Sunday, June 10, 2012
Olive Oil: Are They Trying to Slip Something Past Us?
After an incredible olive oil tasting while visiting New York last month, and reading an eye opening book on the olive oil industry by Tom Mueller, called "Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil", I thought it would be worth looking at the product with a more critical eye.
At this stage, the health benefits of olive oil are unquestioned. This followed a landmark study in the New England Journal of Medicine, 2003, that found that a Mediterranean Diet was associated with a 25% drop in mortality, specifically in heart disease and cancer. Much of that benefit is thought to be due to the HIGH percentage of mono-unsaturated (heart healthy) fat in olive oil.
Olive oil also lowers LDL (bad cholesterol) and raises HDL (good), as well as providing anti-inflammatory properties, anti-thrombotic and anti-hypertensive properties.
The price range in our local grocery store is immense going from $6.00 (Canadian!) to upwards of $80.00 per litre! What accounts for this kind of discrepancy, and is it warranted?
First, I think some definitions are in order.
If we use the definitions of the International Olive Council (IOC), based in Spain, and which the USA is NOT (!) a member of, these are some important definitions.
Olive Oil : a Blend of Virgin and Regular Olive oil, with an acidity level of <2% acidity.
Virgin Olive Oil: Coming from ONLY Physical extraction of the olives, and NO heat or chemical extraction. It has an acidity of <1.5% and must be physcially pressed, or centrifuged ( in larger factories).
Extra Virgin Olive Oil: The Highest Grade Virgin Oil, with <0.8% acidity. No chemical or flavour defects are allowed, as determined by IOC testing. Best tasting, and ideal for dressings, or on its own.
Be aware, though, as the USA is NOT a member of the IOC, any bottle can label itself Extra Virgin, without meeting the above standards!
Finally, take note: Although many companies "sound" Italian, or even state "Product of Italy", this ONLY indicates that the production of the oil occurred in Italy, and is NOT necessarily the source of the olives.
In fact, most of the actual olives from Italy, STAY in Italy, for Italians to enjoy. The source of MOST Italian olive oil for export comes from other countries and are blended to produce their oil.
Other top producers to consider are from Spain, Greece, and Portugal. Australia, South Africa, Argentia, Chile and California are now also beginning to produce better quality oils.
So, What Should I Do?
Good Question. For cooking, I recommend definitely NOT using an Extra Virgin. The smoke point is too low for a lot of cooking (350 F), and if your heat is going to go higher than that, the oil is likely to burn and wreck things. Use something else. Even a cheap regular olive oil is a good choice, as the blend of oil has a higher smoking point.
For dressings, dipping bread etc, definitely the best quality Extra Virgin you can afford. Go to a reputable
specialty store, where they should allow you to taste what you are buying. Watch your labels, if you care about legitamacy, although it doesn't always correlate with taste! (see here: Cooks Illustrated Taste Testing)
Look for harvest dates on higher end bottles, and try to use it within the year, and store in a dark place away from direct sunlight.
Enjoy them like a fine wine, and save some for me!
Let me know what you think!! Do you care about where and how your olives come to you?