As a vegan, you will need to use vegetable oil in place of animal fat in your recipes. The question is, which one? Oils are something of a hot-button issue among vegans and others who value healthy eating. There’s a wealth to choose from nowadays. Many people still turn to sunflower and canola for their kitchen cupboard — but even though they’re plant-based, those may not be the healthiest cooking oils around.
Many people are turning to alternatives such as coconut oil or avocado oil, while others prefer to keep it traditional and use olive oil for their cooking.
In this article
Is olive oil vegan?
The short answer is yes, olive oil is vegan. It contains no products of animal origin and is entirely plant-based. Many vegans choose olive oil for their cooking because it’s free of animal products. The refining process does not use animal ingredients or animal by-products, and as a traditional ingredient, there’s no animal testing to worry about.
Olive oil also has a distinctive and pleasant flavor, as well as having a reputation for health.
Not everyone is entirely happy with olive oil as part of a vegan lifestyle, however. The main objection for ethical vegans is the environmental impact of olive oil manufacture. While small-scale artisan operations do not produce such a severe effect, there are serious environmental issues with large-scale olive oil production.
One of the most significant aspects of this environmental impact is the huge amount of water required to produce olive oil. At a time in history where water consumption is a major concern from an environmental standpoint, the massive quantities of water used in making olive oil can hardly fail to raise an eyebrow. To make a single liter of extra-virgin olive oil, it’s estimated that around 3900 liters of water must be used.
Perhaps even more significant, is the amount of toxic waste produced from the oil-pressing process. It might come as a shock that a substance refined from natural fruit could result in dangerous by-products, but the production of olive oil creates a startling amount of highly toxic waste.
The quantities and level of risk involved depending on several factors. But there is no method of producing olive oil that doesn’t also create large quantities of waste.
The main toxic compounds present in olive oil waste are phenols. These are poisonous chemicals that can cause severe reactions if they come into contact with the skin or are ingested or inhaled. They can harm humans, animals, and even plant life. A major olive oil manufacturing operation can create prodigious amounts of this phenol-rich waste.
If it’s not disposed of correctly, these contaminants can enter nearby watercourses and soil wherever the waste is deposited.
Speaking of soil, the olive oil industry is also responsible for significant problems with soil erosion. While well-managed plantations can help the soil around them to stay stable, large, industrial-scale olive plantations and the methods used to increase crop yields can contribute significantly to soil erosion.
In particular, water used to irrigate olive plantations can wash away the soil in and below olive-growing areas, which may then end up in watercourses. Run-off from olive plantations can often be contaminated with the aforementioned toxic compounds, exacerbating the negative effects on the local environment.
Run-off is also likely to contain pesticides and other chemicals used in olive husbandry.
These are not the only environmental impacts of large-scale olive oil farming. For these and other reasons, vegans may decide to abstain from olive oil or to seek out olive oil produced with more sustainable methods.
What is extra-virgin olive oil?
To understand the potential benefits and drawbacks of olive oil as part of a vegan diet, we need to understand the different grades of olive oil. The healthiest, and also the most flavourful, is extra-virgin olive oil, often known as EVOO for short.
Extra-virgin olive oil is the purest and least processed, derived from the first pressing and containing the most volatile elements. The pressed olives can then be processed in other ways to extract more oil, which will be of progressively lower grades.
Because EVOO commands a higher price than these inferior grades, there’s a very strong motivation for producers and vendors to pass off lower grades of oil as extra-virgin. This is sometimes done by mixing EVOO with lower grades so that it goes further or simply mislabelling later pressings as EV. At least in these scenarios, you are getting olive oil; there are even less scrupulous sellers who will blend their olive oil with other vegetable oils that have nothing to do with olives at all.
Unfortunately, this practice is very widespread. Even quite reputable brands sold in big stores can fall foul of mislabelling. Some brands, while not outright lying, use misleading descriptions such as “made with extra-virgin olive oil” to imply that a blended oil is EVOO.
Good olive oil comes in a dark or opaque container, has a fruity, peppery bite, and a greenish color. Avoid orange-tinged olive oil or oil sold in clear bottles. Look for a sell-by date and buy the freshest oil you can.
Is olive oil healthy?
If your veganism is motivated more by health concerns, you may be wondering if olive oil is at least a positive element to include in your diet from that point of view. In recent years there’s been a significant amount of hype regarding olive oil as a sort of wonder food. Olive oil is widely held up as a boon to health, especially as contrasted against other oils such as the vilified canola oil.
The facts about olive oil’s health benefits are a little murkier. For a start, olive oil is no less calorific than other oils and can still contribute to obesity. If that’s a concern for you, then you’ll still need to moderate your oil intake just as you would for any other source of fat.
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Olive oil is not a whole food, being very heavily processed. While it’s quite true that olive oil does contain some very beneficial nutrients, particularly omega 3, it’s not a very efficient source of these.
When heated, all oils produce toxic compounds. While olive oil doesn’t produce these in greater amounts than any other oil does, it still gives off small quantities of undesirable compounds into the air every time you cook.
If you’re looking for a healthy oil, olive oil is not bad. As with any oils, however, it should be consumed in moderation and not treated as an unalloyed positive contribution to your diet. Use olive oil sparingly in dressings and sauces, and fry using an oil spray to reduce the amount you consume. Insist on extra-virgin olive oil as it has the greatest net health benefit.
What are some alternatives to olive oil?
There are several alternative oils out there that are touted as healthier or less environmentally damaging than olive oil. Coconut oil is one; avocado oil is another. Argan oil is gaining in popularity, too. As with olive oil, though, many of the claims made for their health-giving properties and sustainability are exaggerated.
Much of the coconut oil on sale is not produced using sustainable or cruelty-free practices. The same goes for a lot of avocado oil. Argan oil may be a little better but it’s costly and harder to come by.
One useful alternative to olive oil is oil-free cooking. After all, you don’t have to worry about whether you’re cooking with a vegan-friendly oil if you don’t use oil at all. With a little practice, it’s as easy to cook without oil as with it.
For frying, you can switch out heavy oils for lighter alternatives such as mirin (Japanese rice wine) or broths. I find that the trick with these is to stir-fry while adding just a little liquid at a time; your food should brown nicely without sticking or becoming limp. You can “deep fry” food by baking in a fan-assisted oven (some ingredients, such as potatoes, will need to be parboiled for this to work).
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For salad dressings, you can swap out oil for vegan soy yogurt or fruit juices such as lime. When baking, you can use alternatives to oil and fat — fruit puree or apple sauce is great in cakes, while savory foods can be made with extra fluid instead of oil.
In general, I have to say that it’s best to do your own due diligence before picking up on the latest “fad” ingredient. Many things touted as healthy or kinder to the environment really aren’t. It’s up to all of us to check our foods and find out how they’re made.