Extra Virgin Olive Oil

dipping dishIf I could have but three items in continuous and everlasting supply, my perpetual pantry would contain bread, olive oil and salt … in that order!

Fresh olio d’oliva (olive oil) is as essential to me as water. I use it every day so it’s only logical that it is an indispensable ingredient in my pantry.

I use extra virgin olive oil to saute, pan-fry  and roast, in dressing greens and vegetables, marinating meat, fish and poultry and baking delicious desserts. I drizzle it over just about everything from an exquisitely-cooked egg for breakfast, to a moist and tender lemon-y olive oil cake for dessert.

A sacred age-old food, good olive oil is good for you. The percentage of linolenic acid in extra virgin olive oil is the same as in mother’s milk (doesn’t get better than that) and is fundamental for it’s absorption in the intestine. Quality olive oil contains naturally occurring compounds called polyphenols, which act as potent antioxidants,  protecting our body from free-radical molecules that promote disease. Containing vitamins and anti-inflammatory properties, extra virgin olive oil, with it’s numerous health benefits is a definite boost to the immune system.

When my mother was very young, quite small for her age and a finicky eater, my grandfather insisted she drink a glass of orange juice (to which he added a healthy dose of olive oil) every morning until she was a teenager. As an adult, she was blessed with good health and a beautiful nearly wrinkle-free olive complexion that appeared younger than her years.

Before you spend another dollar on this liquid health and beauty in a bottle, I’d like you to know what you’re buying or what I call, “Olive Oil, the good, the bad and the down-right deceitful.”

In 2010, the University of California Davis Olive Center, performed a survey of supermarket extra virgin olive oils with astonishing results. Of the extra virgin olive oils that were tested, a staggering sixty-nine percent were not extra virgin at all. Expensive bottles with pretty labels of the Italian countryside, (one would assume contained an exceptional extra virgin olive oil) were filled with a mixture of colored and flavored low-grade vegetable oils.

Most vegetable oils, like sunflower and canola are extracted from seeds, olive oil is extracted from a fruit. This is a very important difference and bears repeating … an olive is a fruit. Olives have a high percentage of water so a press or centrifuge is the only mechanical method needed for extraction. This process maintains the olive’s flavor as well as the essential health properties.

Seeds and nuts, (except those that are expeller-pressed) however, go through a refining process that requires the use of industrial solvents. The solvents, then need to be removed because of the odor and awful taste they possess. So, off to the refinery they go to be bathed in a high temperature process that removes the nasty traits of the solvent. You end up with an odorless, colorless, liquid fat. As for the taste, there is none!

Selling adulterated olive oil is very profitable and having lost the battle to stop this practice, the FDA stopped it’s testing in the late 1990’s.

In 2012, the United States Department of Agriculture, updated the standards for olive oil (originally 1948) with a detailed “voluntary” program of compliance. Voluntary, being the relative word (they still don’t have the necessary resources for testing).

There is hope on the horizon, however. The California Olive Oil Council,  (COC) established in 1991, takes the labeling of Extra Virgin Olive Oil seriously. Following the same stringent guidelines as the International Olive Oil Council, they devised a seal of certification program for California Extra Virgin Olive Oils.

Despite the despicable and continuing problems of olive oil fraud, it’s worth the effort to find a product of high quality.

To assist in this process, I’ve clarified what is and what is not extra virgin olive oil.

When Tom Mueller, author of Extra Virginity, (an excellent book, by the way and a heck of a nice guy) describes olive oil, he explains that technically speaking, there are only virgin olive oils. This simply means that oils made from the olive fruit is done so by using only mechanical methods and absolutely no chemicals or heat is allowed in this process. These virgin oils are classified by grades. Extra virgin is the finest, virgin oil is of an intermediate quality and lampante (pomace) is the lowest grade.

The International Olive Council, (IOC) instituted by the United Nations in 1959, is an intergovernmental agency organized to help and advise olive growers and millers. They have set stringent standards and oversee the regulations for olive oil. Currently, the IOC consists of forty-four olive growing and oil producing member nations that are primarily located around the Mediterranean and account for over ninety-eight percent of the worlds olive production.

Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is the highest grade of olive oil. It must meet the standards established by the IOC, which includes passing a chemical test and a sensory test. The oil must have a free fatty acidity (FFA) of 0.8 percent or lower. The FFA is an indicator of the breakdown of the fat structure of an oil. This can be due to delays between the harvest and the crush (more than twenty-four hours) or the use of poor-quality fruit. The lower the levels, the more nutritious (higher polyphenol levels) and better quality the oil. In the sensory evaluation, the EVOO must display a distinct fruitiness and be free of taste flaws (there are sixteen that indicate poor quality of an oil).

Before EVOO came on the scene, (November 1960) virgin olive oil was the leading lady, but I have not seen her in years. Studies indicate that many virgin oils are now being fraudulently labeled as extra virgin olive oil.

Lampante, by law, is unfit for human consumption until it has been highly refined. After making virgin oil, solvents are used on the solid waste remaining from the extraction process. This has more potential health risks than benefits.

When I was growing up, all I knew about olive oil was that my Sicilian grandmother seemed to have an endless supply in a large tin she stashed in a dark cool cupboard. There was no talk of virgin or extra virgin, it was just good pure olive oil.

In today’s world, “pure” is strictly a marketing term to describe a refined oil blended with a very small amount of extra virgin to give it some flavor.

Refined does not mean elegant or classy, quite the contrary. A refined oil has been processed  with solvents to cover up any foul odors or less than favorable flavors. Refining is done on a regular basis as the result of starting out with olives of questionable quality. It is also the practice when producing blends of low-grade oils or the oil is being cut with seed (canola, sunflower) oils.

Next, there’s the latest way to confuse the consumer, the bottles of “light” olive oil. What does that really mean? It means oil that has been stripped of nearly all of it’s sensory qualities and health benefits. Yes, the color is light, the flavor even lighter, but it is not lighter in fat or calories (all oil has 120 calories per tablespoon).  Light olive oil is a refined oil blended with a very small amount (5%) of extra virgin for flavor.

Once upon a time, the terms cold-pressed and first-pressed referred to olive oil that was crushed with a traditional stone mill or hydraulic press with no heat or chemicals added. The initial first pressing meant the best oil, then the remaining paste was soaked with hot water and pressed a second time producing a lesser quality oil. These terms are not really applicable today because Extra virgin olive oil is by it’s very definition first-pressed (the only press) and cold-pressed (at or below 27*Celsius) but these days, most oil is not pressed at all but centrifuged.

For me, Extra Virgin Olive Oil goes far beyond being an exceptional healthy food with great taste. It’s a cultural thing, a sense of place. In this time of  prolific amounts of overly-processed foods, it’s important to respect, protect and preserve the cultural value of our food and the families who make it.

In the Santa Catalina Mountains in northern Tucson, Arizona, there is an award-winning Spa called Miraval. Their focus is on healthy and sustainable living with a mindfulness kind of attitude (living in the moment and awaking to experience). I have had the pleasure of visiting this serene resort and listening to the illustrious Dr. Andrew Weil’s lectures on healthy living and balance. He believes, as do I, that the only oil one should have in the kitchen is Extra Virgin Olive Oil … period!

For the rest of the story, see Choosing and Storing Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Cooking with Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Baking with Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

 

 

 

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