A cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet, olive oil contains healthy monounsaturated fatty acids — believed to protect against cardiovascular disease and high cholesterol. No wonder Homer deemed olive oil “liquid gold.” But not all olive oil is created equal. We spoke with olive oil expert Joanne Lacina of OliveOilLovers.com to get the lowdown on what makes a great olive oil, why extra virgin is so important, and the reason higher-quality oils are worth their weight.
Fraudulent olive oil has been in the news. What’s being done about it?
Fraudulent oil is an ongoing problem in the U.S. University of California at Davis did a study and found out almost 70 percent of the store-bought olive oils were found not to be extra virgin.
What is the government doing to prevent this?
In Europe you’re breaking the law if you’re mixing refined oil with extra virgin and still labeling it 100% extra virgin. Producers can be fined and penalized for that. But in the U.S., no one is pulling oil off the shelf to test olive oils. If that did happen, there would be little to no repercussions. I consider it the Wild, Wild West in the U.S.
Why is it so hard to get authentic olive oil to consumers?
It’s very difficult for producers of genuine olive oil to get their product on the shelves because buyers in the U.S. are undereducated and they see it as any other oil commodity. You have buyers making price demands and companies willing to commit fraud to meet that price and get that business. There is always a producer out there that will mix oils and add food coloring to get that business from that [grocery store] buyer. It’s really kind of a backwards system, and because there are minimal regulations people can get away with it.
So bargain olive oils are not indicative of a good oil.
One supermarket offers an organic olive oil that is labeled “Product of Italy,” but is packed in the USA, and contains oil from Argentina, Italy, Morocco and wherever — from random countries. No way that’s organic, and it’s duping consumers. You buy big commodity oils that are low-quality from overripe olives that sit in giant mounds in crushing mills, getting funky and stinky as they sit in the sun waiting to be pressed. The oil that is produced from these olives doesn’t taste that great.
What does “extra virgin” really mean, and why does it make a difference?
It absolutely makes a difference. It’s a quality factor. There are two main factors to determine if an oil is “extra virgin.” It has to be less than 0.8 acidity. You’re testing a free fatty-acid profile of the oil, and, in the simplest terms, you cannot taste acidity — it’s a chemical test. Let’s say you picked overripe or damaged or bruised or decomposed olives, or they were stored improperly (olives need to be crushed when they are picked, within one day), you’ll have a really poor-quality oil and the acidity will be really high. It’s really a damage test for quality, and most high-quality oils will be below 0.4 acidity.
The other factor that a customer can [use to] determine if it’s extra virgin is to taste it. The three [tastes] to look for are: fruitiness, bitterness and pungency. It should have some positive taste notes of grass or artichoke. It’s a plant, so you have these compounds that create a little bitter sensation on the side of your tongue, and that’s a good thing. Not too much bitterness, as it can overpower your food, but some is a good thing. It just means it’s fresh and healthy and has a lot of antioxidants. A tingling in the back of your throat that makes you want to cough is the sign of a good olive oil. You won’t get that from generic oils. An oil cannot be labeled extra virgin if there is any defect in tasting. Common [defects] would be rancid or a musty-smelly-socks smell or musty-basement kind of smell. You know it when you smell something funky. If it smells off in some way, it’s most likely defective. You want to get lovely flavors that you want to put on your food. That’s what a good oil is.
Why aren’t more people demanding higher-quality oils?
Studies have been done that [show that] the American consumer actually prefers the flavor of rancid oils because that’s what they have become accustomed to for decades. They think it’s supposed to taste like that. It’s tough to tell someone that this oil you’re so used to isn’t what it’s supposed to taste like. People think it’s snobbery, but it comes down to quality. That’s what we’re trying to tell people. They are paying for poor-quality olives and that’s the flavor you’re getting — a rotting olive. Plus, you’re not getting the health benefits you should be when you are consuming these poor-quality oils.
What should consumers watch out for when shopping for olive oil?
The more specifics on the label about the oil, the more likely it is to be authentic. You want to look for a specific region within a specific country. All of these mass-produced oils are blends from olives crushed all over the world, shipped to Italy and packed in Italy, but God only knows what’s in the bottle. If it’s genuine, it’s probably going to say this was produced on a small estate in the Seville province of Andalucía in Spain. You also want to look for any oil that lists the variety of olives. It’s like buying a bottle of wine that would say “red wine” and nothing else. It doesn’t tell you if it’s Cab or Merlot — you want to know this about your red wine. You want to know the region. You want to know the variety. If it lists the varieties, you can pretty well count it is pressed from olives from that region. Another is if it gives particular info from the producer. All of these olives are from a specific producer that puts his heart and soul into every batch. If it doesn’t meet their standards, they won’t sell their oil.
Also, it is very important look for harvest date on the back of the bottle. The state of California made it a requirement for oils produced in California to have the harvest date. This is very important, because olive oil is not like wine, it does not get better with age. You want to consume it as fresh as possible and as soon as possible. I don’t know any mass-produced brands that put a harvest date on the back of the bottle.
What date should people shop for now?
Right now, fall 2014 olive oils are just coming on the market. Any serious producer will put that on their oil because they want their consumer to enjoy it at its freshest.
What are some of the lesser-known health benefits of olive oil?
Most people don’t realize that there are polyphenol compounds because olive oil comes from a plant. Polyphenols, in a nutshell, are antioxidants, and there are over 30 compounds that we know of [in olive oil]. I have to stress that if you’re buying a low-quality, mass-produced oil, it is not going to have a lot of these polyphenol compounds. It’s important to get a good-quality oil because, if not, you’re not going to get the health benefits.
Kiri Tannenbaum is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Paris and holds an M.A. in food studies from New York University where she is currently an adjunct professor. When her schedule allows, she leads culinary walking tours in New York City and is currently at work on her first book.