Food Matters – Olive Oil – The Slippery Slope

Olive TreeOlive Tree

We’ve heard for the past several years that a Mediterranean-style diet is the way to go if you are looking for a heart-healthy lifestyle, and the major fat source in that diet is olive oil. Almost every recipe calling for olive oil these days calls for extra-virgin olive oil, and there’s not shortage of that on our supermarket shelves. Or is there? I dealt with that very slippery subject today on Food Matters on CBC Radio’s All Points West. 

A lot of the extra-virgin olive oil you have in your kitchen right now is likely not as advertised. It’s got to the point that most olive oils we see are labeled extra-virgin, when in fact some of them are the furthest thing from it. There is much fraud in the olive oil business, and it happens all over the world, everywhere from olive oil producing countries of the Mediterranean right to some packing houses in Canada that mislabel the oil as it is packaged for the Canadian market.

In the worst case scenario you’re looking at some other sort of oil that has been in whole or in part substituted for olive oil, could be canola oil, sunflower or some sort of nut oil, imagine if you thought you were buying olive oil but there was some peanut oil in it and you have a peanut allergy! If it’s not a substitution you may be buying olive oil that is not extra virgin even though it says so on the label, it may have had colour added to it in the form of chlorophyll to make it look green, or it may be some extra virgin oil added to regular olive oil.

There are a few agencies around the world that define what extra-virgin olive oil actually is. Here’s a great website with some definitions. To get extra-virgin olive oil you have to start with virgin olive oil. It comes from the first mechanical pressing of olives. No heat applied, no chemicals, so that’s where you will see the term cold-pressed on some labels. That virgin olive oil is then tested for acidity. If the oil has less than point eight percent acidity and actually tastes good, then it is Extra Virgin Olive Oil. And we should note that Extra Virgin olive oil accounts for less than ten percent of oil in many producing countries. If the acidity is over .8 percent and under 2 percent then it is virgin olive oil, and from there you get into many different categories. The one you really have to watch out for is pomace oil. Pomace is the ground flesh and pits left over after pressing. You get oil out of it by treating it with solvents. Quite often I see big tin cans of oil in stores here called extra-virgin pomace olive oil. You can’t call something that has been made with solvents extra virgin!

Mislabeling is rampant. Consider that over 50% of the oil produced in the Mediterranean area is of such poor quality that it must be refined to produce an edible product. REFINED oil has almost no taste or aroma. It is 100 percent olive oil but it has been refined, but not with solvents. It is not for sale to the public. It is used to blend with virgin or EV to make ‘olive oil’ which is an acceptable product. The acid level in these blended products must be less than 1 percent. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with the refined oils but you probably won’t get the same health benefits and you may be paying more than you should be if they have been mislabeled…and they probably won’t have the same robust flavour of a fresh, extra-virgin olive oil. I tend to have a variety of oils in my cupboard. For high-heat, you’re wasting your money if you use EVOO because the flavour and aroma really deteriorates as soon as you apply a lot of heat to it. Save your good stuff for salads and drizzling over finished dishes, and then maybe an ‘every day’ less expensive EVOO for your lower heat sautés and browning.

Because of the popularity of the Mediterranean diet, grocery store shelves offer more space than ever to olive oils. Where do you start when you start shopping for a good oil?
Well, I could write a whole booklet on that subject, but I would probably start by telling you to not bother going to a supermarket. Go to a smaller shop or delicatessen where you can speak to the shop owner or staff about their selection. The best places to go are where they actually have some bottles open that you can taste. Try Ottavio’s for that, or the Tuscan Kitchen on View Street. On the Tuscan Kitchen website they have a large chart of all the Italian olive oils they carry, tells you which region they come from and describes their flavour profile as well. It’s almost like you pair a wine with food, you can pair olive oils with your style of cooking and dishes as well.

Other purchasing tips: Olive oil doesn’t get any better with age. Good olive oils will tell you what year they were harvested. After one or two years at the most you shouldn’t buy it. Olives are typically harvested near the end of the year, October, November, December…so some shops will have the 2011 harvest available now. Look for organic or location certification as well. Once you get it home, your oil should be stored in a dark glass bottle or tin, since light helps along the deterioration, and don’t keep it right next to your stove because the incidental heat will help it degrade as well.  I’m looking forward to reading a book that came out recently called “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil” by Tom Mueller. I read his essay that was the inspiration for this book in the New Yorker a few years ago and it is quite a riveting read. If you would like to read and hear a blast from the past, visit my blog posting from 2007 on my visit to a 500-year-old olive grove in Puglia, Italy.

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2 Responses to Food Matters – Olive Oil – The Slippery Slope

  1. sophie says:

    Obviously, the only way to make sure your olive oil is the real thing is to go buy it freshly made at the source: Italy, France, Turkey, Greece… Ha, the sacrifices I make for my diet. Hard, hard. :-P

  2. Andrea says:

    Good tips here!

    Sophie, that would not be bad at all! I am glad that a lot of people like Don, Tom Mueller and others raise people’s awareness on the topic, but until the consumer really starts to take the proper care… And in olive oil production one has really to see with its own eyes (at least once) how proper oil is made, as there’s all kind of stuff out there. The good thing is that, as you mention, it’s grown in some places that are not that bad to visit…

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