If you have only two oils sitting in your pantry, we’re willing to guess they’re an olive oil and a vegetable oil (though we also know there's a few of you with canola oil and coconut oil instead). Olive oil is well-known to be a nutrient-packed superfood, healthy and delicious on salads, soups, and stir-fries.
But what do you know about vegetable oil? What is it made of? And how do the two compare when it comes to high heat cooking? Here, we explore the differences between these two popular oils. Read on to learn about their flavor characteristics, nutrient profiles, and more.
Olive Oil vs. Vegetable Oil: How Is It Made?
What exactly is vegetable oil? In fact, the term “vegetable oil” does not refer to any one type of oil – or one type of vegetable, for that matter. The term is a catch-all for any oil made from plant sources. According to Time, most vegetables are a blend of canola, corn, safflower, soybean, palm, and sunflower oils.
Exactly which vegetables were used – and how they were grown – does not appear on the label in most instances. No matter what’s in it, a vegetable oil is sure to be refined and heavily processed. That means they lack both flavor and nutrients.
As Lisa Howard, author of The Big Book of Healthy Cooking Oils, told Time, “Vegetable oil is guaranteed to be highly processed. It’s called ‘vegetable’ so that the manufacturers can substitute whatever commodity oil they want—soy, corn, cottonseed, canola—without having to print a new label.”
It goes deeper than that. As Howard explains, processed oils often become rancid in the processing, as they’re treated past their natural heat tolerance. Additionally, some of the oils used, such as palm oil, are less environmentally friendly. As they aren’t labeled as such, consumers aren’t able to make that choice on their own.
It’s far simpler to tell how olive oil is made, particularly virgin olive oils. It is important, however, to understand the differences between the types of olive oil on the market. Here’s a brief introduction to how each is made.
- Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is made by mechanically pressing the pulp of an olive fruit. The oil is then separated from the solids via centrifugation. Finally, the oil is filtered to remove any remaining solids. EVOO is cold-pressed, never exposed to chemicals or heat at any point.
- Virgin olive oil is harder to come by than extra virgin olive oil, but it’s made via the same method. The difference is that virgin olive oil is allowed to have some minor flavor defects, whereas EVOO is not. These flavor defects might not even be noticeable to an untrained taster.
- Regular olive oil (or pure olive oil) is more processed than EVOO and virgin olive oil. Regular olive oil is made from a combination of refined olive oil and 15%-25% virgin olive oil. The refined oil is treated with chemicals and heat to remove any flavor defects.
- Light or extra light olive oil is a combination of refined olive oil and 5%-10% virgin olive oil. As with regular olive oil, the refined oil is treated with some heat and chemicals to remove flavor defects. While the name sounds like a diet alternative, it really means that the flavor is light.
As detailed above, vegetable oil is more highly processed than olive oil, particularly virgin and extra virgin olive oil. Vegetable oil is more similar to extra light and regular olive oil, though even these are less processed than vegetable oil.
Nutritional Breakdown of Vegetable Oil vs. Olive Oil
While the different processes for making olive oil do affect the flavor and amount of bioactive compounds, in the oil, the nutritional label is always the same. Why? Antioxidants and the like are not included on a typical nutrition label.
Here’s how olive oil compares to vegetable oil. Upon first glance, the two labels look rather similar. However, the main difference lies in the type of fats in the oil, which determines if it's a healthy oil or not.
Olive Oil Nutrition
In general, one tablespoon of olive oil contains the following, according to the USDA:
- Calories: 119
- Total fat: 13.5 g
- Saturated fat: 1.9 g
- Polyunsaturated fat: 1.4 g
- Monounsaturated fat: 10 g
- Cholesterol: 0 mg
- Total carbohydrate: 0 mg
- Protein: 0mg
Vegetable Oil Nutrition
In general, a tablespoon of vegetable oil contains the following, according to the USDA:
- Calories: 124
- Total fat: 14 g
- Saturated fat: 1.92 g
- Polyunsaturated fat: 5.77 g
- Monounsaturated fat: 5.86 g
- Cholesterol: 0 mg
- Total carbohydrate: 0 mg
- Protein: 0 mg
As shown above, high quality olive oil is lower in potentially harmful, inflammatory saturated fat content and higher in the good fats -- heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, making it the healthiest option not just of the two, but of a lot of other popular oils
What’s more, olive oil (particularly extra virgin olive oil), a healthy dose of polyphenols, powerful antioxidants that protect the body from free radicals. Olive oil also contains vitamin E, squalene, omega-3, chlorophyll, and carotenoids like lutein.
Which Is Healthier: Olive Oil or Vegetable Oil?
Researchers agree. As Liz Weinandy, a registered dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Time, “Generally I tell people to use olive oil whenever you can instead of a corn or a soybean oil.” While she notes that they aren’t necessarily bad for you, “you can get so much more benefit from olive oil.”
What are the health benefits of olive oil? Here are a few of the many benefits.
- Olive oil is anti-inflammatory. It contains oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid whose anti-inflammatory properties likely contribute to its anticancer and heart health benefits.
- Olive oil is heart-healthy. Oleic acid also has been shown to reduce blood lipids, including cholesterol and triglycerides, keeping heart disease at bay. Some studies suggest that it also helps lower blood pressure.
- Olive oil is good for the skin. Olive oil contains both vitamin E and nourishing fatty acids, which are known to help improve skin texture when consumed or applied topically.
What is the Difference in Taste?
Extra virgin olive oil is known for its unique, rich, peppery flavor, while processed olive oils are more neutral. Vegetable oil, however, is made to have a neutral flavor. Here’s how the two differ.
Olive Oil Flavor
While refined olive oils like regular and light/extra light olive oil have a neutral flavor that’s somewhat comparable to vegetable oil, virgin olive oils contain a multitude of flavors.
Extra virgin olive oils made with olives that were picked early in the season are known for their intense, versatile, vibrant flavors. These are often called pungent, peppery, and grassy. Olive oils made from olives picked later in the season are smoother, more buttery, and less spicy. (Would you like to experience the vast array of flavors? Try an olive oil tasting with your friends!)
Vegetable Oil Flavor
After vegetable oils are extracted, they are often cleaned with chemicals and heated. The heating process removes impurities and prolongs their shelf life. This process also strips nutrients away and takes away flavor. As such, vegetable oil has a neutral, generic taste.
What About the Smoke Point?
The smoke point is the temperature at which an oil starts to break down, thus releasing free radicals. Free radicals are inflammatory compounds that can damage health by promoting oxidative stress.
Olive oil and vegetable oil have similar smoke points at around 400°F. While this might not be considered a high temperature compared to the somewhat low smoke point of extra virgin or virgin olive oil at 350º to 410ºF, refined olive oils (like regular olive oil and extra light olive oil) can reach a smoke point as high as 470ºF.
Thanks to the relatively higher smoke points, both vegetable oil and olive oil can be used for many types of cooking, like sautéing, baking, roasting, and stir-frying. However, lower smoke point aside, as vegetable oil lacks flavor, it is not recommended for finishing, salad dressings, dipping in bread, or drizzling over roasted veggies.
Sorry, avocado oil, but olive oil and vegetable oil can actually take the heat, and your high smoke point services aren't needed for this round comparing different oils!
Bottom Line — Vegetable Oil Vs. Olive Oil
Whenever possible, it’s best to choose olive oil over vegetable oil. Extra virgin olive oil is packed with nutrients and heart-healthy fats. Vegetable oil, on the other hand, is so processed that few nutrients remain. What’s more, it’s typically difficult to know what a vegetable oil is actually made of. That said, vegetable oil is a far cheaper alternative. If you’re deep-frying something – which should be done sparingly, of course – vegetable oil would be a fine choice.