Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Olive Oil Illusions

For its health benefits, I have tried to use olive oil for most of my cooking the past ten years.  I sometimes purchased "olive oil" at the store and most times "extra-virgin olive oil", never really knowing what the difference was -- though a friend suggested once that just plain "olive oil" is a lower quality and therefore less expensive.

The past year or two our family has been purchasing an extra-virgin organic olive oil from Costco.

So when I read Tom Mueller's, "Extra Virginity:  The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil", I was disturbed to learn about the high rate of fraud in the industry and that much of what is sold on our grocery shelves as "extra virgin" is no better than regular olive oil or often much worse.

First, I learned that common phrases such as cold-pressed and first-press mean little as today's means of extracting oil is usually done by modern centrifugal machines -- eliminating presses altogether.  These words are used as an illusion of quality.

Extra Virgin is a category of olive oil that is reserved for the top 10% of olive oils that meet a chemical and taste profile.  If you're like me, you may be wondering why a small percentage of all olive oil takes up 90% of the olive oil shelf allotment at the grocery store.

Here lies the problem.  There are few regulations in the olive oil industry and the few that exist are not actually enforced.  Mueller describes The United States of America as "an oil criminal's dream".

He mentions a recent study of supermarket extra-virgin olive oils by UC Davis Olive Center along with the Australian Oils Research Laboratory that found 69% of the extra virgin oils tasted had flaws such as rancid, fusty, and musty -- ensuring they were not extra-virgin and mislabelled as such.

Mueller cites Los Angeles as being a major mixing port for fraudulent oils.  Companies (even well-known brands) are buying a mix of low-grade olive oil blended with soy, seed oil, or cottonseed oil and then resold as "extra-virgin".  How does this happen?  Mueller quotes an industry buyer who says:  "The American [authorities] tell me, 'so long as a product isn't toxic, you can sell it however you like--so long as it isn't toxic.  Because if you put seed [oil] inside extra [virgin olive oil], you don't poison anyone'.  So they say 'It's the consumer's choice whether to buy it or not'".

An FDA (Food and Drug Administration) specialist told Mueller the FDA considers olive oil adulteration a low priority stating, "We're inclined to spend our money on things where there's a clear public health benefit."

A real extra-virgin olive oil doesn't need additional processing that requires chemicals and cleaners and deodorizers like other oils.  But, many olive oils receive this treatment to make it more shelf stable with the familiar green tint artificially added back in to the oil to fool the consumer.

On a final note, Italy imports much of its olive oil, packages it and then resells it to the rest of the world.  The pictures of Italian country sides and flags on bottles is designed to be misleading.  The Italian government allows oil (any oil) bottled in Italy to be labelled "from Italy".

Mueller's book is a fascinating read that reveals the rich history of olive oil and how it came to be one of the world's most revered and sought after oils.

Mueller provides suggestions on finding an authentic oil.  They include:

  • Read www.extravirginity.com for the latest updates and olive oil news.
  • Buy traceable estate olive oils.  Look for reputable retailers such as www.weolive.com, www.oilandvinegarusa.com, The Olive Press (Sonoma, CA) and Zingerman's Delicatessen (Ann Arbor, MI) among others quality retailers nationally.
  • Olive oils deteriorate quickly.  Buy as close to the source as possible and from vendors who buy in bulk and resell in green glass bottles.
  • Anything at these reputable retailers labelled other than "extra-virgin" means the oil has undergone chemical refinement with many of its health benefits removed.
  • Try to buy within the year of harvest.  "Best by" dates are usually two years after harvest.
  • Store your purchased oil away from light, heat and oxygen.
  • Prices under $10/liter usually suggests an inferior product.

Costco does offer a traceable estate olive oil I will look into as a suitable replacement to our current olive oil.  All of the years of olive oil buying and I never imagined I would have to research to determine if the bottle I was buying was anything other than what it said it was.

This book was great for its historical information and current harvesting information.  It was certainly eye-opening and disturbing.  But most importantly, it has taught me how to find a real product, with real taste and real health benefits.

I strongly encourage your reading of this informative book.

Do you buy any estate olive oils?  Which do you recommend?

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