Is olive oil vegan? If you've arrived at this article you're probably wondering if the world's most popular oil is produced using animal derived ingredients.
And, beyond its suitability for a plant based diet, is olive oil sustainable and environmentally friendly? Are the production methods used to make it harmful to the planet to such a degree that it's not ethical to consume?
It's no surprise that so many people ask if olive oil is vegan friendly. It's used in everything from salad dressings to baked goods.
In fact, olive oil consumption has almost doubled since 1991, with 3.2 million metric tons consumed globally in 2021 and 2022 ( ref: international olive oil). It's safe to say that it's become one of the world's most popular household food items.
But, does buying this popular oil mean you're participating in harming the planet? The answer isn't as straightforward as it seems. In this article, I'll give you all the facts, so that you can make your own decision on whether or not you should include olive oil in your vegan diet.
How Is Olive Oil Made?
Many vegans are interested in knowing the production journey of the food they consume. When we ask, "is olive oil vegan?" it's not just about whether or not the product is strictly plant-based.
For many vegans, understanding the method of production is essential in making an informed decision on whether or not to purchase or consume an item. With this in mind, lets have a look at how olive oil is made.
Modern olive oil production methods are still very similar to how they were centuries ago. The extraction equipment has been modernized, but the overall process, especially for extra virgin olive oil, remains basically the same.
Here's a brief overview of an olives journey from tree to bottle:
- Harvest: In the late summer, or early fall, olives are harvested. They're either picked by hand, or by a machine for larger scale operations. As the olives fall from the tree, they're collected in a plastic tarp. After being picked, the olives are quickly transported to a production facility, where any leaves are removed. They're then washed to remove dirt and pesticides.
- Extracting The Oil: Once the olives have been cleaned, they're ground into a paste (pits and all). Some smaller producers use a millstone to grind the olives. However, it's becoming much more common to use stainless steel hammers, knives and disks. Once a smooth paste is achieved, it's stirred in a huge trough called a malaxer. It's during this stirring process that the oil begins to separate from the paste. Once the oil begins to separate, it's run through a machine called a decanter to completely separate the oil from the paste. Once decanting is complete, you have extra virgin olive oil.
- Filtration: After the oil is extracted, it's filtered to remove any excess sediment. This is either done by hand, or by a process called "racking" in which the oil is placed in a rack to allow any sentiment to settle. The clean oil is then pumped into a fresh tank.
That's it! That's how olive oil is made. Now let's take a look at olive oil production's impact on the environment.
So, Is Olive Oil Vegan and Vegetarian Friendly?
There are no animal derivatives used in the production of olive oil. It's a strictly plant-based oil, and is suitable for vegans and vegetarians who simply wish to avoid products whose production methods are harmful to animals.
However, olive oil is not a sustainable product. That means the methods by which it's produced can only be used for a certain period of time before natural resources become so depleted that manufacturing must cease.
Olive oil is associated with several negative effects of the environment, which are:
- Depletion of Resources: Water is the main natural resource that gets depleted in commercial olive oil production. Some say that 1 liter of extra virgin olive oil requires 3,900 liters of water to produce. This is because olive trees tend to grow best in hot climates with thin, dry soil that needs a lot of irrigation to grow olives in large volume, contributing to water scarcity. To compound the problem, a lot of water is used in the manufacturing process as well.
- Land Degradation: Soil erosion, the erosion of topsoil which holds valuable minerals essential to life on Earth, is potentially the the most harmful impact olive oil has on the environment. Soil erosion decreases crop fertility and makes it much less likely that future crops will successfully grow on that land. Fewer trees leads to a negative impact on climate change as well. Indeed, soil erosion is one of the biggest problems facing our planet today.
An Individual Choice
So, is olive oil vegan? That depends on the subset of vegans you belong to. Some vegans seek only to consume products that don't bring direct harm to animals. In this case, olive oil consumption is perfectly suitable for vegan and vegetarian diets. No animals are harmed in olive oil's production.
However, some vegans are interested in the production journey of the foods they consume, and their subsequent impact on our Earth. If you belong to this group, it's important to note that olive oil is not a sustainable food. The cultivation and manufacturing methods contribute to water scarcity and soil erosion, both huge issues that have a negative impact on our planet, particularly as it relates to climate change.
The bottom line is that olive oil consumption is an individual choice. I hope understanding the facts will help you make the decision that feels right for you.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, olive oil is a healthy source of fats. Here's a few health benefits associated with olive oil:
1. Olive oil is great for cardiovascular health.
2. It's been shown to reduce the risk of certain cancers.
3. It has anti-inflammatory properties.
4. It supports a healthy immune system.
5. It may help prevent strokes.
6. Olive oil contains large amounts of antioxidants.
The worlds top producing countries of olive oil are Spain, Italy, Greece, Tunisia, Turkey, Morocco, Portugal and Syria. Spain, by far, produces the world's largest quantity of olive oil. 70% of the world's supply of olive oil comes from the Mediterranean.
Sustainability is the avoidance of the depletion of natural resources over time. When we ask if a certain product or practice is sustainable, we are asking if we can fulfill the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations. Sustainability is not just related to environmental concerns. It's also relevant to social and economic equity.