Whether you're using low-quality olive oil or the cream of the crop, extra-virgin pressed oil; some vegans choose to avoid this plant-based oil. Can vegans eat olive oil? Learn more in our complete guide to our favorite Italian export.
Olive oil has been a part of Mediterranean cultures like Italy and Greece for millennia. And more recently, it’s made its way around the globe.
This oil, made from the small green fruits from the olive tree, makes a fantastic addition to any salad vinaigrette or marinade. It’s also used as one of the best low-temperature cooking oils and has proven heart-health benefits.
But is extra-virgin olive oil vegan?
Many vegans choose to consume olive or vegan vegetable oil in place of butter and animal-based fats, but some vegans have chosen to cross vegan oils off their list of acceptable foods.
Read our vegan guide below to learn more about how producers make olive oil and why some vegans may pause when deciding to consume it.
What is olive oil?
Olive oil is a rich oil made by crushing and processing the flesh of whole olives. 30% of an olive's flesh is fat, making it simple to extract a decent amount of oil from these tiny green fruits.
How is olive oil made?
The process of extracting one of the healthiest vegan sources of fat was perfected over the last few thousand years. Here's how producers turn olives into the oil that you see lining your supermarket shelves.
- Picking. Farmers prune their trees meticulously during the growing season to prevent, as much as possible, the olives from bruising and falling to the ground. Farmers pick ground olives and separate them into a "ground" batch. They then pick olives from the trees for better quality oil - they waste no olives during the process! Farmers should pick the olives at peak ripeness when they're golden. Less ripe olives produce a greener-hued oil.
- Pressing. Once farmers have picked and sorted the olives, producers place them in batches on stainless steel rollers, where they grind them into a paste, pits and all. During the malaxation process, producers slowly stir water into the paste to allow the oil molecules to group together and concentrate.
- Extra Pressing. The concentrated olive paste transfers to mats and is either pressed again or processed through a centrifuge. This rapidly rotating machine separates the olive paste remnants from the water and oil. The water and oil then separate, and the oil is ready to be bottled and sold.
Is olive oil vegan?
Nowhere along the olive oil production process do we see any animal products used, nor any animals exploited. Whether you choose oil from black or green olives, or different varieties like Koroneiki, Arbequina, Arbosana, or Mission, you're safe to consume these plant-based, healthy vegan fats.
So why do some vegans avoid consuming olive oil?
Some vegans find the olive farming processes too exploitative for the environment. While veganism does focus on the exploitation of animals, the definition also extends to the exploitation of the planet as a whole.
Olive Farming and the Environment
There is a load of information out there about the many benefits of olive oil nutrition. As the popularity of the Mediterranean diet has surged outside of the region, so have olive oil sales.
Though olive oil is still the most healthy cooking oil, what was once a small-batch-produced crop based on ancient techniques, has evolved and quality has suffered. Certain new producers have entered the market choosing to maximize production quantity to make more money, no matter the environmental cost.
Olive trees are drought-resistant and don't require much water to grow. Olive yields increase significantly with more water, so farmers focused on maximizing production use more water during the growing season. This can be especially harmful in (the ever increasing) water-scarce areas and may cause drought in vulnerable regions.
The fertilizers used to increase the growth and yield of olive trees can also pollute surrounding surface water, due to field run-off. Olive cultivation leads to groundwater pollution because of nitrogen leaching, which can be severely damaging for the soil, land, and aquatic life.
Many of the pesticides used are unsafe for the local environment, and when paired with modern farming techniques, these two factors can decrease an environment's biodiversity.
Overall, whether you choose to avoid olive oil in your plant-based diet is a personal choice. It's entirely up to you.
Some vegans may choose to avoid mass-produced oils that follow these farming practices and stick instead to small, high-quality productions that focus on environmental sustainability as a non-negotiable part of their practices.
Is vegetable oil vegan?
Much like olive oil, vegetable oils are 100% free of animal products. As far as sustainability is concerned, many other types of oils run into the same issues as olive oil, so it's best to do your research when choosing a sustainable cooking oil for your pantry.
Olive Oil Grading System: What is extra-virgin olive oil?
We hear terms like extra-virgin or refined thrown around all the time in the world of cooking oils, but what does it all mean? In the case of olive oil, the grade it's given depends on the way it's processed.
Here are the common types of olive oil you'll find:
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Virgin Olive Oil
- Lampante Olive Oil
- Refined Olive Oil
- Olive Oil
- Crude Olive-Pomace Oil
- Refined Olive-Pomace Oil
Is olive oil healthy?
All of these oils start with Olea Europaea, more commonly known as the olive. But they're not all created equally. Extra-virgin is the highest quality oil on the market and other grades fall in descending order from there.
Why is extra-virgin supreme?
It's the most minimally processed olive oil. It goes through a cold-pressing process in which the temperature never exceeds 86°F. This careful processing creates an olive oil that doesn't just taste better - it also retains essential vitamins and free-radical fighting antioxidants.
How can I tell if my olive oil is extra-virgin?
The process of becoming a certified extra-virgin olive oil is seen as a seal of honor by producers, quite literally. In California, labs analyze any potential contenders before a taste panel and then, if they pass the inspection, they give brands a seal of approval.
The simply labeled "virgin" oil doesn't meet the strict extra-virgin standards, meaning they're still of decent quality but may have slight defects of aroma or flavor.
Extra-Virgin Fraud: The Black Oil Market
Supplying extra-virgin olive oil is a lucrative business, and unfortunately, that makes it susceptible to scammers.
Many manufacturers cut EVOO with lower quality oils to lower production costs. A study found that 69% of California "extra-virgin" oils sold in supermarkets did not meet the requirements of the title.
Beware when buying extra-virgin olive oil, and only spend the big bucks if you know precisely where your oil is coming from!
Final Verdict: Is Olive Oil Vegan?
From an ingredients perspective, all olive oil is plant-based and vegan-friendly. If you don't like exploitative farming practices, research potential sources to find an olive oil supplier that aligns with your values.And remember, while olive oil is one of the healthiest oils on the market, it has a low smoke point. If you're cooking over high temperatures, you may want to try cooking without oil and or using a better alternative instead.