Olive Oil: What’s Really in the Bottle?
People have been consuming olive oil for thousands of years. Olive oil is essential in the foundation of what we call The Mediterranean Diet; characterized by a high consumption of fruits, vegetables and olive oil, thought to support heart health. Health benefits of the Mediterranean diet were initially discovered in the 1950s and have withstood decades of rigorous scientific study. The health benefits of olive oil are incomparable. The International Olive Oil Council has found olive oil consumption to be effective against cancer, CVD, blood pressure, osteoporosis, diabetes and many more diseases.
But did you know that 80% of branded virgin Italian olive oil on the market is fraudulent? That means you’re not buying what it says you’re buying on the label. The commercial olive oil you buy at the local grocery store is misbranded, low quality and probably not olive oil at all, but a vegetable oil in disguise. Consumers, retailers and governments are turning a blind eye to olive oil fraud. Olive oil is an important staple of a healthy diet, and as such should be held to the highest health standards. There are many ways to find a high quality olive oil, avoid the scam and take advantage of all of the health benefits that it has to offer.
What are the Health Benefits of Olive Oil?
A molecular substance called oleocanthal has been identified in olive oil that demonstrates anti-inflammatory properties. Oleocanthal, a Cox inhibitor, has been linked to reduce risk of heart disease and certain forms of cancer. Oleocanthal has also been shown to reduce the adverse effects of highly toxic protein by-products (called ADDLs) which are believed to contribute to the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. A potent combination of olive oil’s ingredients, referred to as “polar fraction”, are a delicate cocktail of over 100 polyphenols, hydrocarbons, vitamins and other perishable compounds which vanish when treated with chemicals or heat, known as adulteration. Medical research suggests that the polyphenols and other compounds of the polar fraction are the main source of olive oils many therapeutic health benefits. Coincidentally, these same substances also give higher quality organic EVOO its pepperiness, bitterness, flavors, aromas and other sensory characteristics.
Polyphenols and other polar fraction ingredients in olive oil appear to have cardiovascular benefits due to their anti-inflammatory properties. They can reduce clotting of red blood cells, thereby reducing the risk of thrombosis, stroke, heart attack and CVD. They can act as antibacterial agents which strengthen the immune systems response to infection. And others, such as oleocanthal, appear to protect again certain neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer’s. The benefits of the Mediterranean Diet, of which a high quality EVOO is central, is associated with low incidences of CVD, dementia and certain kinds of cancer.
How to Avoid the Scam
The greatest health benefits are found in the organic, unrefined, young virgin olive oil grades. It’s estimated that only about 5% of the world’s production is of this quality. Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO), by definition, means the best quality and is the highest grade. The first pressing yields the top quality virgin oil, with each subsequent pressing yielding lower nutritional quality grades of oil. The oil has been extracted from the olives by simple mechanical means, either by stone pressing with or centrifugation, and without the use of solvents or high heat like virtually all other vegetable oils. It also has to pass chemical tests to detect adulteration and defects, and then taste tests to ensure no other off-flavors that are not detectible chemically.
There are several things to look for that indicate your olive oil of choice is still “organic, extra virgin” fresh:
- The use of dark glass when bottled. Photo-oxidation is avoided by ensuring that the oil is not exposed to light. Dark colored glass absorbs UV light and protects the oil from oxidation. The oil should be stored in a dark place. Olive oil in clear bottles or cans should be avoided.
- The harvest date and cold extraction milled date (when the olives were pressed) should be printed on the label, rarely seen on supermarket selections.
- The polyphenol content should always be listed on the label. After all, this is the major health and nutritional benefit which you should be aware of.
- 3rd Party Organic Certification
Looks Can be Deceiving
Many olive oils in your supermarket are not truly extra virgin, and do not contain significant amount of polyphenols, or flavor for that matter. Consumers are frequently surprised to discover the strong flavors in real organic, extra virgin olive oils, and mistakenly think the oil is bad. Quite the opposite though–olive oils made from different olive varietals, or even the same varietals grown in different regions, can be as diverse as wine from different grape varietals. The tastes can range from sweet, with hints of pine nuts and almonds, to zingy peppery that brings tears to one’s eyes, to distinct green tomato with artichoke overtones. These flavors all indicate a fresh, healthful and nutritious oil. Conversely, rancid oil smells and tastes stale, like really old nuts, feels greasy on the palate, and has a lingering, unpleasant aftertaste. Good olive oil will have clean, pleasant flavors and remind you of fresh olives, nuts and raw vegetables.
Now comes the startling revelation that few are aware of. The olive oil industry has been deeply corrupt for some time, haven been overrun by conglomerate oil fraudsters of the globalized food industry. They have all but buried the fine artisan producers whose oil authentically deserves the classification of “extra virgin”, and even the organic classification is compromised. These sophisticated, large scale frauds hire skilled chemists with multi-million dollar lab facilities, and involve networks of conniving customs agents, businessmen and government officials. These massive factories have been identified as being located in Switzerland, Spain, Tunisia and elsewhere throughout the Mediterranean.
The lowest grade of inferior olive oils, classified as “lampante”, or lamp oil, are grown with an abundance of pesticides and other chemicals, and can only be legally sold as fuel. There is no nutritional or health value in this poor quality of olive oil and others, and none of the wonderful flavors. Instead, these inferior grades are heavily refined by these companies whose only goal is a gross profit by dumping them on the unknowing public. They are cut with cheap soybean or canola oil with industrial chlorophyll, flavored with beta-carotene, and labelled with fancy Italian flags with the names of imaginary producers from famous olive growing regions in Italy. The world is full of fake extra virgin olive oil, and the US is the best place on earth to sell adulterated olive oil.
What to Look For
Here are several things to look for when purchasing organic EVOO. Taking the time to research and validate your selection will reward you with the fantastic benefits and flavors of this superb superfood.
- Find a store where you can taste olive oils before you buy. Ask the staff a few basic questions about how, where, and by whom they were made. Specialty olive oil stores and bars are becoming more common, and a growing number of delis, markets and supermarkets have olive oil bars.
- Unlike many wines, which improve with age, EVOO is perishable, with its flavor and aroma beginning to deteriorate within a few months of milling.
- Olive oil will typically last a max of 1 1/2 to 2 years. If there is no date of milling on the bottle you have no idea how old your selection is. To get the freshest selection and cut out the middleman, who often adulterate the oil’s transparency and quality, buy as close to the mill as possible.
- Choose dark glass bottles that protect against light and buy a quantity that you’ll use up quickly. Even an excellent oil can go rancid rapidly when sitting too long in a half bottle of air (oxidation).
- Don’t pay much attention to the color of an oil, as they come in all shades, from vivid green to gold to pale straw. Genuine organic EVOO will have a distinct fruitiness like that of fresh olives, with typically some level of pepperiness or bitterness. These characteristics are naturally balanced with complex aromas, flavors and pleasant aftertastes.
- Don’t be put off by bitterness or pungency; these are usually healthful antioxidant indicators. The amount of polyphenols in the oil, as listed on the label along with the date your oil was milled/pressed, references the amount of these healthful antioxidants and flavors.
Understanding the Labels
If you don’t have the opportunity to taste an oil, be knowledgeable of the label information.
- Be sure that your oil is organic EVOO. “Pure” or “light” oil, “olive oil” and “olive pomace oil” have undergone chemical refinement and adulteration which strips away the many flavors and most if not all of the oil’s health benefits.
- Phrases like “packed in Italy” or “bottled in Italy” do not mean that that an oil was grown or made in Italy. Be aware that these oils can often be adulterated. Italy is also a major importer of olive oil originating in Spain, Greece, Tunisia and elsewhere. Don’t be fooled by Italian flags and scenes of the Tuscan countryside. Much of it is adulterated by blending with other oils, refined, perfumed, colored and then re-exported.
- Avoid oils whose specific, precise ranch/mill of production is not listed on the bottle.
- Several certifications on the labels should provide a level of confidence that an oil has been properly made. Look for the PDO and PGI status:
- PDO (Protected Designation of Origin): This is a legal designation by the European Union for foods that are produced or processed in a specific region using traditional production methods, of which EVOO is one of these foods.
- PGI (Protected Geographical Indication): Another legal designation by the EU similar to PDO, but less stringent. It requires that at least one phase in the production of a product/olive oil must occur in a given geographic region. This means it can be milled elsewhere.
- Look for oils that have entered, and won, reputable olive oil competitions.
Choose High Quality Olive Oil
In my opinion, the finest American olive oil is produced by Apollo Olive Oil in Oregon House, California. They have an outstanding selection of California grown varietals, many of them organic. They have also won numerous international gold medal awards at international competition and are considered one of the ten best olive producers in the world. Their polyphenol levels are nearly three times the common value for EVOO’s and they ship direct.
True wealth is having your health, and knowledge of self. Remember Jimmy Buffet’s lyrics:
I treat my body like a temple, you treat yours like a tent!From the song Fruitcakes
Be honest with yourself. Where do your health and body reside, temple or tent? Taking the time to educate yourself on how and what you eat is the core of your epigenetics, the answer to chronic diseases and the ultimate quality of your longevity. Your body always deserves the best and you alone are responsible for your health. Wealth, health and knowledge co-exist happily in the temple.
Mueller, Tom. Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. W. W. Norton & Company, 2013.
Povoledo, Elisabetta. Italy Grows Wary of Olive Oil Fraud As New Law Is Weighed. NY Times, 2016.
Smith, Michelle. Italy Arrests 33 Accused of Olive Oil Fraud. Olive Oil Times, 2017.
Rodriguez, Cecilia. The Olive Oil Scam: If 80% Is Fake, Why Do You Keep Buying It? Forbes, 2016.