, it must be made by grinding olives and then cold-pressing them to extract their oil, without the use of heat or chemical solvents. Olive oil is also required to have no more than 0.8% acidity in order to qualify as EVOO, per the European Commission, as well as zero median defects. As a result of these stipulations, extra-virgin olive oil is lighter in color and flavor than lower grades of olive oil and has a fruity, slightly peppery flavor and odor.

3of 8

It Takes 11 Pounds of Olives to Make a Quart of Olive Oil

Fresh olives in sacks in a field in Crete, Greece.
Credit: Georgios Tsichlis/ Shutterstock

Olives have a surprisingly low yield when it comes to oil. It takes about 11 pounds of olives to make 32 ounces — or 1 quart — of olive oil. That’s between 5,200 and 8,000 olives, depending on the variety. This is also the reason olive oil is often more expensive than other kinds of edible oils. About 90% of the world’s harvested olives get slated to become oil (the rest will become table olives).

4of 8

Most of the World’s Olive Oil Is Made in Spain, but It’s Most Consumed in Greece

Detail of olive oil production line.
Credit: Mrak.hr/ Shutterstock

Spain leads the world in olive oil production, but it’s the Greeks who consume the most olive oil by far: Per capita, they’re responsible for using 24 liters per year. The Spanish are in second place, but it’s not even close: They only use 15 liters a year per capita.

5of 8

Olive Oil Has Antimicrobial Properties

Olive Oil used as dressing on top of a salad.
Credit: Pinkyone/ Shutterstock

Olive oils with a high polyphenol content (that is, extra-virgin olive oils) have been shown to prevent or delay the growth of pathogenic bacteria and microfungi, and the oil is therefore considered antimicrobial. This phenomenon is specifically attributed to oleuropein, tyrosol, and hydroxytyrosol, the major phenolic compounds found in olives. These antimicrobial properties were even known by ancient people, as evidenced by the biblical passage Luke 10:33-34, wherein a Samaritan pours olive oil onto a bleeding man’s wounds.

6of 8

Many Religions Use Olive Oil in Sacred Rituals and Practices

Olive oil being used during a religious service.
Credit: Andreas Politis/ Shutterstock

Olive oil is overwhelmingly the oil of choice used by churches and synagogues across the world. The Christian Orthodox, Anglican, and Roman Catholic churches all use olive oil to bless those preparing to be baptized, as well as to anoint the sick — as does the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and others. Catholic bishops use olive oil mixed with balsam (called “chrism”) in the sacrament of confirmation, in the rites of baptism, and other rites. Eastern Orthodox churches use olive oil in lamps for vigils. Under Jewish Halakhic law, olives are one of the seven foods that require the recitation of me'eyn shalosh after they are consumed, and olive oil is the preferred oil used to light Shabbat candles. As for Islam, olives are mentioned in the Quran as a “precious fruit.”

7of 8

Olive Trees Can Live for Thousands of Years

Detail of olive tree branch.
Credit: Tomo Jesenicnik/ iStock

Olive trees, and therefore olive oil, originated in the Levant and were probably cultivated from wild trees growing near the Syria–Turkey border. Although the average life span for these trees is between 300 and 600 years, there are several trees throughout Greece, Israel, and Lebanon that have lived for over 2,000 years. One tree in the Portuguese village of Mouriscas is estimated to be 3,500 years old, having been planted in the Atlantic Bronze Age — and it still produces olives! Meanwhile, a grove of 16 olive trees (called “The Sisters”) in Bechealeh, Lebanon, is said to be as many as 6,000 years old.

8of 8

There’s a Literary Prize for Extra-Virgin Olive Oil-Themed Writing

Female hands beginning to write in a notebook.
Credit: PhotoSunnyDays/ Shutterstock

Sponsored by the Pandolea Association, a Rome-based group of women olive oil producers, the Ranieri Filo della Torre International Award is a yearly literary prize awarded to poets and authors who are moved to write about extra-virgin olive oil. Named for a departed journalist and member of the National Academy of the Olive and Olive Oil who co-authored several publications on olive cultivation, the award honors poetry, fiction, and nonfiction about extra-virgin olive oil. Writers from all nations are invited to apply, but entries must be about extra-virgin olive oil specifically.