Olive oil seems to be vegan-friendly since it’s made from olives (a plant-based food), but why do some vegans avoid it? Is there something about olive oil that somehow makes it not vegan?
Wonder no more! In this post, I’ll discuss whether or not olive oil is vegan, why some vegans avoid it, and whether or not olive oil can be incorporated as part of a healthy plant-based diet.
Is olive oil vegan?
Great news — olive oil is vegan! Olives are a plant-based food and no animal products are used during the production of olive oil.
To prove it, let’s take a closer look at how olive oil is made:
- Olives are harvested from olive trees and transported to a production facility
- Twigs, stems, leaves, dirt, and other debris are removed
- Olives are ground into a thick paste
- The olive paste is placed in a centrifuge to separate the oil. Heat or chemical solvents are often used to make the production of refined olive oil more efficient but aren’t used for virgin olive oil
- Refined olive oil undergoes further processing to remove unpleasant flavors or odors
- The oil is filtered or racked in large steel tanks to remove any remaining sediment or impurities
As you can see, no animal products are used in the production of olive oil, making it a vegan-friendly ingredient.
Why do some vegans avoid oil?
Hold up – if olive oil is vegan, why do some vegans avoid it and other cooking oils? I’ll discuss a few of these reasons below.
Not compliant with certain vegan diets
Have you heard of the Whole Food Plant-Based No Oil Diet, The Starch Solution, or perhaps The Engine 2 Diet?
These are all 100% plant-based diets that highly prioritize the consumption of plant foods in their whole forms as found in nature. Some minimally processed foods such as nut butter, soy curls, or tofu are generally allowed, but a common feature is the avoidance of all added oils.
The rationale used by these diets for avoiding oils is that oil is high in calories (since it’s pure fat) and doesn’t include the fiber or as many antioxidants as you would get from eating the whole, unprocessed food instead (in this case, the whole olive).
They believe that oils add unnecessary calories to the diet and make it difficult to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.
Some whole-food plant-based supporters are also concerned about studies showing the worsened ability of arteries to expand and allow blood to flow properly after eating oil. An example is this small study1 published in 2000, which found worsened artery function after eating olive oil (but not with canola oil).
However, these studies tend to have only a small number of participants and ask them to consume much more oil at one time than they normally would, apart from eating a meal of fried foods. And in the above study, the authors found that arterial function wasn’t impaired at all when eating olive oil as part of a meal containing antioxidants and vitamin C, both of which are abundant in plant-based meals.
This doesn’t do much to prove that we should avoid using oil in small to moderate amounts in the context of a healthy diet.
In fact, a 2020 randomized controlled trial2 showed improved artery function in participants who were assigned a Mediterranean-style diet that included at least four tablespoons of virgin olive oil a day.
Concerns about rancidity
A widespread myth about olive oil (extra-virgin in particular) is that you can’t cook with it at medium to high temperatures because it has a low smoke point.
A smoke point is the temperature at which the fatty acids in an oil will start to burn, degrade, and turn rancid. The lower the smoke point, the lower the temperature at which this occurs.
It’s commonly assumed that olive oil has a low smoke point, but the smoke point can vary quite a bit depending on how the oil is processed.
Extra-virgin olive oil has a much higher smoke point than refined olive oil thanks to its high content of monounsaturated fats and antioxidants. According to a 2018 research study3, these compounds actually help protect the oil from breaking down at high temperatures.
This means that extra-virgin olive oil is much more well-suited to cooking than most of us have taught, so feel free to use it as one of your go-to cooking oils!
Many vegans are concerned not only with animal welfare but with the health of the planet as well.
Compared to some other oils, olive oil seems to have a bigger impact on the environment. Olive farming is associated with soil erosion and significant amounts of wastewater and solid waste that is difficult to dispose of properly.
The decision over whether to avoid olive oil based on its environmental impact is a personal decision without a simple answer. However, vegans can take comfort in the fact that they aren’t supporting animal agriculture — one of the most significant contributors to global warming according to a 2013 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations4.
Should I avoid oils?
While whole-food plant-based diets can be an incredibly nutrient-dense and healthy way of eating, we don’t have strong enough scientific evidence to justify the total avoidance of olive oil and other oils.
On the contrary, olive oil consumption is associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and breast cancer, according to a 2018 review5.
It’s true that oil is high in fat and calories, so it’s important to stick to recommended serving sizes and to limit the amount of fried foods we consume.
In my opinion, however, a small amount of oil used to saute and roast vegetables or in salad dressing can be an easy way to include healthy fats in each meal.
Picture this – you cut into an avocado you planned to use for dinner and it’s full of brown spots. Adding a bit of olive or avocado oil can serve as your fat source in situations like this and work in a pinch to make your meal more nutritionally balanced!
The fact that oil consists purely of fat doesn’t make it inherently unhealthy. Fat is an essential macronutrient required by the body for temperature regulation, hormone production, and the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, so we need it for optimal functioning.
And while it’s true that the fiber and some antioxidants naturally found in whole olives are stripped away when making olive oil, this really isn’t a big enough issue to warrant cutting out all oil if you don’t want to, especially when eating a fiber- and antioxidant-rich diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, beans, soy, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
And remember – extra-virgin olive oil still has enough antioxidants to protect it from going rancid at high cooking temperatures, so it does retain some of the health benefits of whole olives.
If you prefer to avoid oil, make sure to include whole food sources of fat at meals. Think avocado, olives, nuts, and seeds. Avocados, nuts, and seeds can easily be blended into delicious plant-based sauces and dressings!
Olive oil is a vegan-friendly oil rich in healthy monounsaturated fats and antioxidants.
Although olive oil is indeed vegan, people who follow whole food plant-based diets such as the Whole Food Plant-Based No Oil diet, The Starch Solution diet, or the Engine 2 Diet avoid added oils, including olive oil. This is because oils are higher in calories and lack the fiber found in whole food sources of fat (like whole olives).
While these claims about oil are true, there’s no need to give up oil if you don’t want to. A nutrient-dense vegan diet including a variety of beans, lentils, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds will likely provide more than enough fiber and antioxidants!
Using oil in mindful amounts can also be a helpful source of needed fats while adding flavor to meals and making them more filling and satisfying.
Interested in learning more about a particularly controversial cooking oil? Check out Is Canola Oil Vegan? Is It Healthy?
Is olive oil vegan – FAQs
What makes olive oil not vegan?
This is a misconception – olive oil is vegan since it’s made from plant-based ingredients (olives) and no animal products are used in its production. Some vegans choose to avoid olive oil if they follow a whole-food, plant-based type diet.
Why do vegans not cook with oil?
Some vegans follow whole food plant-based diets that emphasize foods in their whole, intact forms found in nature and restrict processed foods such as oil, sugar, or salt. For example, olives would be allowed while olive oil would be deemed non-compliant with this sort of eating pattern.
Can vegans eat olive oil?
Yes! Vegans can eat olive oil since it is a plant-based product. No animal products are used in the production of olive oil.
The scientific information in this article was accurate at the time of publishing but may change over time as new research becomes available.
- Vogel RA, Corretti MC, Plotnick GD. The postprandial effect of components of the Mediterranean diet on endothelial function. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2000;36(5):1455-1460. doi:10.1016/s0735-1097(00)00896-2
- Yubero-Serrano EM, Fernandez-Gandara C, Garcia-Rios A, et al. Mediterranean diet and endothelial function in patients with coronary heart disease: An analysis of the CORDIOPREV randomized controlled trial. PLoS Med. 2020;17(9):e1003282. Published 2020 Sep 9. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1003282
- Guillaume C., et al. “Evaluation of Chemical and Physical Changes in Different Commercial Oils during Heating”. Acta Scientific Nutritional Health 2.6 (2018): 02-11
- FAO. Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock: a global assessment. https://www.fao.org/3/i3437e/i3437e03.pdf. Accessed July 13, 2023.
- Foscolou A, Critselis E, Panagiotakos D. Olive oil consumption and human health: A narrative review. Maturitas. 2018;118:60-66. doi:10.1016/j.maturitas.2018.10.013