The Truth Behind Olive Oil

We need to talk.
the giving tree

It’s about olive oil.

Listen, I’m sorry. 

What you’ve been using is probably shit.

Go ahead, go grab your bottle out of the kitchen (where it is hopefully waiting a cool, dark place), check the back, and tell me where the olives come from. Don’t tell me where the oil was bottled. Find where it says something like “contains oils/olives from [fill in blank].”

If you can tell me that there is only one country listed, give yourself a pat on the back. Give yourself a kiss. Go sautée something. Enjoy.

If, on the other hand, you see that your dear bottle contains olives from several countries, it would seem that you too have fallen victim to the American way of providing consumers with low-quality foods simply because it's easy to get away with. 

In fact, a recent study reveals that at least 69% of U.S. oils labeled "Extra Virgin" fail to meet the regulations of the International Oil Council (IOC) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But now is the time to do away with excuses. 

Entire books have been written about the subject of olive oil, but I’m going to try to give you the stuff relevant to your kitchen in a nutshell. 

Before we begin, let me introduce you to a term we'll be finding useful: oleic acid. It's a monounsaturated fatty acid found naturally in olive oil, and by measuring it's percentage, one can gauge the quality of the oil. 

So, the lower the acid, the higher the quality (dare we say...virginity?) of the oil.

Olive Oil Types 

There are several different olive oil categories, and we'll talk about the primary 3 used for cooking, which are categorized based on their chemical properties and methods of production...

1. Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO)
EVOO, the Queen of Oils, is the lightest, the most expensive, and also the most difficult to find and trust (in the U.S., at least). It is best used uncooked and for dishes that don't involve heating the oil to high temperatres (like frying). The Europeans will tell you that olives must be picked at the perfect hour, on the perfect day, and even under the perfect moon. And while all that may be a bit exaggerated, they do essentially have to be handpicked. Olives are simply too fragile to harvest with mechanized processes. Sometimes farms will hang nets along the tree line and "shake" the trees so that the ripest olives softly fall onto the nets, but even this could cause unnecessary bruising, and one olive set to rot could ruin the entire batch. So it is that olives really do have to be picked at the exact moment they are ready and then rushed to be pressed within 24 hours (at most). Too soon and it will give neither the right amount of oil nor the right flavor, too late and the olive and its cohorts might begin to turn rancid before you have time to process them. Oleic acid must be no more than .8 percent; You are definitely not paying for automatons and assembly lines when you buy real EVOO.

As a rather picturesque aside, you will find that olive farms often employ older people, as they tend to have more patience with the harvesting process. 

2. Virgin Olive Oil 
Virgin oils should have an acidity content of less than 2%, and can be an acceptable substitute cooking oil for EVOO, especially since it's less-expensive.  It also comes from the first press, but since the acidity is higher, it resultingly can be thought to have less nutrition and flavor complexity. Although it can be eaten by itself, I recommend it primarily for cooking. I prefer it over the less-pure vegetable oil or canola oil, but depending on the dish, I might use a nut, seed (sun-,saf-flower,or grape), or avocado oil.

3. Olive Oil 
This oil may be labeled "pure" or "refined." It typically comes from the left-over or low-quality oils unfit for consumption without some form of processing. Through these processes, they move from an acidity level of over 3.3% to under .3%. They are void of nutrition and flavor, and I suggest avoiding them. That's all I have to say about that.

Processing the Olive Oil...

All EVOOs should say something along the lines of “first-press” or "first cold-press" on the bottle, meaning that the oil extracted comes literally from the first press of the olive (not the second or third), and that no heating or chemical methods have been used to extract the oil. It is the oil that oozes out saying, “Bonjour! I am the very first and best oil that my olive host has to offer! Go ahead, take a shot of me! blah blah blah!” Depending on the oil's oleic acid content, it is filtered (or not), bottled, and labeled. France, Italy, Spain, and a few other countries have EVOO certification processes that ensure restrictions on processing and labeling get followed.
By the way, I prefer unfiltered because it tends to have a bit more flavor, but note that it also may turn rancid a bit sooner.

Herein lies the problem...
How, then, does your cheap and bulky bottle say “first-press EVOO”? Surely we can’t keep up with whether or not the rules were followed when a company is combining oils from 4+ countries? 

Well, you’re right, we don’t know where that oil really came from. The reason that they can get away with calling it extra virgin olive oil is that they mechanically process and/or clean non-EVOOs until they reach an oleic acid content of less than .8 percent. By "cleaning," I mean that the oil may go through bleaching, degumming, anti-oxidizing, or alkalinization to reverse the outcomes of it having begun to turn rancid. 

How else are you gonna cover up those off-flavors??

Do you think that your EVOO manufacturer has gone to each of these countries and found the first pressed, virgin oils from that year's harvest? Oh honey. 

(Actually, don't get me started on honey.)

 you're only allowed to look and enjoy this cat if you have quality EVOO
So who knows what’s actually in that golden stuff you’re using on all of your food?! I guarantee that by the time it gets bottled at whatever end-point, the bottler has no idea what it’s been through to get there. They just check the oleaic acid content (if you're lucky), and voilà! To make things worse, sometimes you're even buyig a blend of non-olive oils (think rapeseed/canola, veggie, etc.) Slap on a beautiful European label and an unbelievably cheap price, and get it into every American home possible.

Moral(s) of the story: 

1. Know what you’re buying
Check the label to ensure that the EVOO is sourced from only one location, hopefully a small farm for slow food's sake. If it’s European, look for A.O.C., D.O., or D.O.P., PDG, PDI, and if American, C.O.O.C. All of these certify that the farms and their methods are actually what they should be in order to carry the title of whatever product it is (also look for these abbreviations on wine, balsamics, cheese, meats, etc.). 

If you want to be even more “slow food” about this, find an olive oil farm near you. The most prolific area for EVOO in the U.S. is California, and I am ecstatic to say that not only are they taking it seriously, but the stuff is goooood! Don’t doubt that it is easily comparable to European oils. While terrior dictates they will all taste different, the quality of flavor is indisputable. There is even a voluntary California Olive Oil Council (COOC) to regulate labeling and quality practices.
Is the U.S. really catching on?!? Let’s hope so.
But for the sake of bubble bursting, I must say that the U.S. is otherwise SORELY lacking in labeling standards for, well, almost all foods.

2. Quality food will typically cost more. I hate to break it to you, but suck it up. If you don’t want to put something that has been cleaned with bleach into your body, pay the extra damn dollar. By supporting the farmer whose family has made a livelihood off olives for centuries or the Californian who forsake L.A. to bring America back to good food, you're supporting your own well-being. And hell, it just tastes better. 

If you still need convincing, there are plenty of specialty shops popping up that give tasting opportunities, and hopefully the staff will know what they’re talking about. If not, read this to find how to taste on your own. An advanced palate will be able to pick out flavors and terriors in a way that is very similar to a sommelier, so don't underestimate the process!

When you’re all done, pull out the supermarket EVOO in the clear plastic bottle and take a sip. You can even try the test blindfolded.

Notice anything different?

And in case you were wondering...
  • Olive oils are typically best within a year after production
  • After opening, you should use your oil within 60 days (more quickly if it's unfiltered)
  • ALWAYS keep in a cool dark place (this means keep it away from the stove and oven)
  • Real EVOO will turn solid in very cool temperatures, so don't be worried when it gets all chunky after refrigeration. This is actually a good way to test authenticity. 
An olive orchard...I want to go to there

Let me know what you think in the comments section--and keep me updated if you do the taste test!

1 comment:

  1. It would be awesome to find teepees in the last picture below. I love your trips. So fun.




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