There are thousands of olive varieties from which oil can be produced, and each brings a unique flavor and quality to the oil. While some olive oil is made by blending different olive varieties together, mono-varietals or monocultivar olive oils, are made using just one. It is the variety of olive, along with the maturity of the fruit, that contributes most to the flavor of the oil.
Olive oils described as ‘virgin’ are those that have been obtained from the original fruit without having been synthetically treated. Once the olives have been picked, pressed, and washed, no other process has taken place other than decantation, and centrifugation to extract the oil, and filtration.
The best quality of olive oil available is described as ‘extra virgin’. .
Extra Virgin Olive OilExtra virgin is the highest quality and most flavorful olive oil classification. In chemical terms it is described as having a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid, of not more than 0.8 grams per 100 grams and a peroxide value of less than 20 milliequivalent O2. It must be produced entirely by mechanical means without the use of any solvents, and under temperatures that will not degrade the oil (less than 86°F, 30°C).
In order for an oil to qualify as “extra virgin” the oil must also pass both an official chemical test in a laboratory and a sensory evaluation by a trained tasting panel recognized by the International Olive Council. The olive oil must be found to be free from defects while exhibiting some fruitiness.
Since extra virgin olive oil is simply pressed fruit juice without additives, the factors influencing its quality and taste encompass the countless decisions, ethics and skills of the producer, and the terroir itself.
Olive oil tasters describe the positive attributes are described in the following terms:
- Fruity: Having pleasant spicy fruit flavors characteristic of fresh ripe or green olives. Ripe fruit yields oils that are milder, aromatic, buttery, and floral. Green fruit yields oils that are grassy, herbaceous, bitter, and pungent. Fruitiness also varies by the variety of olive.
- Bitter: Creating a mostly pleasant acrid flavor sensation on the tongue.
- Pungent: Creating a peppery sensation in the mouth and throat
Other Grades of Olive OilIn addition to extra virgin olive oil, there are a number of other grades which define chemical and organoleptic qualities.
- Virgin olive oil: This is virgin olive oil which has a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid, of not more than 2 grams per 100 grams and a median organoleptic defect value of 2.5 or less.
- Ordinary virgin olive oil: Virgin olive oil which has a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid, of not more than 3.3 grams per 100 grams and a median organoleptic defect value of 2.5 or less than 6.0.
- Olive oil: A blend of both virgin and refined olive oil. It has a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid, of not more than 1 gram per 100.
- Refined olive oil: This is the olive oil obtained from virgin olive oils by refining methods which do not lead to alterations in the initial glyceridic structure. It has a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid, of not more than 0.3 grams per 100 grams.
- Olive-pomace oil is the oil obtained by treating olive pomace with solvents or other physical treatments, to the exclusion of oils obtained by re-esterification processes and of any mixture with oils of other kinds. It is marketed in accordance with the following designations and definitions:
- Crude olive-pomace oil is olive pomace oil whose characteristics correspond to those fixed for this category in this standard. It is intended for refining for use for human consumption, or it is intended for technical use.
- Refined olive pomace oil is the oil obtained from crude olive pomace oil by refining methods which do not lead to alterations in the initial glyceridic structure. It has a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid, of not more than 0.3 grams per 100 grams. Olive pomace oil is the oil comprising the blend of refined olive pomace oil and virgin olive oils fit for consumption as they are. It has a free acidity of not more than 1 gram per 100 grams. In no case can this blend be called olive oil.
Tasting Olive OilThe aromas of olive oil are a critical part of its flavor. Pour a little bit of extra virgin olive oil into a small glass. Hold it, swirl it, warm it for a minute or two. Then put your nose in the glass and take in the aroma or “nose” of the olive oil. You may notice the smell of fresh-cut grass, cinnamon, tropical fruits or other aromas of ripe or green olive fruit.
Now take a sip. You want to get the impressions of the entire mouth. Suck air through the oil to coax more aromas out of it, and then — this is important — close your mouth and breathe out through your nose. This “retronasal” perception will give you a whole bunch of other flavor notes. Retronasal perception is possible because your mouth connects to your nose in the back. Now swallow some, or all of the olive oil.
Pungency is a peppery sensation, detected in the throat, and a positive characteristic of olive oil. It is a chemical irritation, like the hotness of chilies, and equally appealing once you get used to it. Pungency can be very mild—just the tiniest tingle—or it can be intense enough to make you cough. Olive oil aficionados will sometimes refer to a one, two, or look out, a three-cough oil.
The third positive attribute of olive oil, in addition to fruity and pungent, is bitter. Bitterness, like pungency, is also an acquired taste. As anyone who has ever tasted an olive right off the tree can attest, bitter is a prominent taste in fresh olives. Since olive oil is made from uncured olives, varying degrees of bitterness can be found; oil made from riper fruit will have little to no bitterness, oil made from greener fruit can be distinctly bitter. American taste horizons are broadening; we are exploring bitterness with foods like dark chocolate, bitter salad greens and now, robust olive oils.
The fruity characteristics you may notice in the mouth include nutty, buttery and other ripe flavors, and a fuller spectrum of green fruity notes. The traditional palate cleanser between olive oils, is water, plain or sparkling, and slices of Granny Smith apple.
Olive Oil StandardsIndustry regulations are in place to ensure that standards of production are upheld and that consumers are informed of the quality of products they are buying.
For countries adhering to the standards outlined by the International Olive Council (IOC), the grade given to each oil, which is calculated according to the IOC grade criteria, is clearly written on the label.
On October 25th 2010, new standards for olive oil were introduced in the US, which is not a member of the IOC. Producers who wish to certify their product as US Extra Virgin Olive Oil may now begin the process of having it inspected by the USDA. A USDA inspector will pull samples to be sent to the USDA lab in Blakely, Georgia, where a tasting panel trained in sensory analysis tests them. Bottles of certified oils will bear the USDA certification seal.
A draft of revised olive oil standards for Australia and New Zealand was announced on February 25th 2011 and recently concluded a period reserved for public comment.
History of Olive OilThe olive tree has played an important role within history and has appeared so frequently within ancient mythology that even today, despite our advancements in farming and production, we are still not certain of its exact story.
Scholars have argued that the formal cultivation of olive trees for oil first occurred around 6000 years ago on the Mediterranean coasts of modern day Syria and Palestine. In those days the oil extracted would have been used as a skin emollient and as fuel for lighting.
From the banks of the eastern Mediterranean, the olive tree then moved west, taking root on the island of Cyprus as well as in Anatolia, Crete, and Egypt.
By the 16th Century BC, the Phoenicians had begun to spread the olive through the Greek isles where it gained in importance to the extent that Solon, the great Athenian statesman, would later issue decrees regulating their planting and laws would make the destruction of the olive tree punishable by death.
In the 6th century BC olive trees could be found in Tunis, Tripoli, Sicily, and southern Italy. In North Africa, the Berbers were known to have developed the cultivation of wild olives throughout the territories they occupied, and the Romans continued expansion in using them as a peaceful weapon in order to settle groups of people throughout their empire.
In modern times the olive tree has moved well beyond the Mediterranean and can be found in countries as far from its origins as Australia, China, Unites States and Argentina. The trees we know today with their elongated leaves and fleshy, oil rich fruit, were probably derived from a cross between different species and bear little resemblance to its wild, bush-like ancestor known to civilizations all those years ago.
Olive Oil and the Mediterranean DietRecognized as one of the healthiest diets in the world, the Mediterranean diet is not a creation of some doctor or nutritionist, nor is it a passing fad, it’s a centuries-old eating lifestyle originally followed by the people living in the Mediterranean basin.
It all started when University of Minnesota Physiologist Ancel Keys studied the diets and habits of seven countries in the 1950s (often referred to as the Seven Countries Study), including the US, Japan, and Greece. He found that individuals from Greece had the lowest rates of heart disease and lived the longest even though they had a relatively high intake of fat. This astounding information was enough to take the Mediterranean diet from the tiny villages of Greece to the headlines of cities around the world.
It has ever since become a scientific standard paving the way for nutritionists, doctors and specialists to identify what’s good for us and what’s not. Thanks to an ever-growing body of evidence that the diet can prevent everything from heart disease to cancer, the Mediterranean diet is what sets the standard for long life and good health.
We all think of olive oil when we hear the term “Mediterranean Diet”, but in fact it is a lot of other things. It is characterized by a high intake of vegetables, fruits and complex carbohydrates with the main source of fat being olive oil. As a result, it is rich in fiber, phytochemicals and antioxidants. However, it is not a vegetarian diet, as red meat is something to be enjoyed once a month, with the main source of protein coming from beans and local fatty fish such as sardines and anchovies.
Reaping the benefits of the Mediterranean diet and the traditional Greek diet is all about using the right nutritional ingredients in the right way. In other words, just adding olive oil to all your dishes isn’t going to do the trick; you need to consume a variety of foods in order to see healthy results.
Health Benefits of Olive OilThe health benefits of olive oil are extensive with new positive attributes discovered all the time. One prominent cardiologist recommends at least two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil each day. At present it is believed that in addition to bolstering the immune system and helping to protect against viruses, olive oil is also effective in fighting against diseases such as:
- Heart Disease: Olive oil helps lower levels of blood cholesterol leading to heart disease.
- Oxident Stress: Olive oil contains antioxidents such as Vitimin E, carotenoids and phenolic compounds which also help lead to long life.
- Cancer: Studies suggest that olive oil exerts a protective effect against certain malignant tumors (breast, prostate, endometrium, digestive tract…). A number of research studies have documented that olive oil reduces the risk of breast cancer. Eating a healthy diet with olive oil as the main source of fat could considerably lower cancer incidence.
- Blood Pressure: Recent studies indicate that regular consumption of olive oil can help decrease both systolic (maximum) and diastolic (minimum) blood pressure.
- Diabetes: It has been demonstrated that a diet that is rich in olive oil, low in saturated fats, moderately rich in carbohydrates and soluble fiber from fruit, vegetables, pulses and grains is the most effective approach for diabetics. It helps lower “bad” low-density lipoproteins while improving blood sugar control and enhances insulin sensitivity.
- Obesity: Although high in calories, olive oil has shown to help reduce levels of obesity.
- Rheumatoid Arthritis: Although the reasons are still not fully clear, recent studies have proved that people with diets containing high levels of olive oil are less likely to develop rheumatiod arthritis.
- Osteoporosis: A high consumption of olive oil appears to improve bone mineralization and calcification. It helps calcium absorption and so plays an important role in aiding sufferers and in preventing the onset of Osteoporosis.
Olive Oil and Skin CareSince ancient times olive oil has been used as a way to moisturize and help rejuvenate damaged skin.
As we age our skin deteriorates and its inner and outer layers (dermis and epidermis) grow much thinner. The stresses and strains of aging also cause the skin to lose elasticity, which soon becomes noticeable as wrinkles. External factors, such as the suns rays can also speed up the aging process by generating what are called ‘free radicals’. The good news is that it’s possible to reduce the damage done to cells by using ‘inhibitors’ that lower the risk. There are many creams and lotions on the market that can help with this but if you’re looking for a natural ‘inhibitor’, you need look no further than olive oil, which has a lipid profile very close to that of human skin.
Olive oil has a large proportion of vitamins A, D, and K, as well as vitamin E, which is a key source of protein needed in the fight against free radicals. This makes olive oil particularly helpful in the fight against skin disorders such as acne, psoriasis, and seborrheic eczemas.
More generally, olive oil can be used daily to improve the condition of skin in the following ways:
- As an exfoliator: Mixing olive oil with sea salt and massaging into an affected area helps remove dead skin and enrich the healthier layers below it. Adding oil to a bath also helps moisturize the whole body.
- In nail and cuticle care: Extra virgin olive oil is a simple solution for dry nails and cuticles. By rubbing a few drops into the cuticle area and around the nail, cuticles stay moist, and nails respond with a natural shine.
- As an eye makeup remover: A drop or two of extra virgin olive oil on a cotton pad helps to gently and effectively remove eye makeup without irritating the delicate skin. Olive oil also helps to smooth wrinkles that can form around the eyes.
Cooking with Olive OilAs a finish and condiment, high quality extra virgin olive oils are poured over everything from rices, potatoes vegetables and beans to meats, poultry and fish.
Olive oil is a versatile ingredient that has been used in cooking for thousands of years. It has broken down a lot of boundaries in recent times, becoming a staple in kitchens well beyond the area of its Mediterranean roots. Not only can you cook just about anything with olive oil, you should cook just about everything with olive oil instead of using less healthy fats or butter.
Robust extra virgin oils are perfect for cooking seafood, to make marinades, or on strongly flavored ingredients such as peppers or garlic. A medium intensity oil is delicious with mozzarella and for dipping bread, for frying and sautéing. More mild olive oils work well when used in baking. Whatever the use, the most important thing is to find an oil that tastes great to you. Have several different kinds on hand and experiment pairing oils with your dishes. When it works, you’ll know it. The flavor of fresh olive fruit will shine through adding a new sublime dimension to your creation.
Frying with Olive OilA cooking oil’s smoke point is the temperature at which the oil begins to break down and smoke. A high-quality extra virgin olive oil has a higher smoke point than other oils, making it very suitable for many forms of cooking, including frying, and cooking doesn’t destroy an EVOO’s healthful polyphenols.
“Extra virgin olive oil’s smoke point is generally given as 410 degrees Fahrenheit, which gives plenty of room for the 250-350 degrees Fahrenheit that covers most cooking,” says Karen Collins, a nutrition adviser for the American Institute for Cancer Research, a nonprofit which funds cancer-prevention research.
Storing Olive OilFresh extra virgin olive oil delivers a wonderful flavor and legendary health benefits. To ensure that your olive oil maintains optimum freshness and flavor, there are a few things you can do to store it properly.
Avoid Heat, Light, and AirWhen olive oil is exposed to heat, light, and air the valuable nutrients in the oil begin to oxidize and it will begin to lose its fruit flavors. When buying extra virgin olive oil, look for those packaged in opaque or tinted glass. Or, try pouring olive oil into a clean used red wine bottle equipped with a spout. Do not store olive oil in plastic containers, as the oil can leach harmful substances out of the plastic.
Store your olive oil in a kitchen cabinet or another cool, dark location such as a basement or wine cellar. Keep a small container of olive oil within easy reach, and the rest of your supply tucked away to avoid repeated exposure to air. Make sure the lids of your containers fit tightly, and never store olive oil next to the stove, where it will invariably be exposed to heat.
Don’t Store Olive Oil Too LongOlive oil should be consumed within two years of pressing. Any longer, and the flavors deteriorate and the nutrients degrade. Every month that olive oil ages, the acidity levels increase, a result of oxidization. Extra-virgin olive oils have the potential to last longer than other grades because they have a lower acidity. Buy your olive oil fresh from a supplier, or specialty retailer with high turnover. Pick a bottle from the back of the shelf where it has been shielded from harsh lights. Check the date of pressing if there is one, and abide by expiration dates. Maybe most importantly, use extra virgin olive oil liberally. You’ll have a healthier diet and your supply will always be fresh.
Freezing Olive OilOlives like many fruits contain waxes that help protect them from insects and weather conditions. If it is known that an oil will be used in a cold climate, producers sometimes ‘winterize’ the oil, removing waxes and other materials that can otherwise clump and form needle-like crystals, or swirling cloudlike sediment when the oil is chilled. It should be noted however, that these patterns will disappear once the oil is returned to its original temperature and the oil will also regain its original consistency. The ideal temperature to store olive oil to reduce oxidation but to avoid clouding is around 50°F.
Olive Oil RecipesOlive oil has been a staple of Mediterranean cuisine for generations but its uses reach far beyond pizza, pasta sauce, and salad dressings and even extend as far as baking and ice cream making. See our recipes section for olive oil recipes from around the world.
Olive Oil and Canola OilMost health-conscious people are aware that there are several types of fats: saturated fats, trans fats, polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats. The first two are “bad” fats, while the last two are “good” fats. Saturated fats derive from animals while mono- and polyunsaturated fats come from plant sources. Plant-based fats, especially Omega 3 fatty acids, are actually good for you and help stabilize heart rhythms and prevent disease in the body, such as heart disease and cancer. This is well-documented in a wide array of studies. Of the plant-based cooking oils, olive oil and canola oil are excellent sources of monounsaturated fats (including Omega 3 fatty acids). They contain low amounts of saturated fats. They also contain polyphenols and polyunsaturated fats, including linolenic acid, all of which are hailed as beneficial to overall good health.
Although canola, corn and mixed vegetable oil may have some merit in terms of fat composition (specifically Omega 3 fatty acids, Linolenic acid and polyphenols), any potential benefit must be weighed against its most likely origin from genetically engineered plants. As mentioned previously, more than 80 percent of corn and canola in production today is genetically modified. Therefore, most corn and canola oil sold in the United States and Canada is technically a GM food, but labeling of GM foods is not required in these countries.
Do genetically modified seeds, hybrid varieties and / or modern “corporate” farm agricultural practices, etc. negatively affect nutritional value? Unfortunately, there is some evidence to show it may. One study published in 2004 reported a substantial decrease in six of 13 nutrients measured in 43 different crops. The authors suggest that declines are “most easily explained by changes in cultivated varieties between 1950 and 1999, in which there may be trade-offs between yield and nutrient content.”
Olive Oil and Coconut OilCoconut oil is extracted from the meat of matured coconut and has been the primary source of fat throughout the tropical world for generations. It is stable under heat and has a smoke point of around 360 °F (180 °C) although refined coconut oil has also been developed with a higher smoke point. Because it is slow to oxidize and has a high saturated fat content, it has a long shelf life.
Coconut oil is on the whole a sweeter and less bitter oil than olive oil and because of this it is sometimes used in desert baking. As you might expect, it brings a very specific ‘coconut’ flavor to any meal. At present, there is no scientific proof to suggest that coconut oil shares any of the health benefits of olive oil.
Olive Oil AdulterationOlive oil adulteration has been a persistent practice ever since distinctions were made between different grades of olive oil. Consumers have been willing to pay a premium price for olive oil labeled “extra virgin” even though most can’t tell the difference between grades just by tasting them. We have been placing our trust in government agencies, and in humanity. Yet investigations repeatedly show olive oils we buy are not the grade they claim, and sometimes not olive oil at all. The fraud is committed by large producers and bottlers unable to resist easy profits with, until recently, little chance of repercussions.
Recent high-profile cases, including the 2010 University of California Davis report that found mislabeled olive oils in California supermarkets and similar accusations in Italy, have raised public awareness about olive oil fraud and ushered in an era of heightened scrutiny that many hope can finally put an end to the dishonest practices.
Despite such a spotted record, there are simple steps you can take to make sure you get what you pay for. Learn what good olive oil tastes like. Look for fruitiness, bitterness, and pungency, not greasy and buttery. Look for harvest dates (you should consume olive oil within two years of its harvest). If you can’t find a harvest date, choose another brand. Bottling dates are not good enough since some companies stock olive oil for years, finally bottling it when market conditions dictate, and when the oil has lost all of its flavor and healthful characteristics. Stay away from cheap olive oil. Good olive oil is expensive to produce. If it’s cheap, it’s usually worthless.
The Best Olive Oil in the WorldOn the other side of the coin are the producers in pursuit of excellence, crafting premium olive oils among the very best in the world. How can you find the world’s best olive oil? Every year, there are a number of elite extra virgin olive oil competitions around the world to determine the best olive oils. Following protocols that vary among the contests international panels of olive oil judges work their way through hundreds of olive oils segmented into regions, varietals, and styles. A few of the olive oils are declared the “Best in Show”. In the opinion of the experts, these are the best olive oils in the world, until next year.
You could rake through the results of the world’s top olive oil competitions or you could visit a retailer you trust and find a fresh, estate-bottled extra virgin olive oil with clear indications of its varietal and harvest date. Take it home and taste it. Perfection in olive oil, like wine, is in the eye of the beholder. What matters is if you love it. You might just find you have right there from your local store, the best olive oil in the world.