Olio d’oliva-olive oil has been essential to Mediterranean life for over 4,000 years. It has been a major trading resource, is one of the main nutritional components of the Mediterranean diet and the healthiest source of fat, produced without the use of chemicals or industrial refining. Olive oil has also been used as a medication, soap, moisturizer and terra cotta lamp fuel.
15 ml (1 tablespoon) of olive oil has 120 calories, 14g fat and no cholesterol. 75% of the fat is monounsaturated (MUFA-the good kind), 11% polyunsaturated (PUFA), 14% vegetable saturated fat and 0% trans fats.
Extra Virgin olive oil EVOO may be the healthiest thing in the kitchen. It has been associated with health benefits including protection from heart and blood vessel disease, decreased blood clotting, decreased risk of chronic diseases, improvement in bone and digestive health, stabilizing blood sugar and improved brain function. These benefits are due to 2 main properties: Oleic acid and antioxidants. Oleic acid, the main fat in olive oil is a MUFA with cholesterol lowering and antiinflammatory effects.
EVOO contains large amounts of antioxidants including tocopherols (vitamin E) and polyphenols (tyrosol, hydrotyrosol and oleocanthal) which protect against oxidation and spoilage in the oil—and also in the body ingesting the oil! That means you! Antioxidants decrease oxidative damage caused by free radicals, which are believed to cause cell damage and contribute to cancer. Antioxidants also have antiinflammatory properties, especially oleocanthal which is nature’s ibuprofen.
La Raccolta delle olive, the olive harvest is late October to early November, before the first frost. To produce the best quality oil, the olives are taken to il frantoio, the olive mill, within 24 hours of harvest. My previous post La Raccolta delle Olive has a detailed explanation and photos of the entire harvest process, including the italian words for all of the steps.
The terms ‘first press’ and ‘cold pressed’ are outdated, and mainly used for marketing, since hydraulic presses are no longer used. Olives are crushed or ground-only once, then oil and water are separated from the olive paste using a centrifuge. The colour of the oil ranges from grassy green to yellow gold, depending on the ripeness and type of olives and the amount of chlorophyll in the leaves. Oil is stored in stainless steel vats until it is bottled, to preserve nutrients, colour and flavour.
This fresh, pure olive juice is ‘virgin olive oil’ as it has not been refined or extracted using chemicals or heat. It can be considered ‘extra virgin olive oil’ if the acidity is less than 0.8%, with superior taste and aroma. This is mostly related to the quality and freshness of the olives.
‘Pure’ ‘Fino’ or ‘Light’ are marketing terms for refined olive oil-not calorie or fat reduced oil. It is refined using solvents and high heat to neutralize the taste of the oil. A small amount of EVOO is added for taste. This allows the use of lower quality olives and blending oils from many sources, possibly increasing the shelf life and smoke point. Refining and heating destroys the antioxidants and vitamins in the oil, but it is still high in MUFA’s and has no trans fats.
Pomace olive oil is made from the pits, skin and sediment and removed using chemicals. It should not be eaten and is only used for deep frying or polishing furniture.
Fresh EVOO should taste clean, fresh and peppery and smell of olives, with a spicy/bitter ‘bite’ when it hits the back of the throat. This spiciness is the polyphenols! Old or refined olive oil will not have this sensation.
EVOO is used for pouring and drizzling directly on food crudo –raw, and for salads, vegetables, sauces, pasta, bread, soups. There seems to be a notion-mostly in North America, that you cannot cook with olive oil. This is not true! Like most Mediterranean cooks, I use it almost exclusively. In fact, I don’t think I knew other oils existed until I was in my 20’s! The smoke point of olive oil is about 200°C (375-400°F) which is great for sautéing or shallow frying. Vegetables cooked in olive oil absorb the polyphenols from the oil, making them double antioxidanted! Excessive heating such as deep frying destroys the antioxidant benefits, so only use older or lower quality olive oil. I have several different olive oils in my kitchen; a few decent ones for cooking and baking and a really good quality one for salads and drizzling.
Is your bottle of EVOO 100% real? Unlike Europe, North American regulations do not require strict labeling of olive oil. A 2010 report called ‘Oil Imposters’ from the UC Davis Olive Center stated that 69% of imported oil labeled as ‘Extra Virgin’ in California failed IOC standards. Their lab found:
Poor quality oil-made with poor quality or improperly stored/processed olives
Oxidation- oil exposed to too much heat, light or age
Adulteration-oil cut with cheaper refined olive oil and soybean or canola oil
Tim Mueller discusses fraud in the olive oil market in his 2012 book Extra Virginity: The sublime and scandalous world of olive oil. I believe there has been a lot of improvement since 2012, but olive oil fraud still happens. It probably started in 4000 BC! In addition to the labeling, another problem is that most North American consumers do not know what real, fresh EVOO tastes like, and are used to poor quality oil.
How can you tell if your EVOO is the real? Here are some tips:
- Taste-The oil should taste fruity, like olives and be peppery with a slight burn when it hits the back of the throat. The bitterness/spiciness is the polyphenols! This sensation decreases as the oil gets older or exposed to air and light. Bitter is better!
- Aroma. The oil should smell like olives or fruity. It should not smell moldy, or like hay, vinegar, sweaty gym socks or old salame.
- Best before date and harvest date. Oxidation starts when the oil is produced. It is usually good for 18-24 months after extraction, if stored properly. Buy only amounts that will be consumed in a few months. Like wine, half full bottles of oil spoil faster. Unlike wine, olive oil does not age well! Keep bottles tightly capped.
- Origins (same country, region, estate) ‘packaged in’ or ‘bottled in’ means the olives are not grown in that country. By the time of bottling and importing, the olives or oil is likely already 4-6 months old.
- Marketing-Avoid products labelled ‘pure’, ‘fino’ or ‘light’.
- Packaging Olive oil should be packaged in dark glass bottles or large tins which block UV light. Do not buy olive oil in plastic bottles.
- Cost-EVOO should not be cheap. Producing quality oil takes time, labour and expense. 1L of olive oil requires 2,000 olives!
- Buy from the farmer, or from someone who buys from the farmer. This is not easy outside of Mediterranean countries, California or Australia, but it is possible to find good quality olive oil. For example, here in Vancouver I know of 2 vendors who import oil directly from their family olive groves in Italia.
Ps If you love EVOO, try my Olive Oil Limoncello Cake