These days, not all purveyors of olive oil are completely honest and may be adding inferior oils to bottles labeled extra-virgin.
Everyone knows eating a Mediterranean diet is beneficial. But what’s so special about olive oil? Well, for one, it’s a powerhouse of antioxidants and beneficial fats. Olive oil is also anti-inflammatory and has strong cancer-fighting properties.
Why Extra Virgin is Superior
The best kind of olive oil is extra virgin. By definition, extra-virgin olive oil is the first cold pressing. “After the first pressing, there’s really nothing left but dry olive pulp, to which heat or chemicals are added in order to extract more oil,” says Steve Boss, host of the popular KRUU radio show Great Taste.
“Oil extracted by chemicals is not going to be good for you,” he adds. The healthful properties are destroyed by this extra processing, and oil from later pressings is often deodorized and mixed with other oils. The Italian word for second extraction olive oil is lampante, which means “lamp oil” in Italian. By USDA standards, lampanate oils are “not fit for human consumption without further processing.”
The Fresher, The Better
Olive oil is the freshly squeezed juice of the olive. It is at its best closest to the date it was pressed or crushed. Ideally, olives are hand-picked to avoid bruising, and crushed or pressed within 24 hours. Just like any fresh-squeezed juice, freshly pressed olive oil loses nutrients over time.
Avoid buying olive oil bottled in clear glass, as glass allows in sunlight, which destroys the polyphenols. Polyphenols are beneficial phytonutrients. These plant compounds have been shown to protect against a range of maladies including cardiovascular disease, depression, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and cancer, particularly breast cancer, colon cancer, and malignant melanoma. The fresher the oil, the more beneficial polyphenols it contains. Olive oil should be stored in a cool, dark place and used within a few months. It does not get better with age. Like any other oil, olive oil will go rancid over time.
Extra-virgin olive oil has a different chemical structure than other grades of olive oil. It generally contains 55 to 85 percent Oleic acid, a monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acid. The free fatty acid (FFA) level should be no greater than 0.8 percent. A higher FFA indicates poor quality or mishandled fruit.
Finally, peroxide levels indicate how fresh the oil is. The maximum peroxide value for extra-virgin olive oil is 20. Higher peroxide levels indicate rancidity.
Unfortunately, the olive oil industry is rife with fraud. The USDA requires only voluntary standards for olive oil, so claims on the label such as “100% pure” mean very little. Extra-virgin oil may really be canola oil with enough extra-virgin oil mixed in to fool consumers.
This is why it’s important to know your source, ruthlessly examine labels, and to taste the oil before you buy. If tasting the oil is not an option, truthinoliveoil.com has a list of “great oils” available in supermarkets and natural food stores that have been rigorously tested by a third party to insure they are actually extra-virgin olive oil.
Reputable Local Sources
Discerning consumers now have two options in southeast Iowa for specialty oils. Chip Haney and his wife Kimberly K. Schulz had a grand opening in May for Harvest Oil and Vinegar, in Coralville. Christine Crosby, Dawn Heller, and Laurie Wahlert opened their Cedar Rapids store, Olives Oil, in March.
All the oils at these two establishments are as fresh as possible and can be tasted. Haney compares tasting quality olive oil to tasting fine wine. Flavors can range from light to fruity, bold, punchy, or spicy, depending on the variety.
Both stores carry over 40 varieties of Ultra Premium extra-virgin olive oils and balsamic vinegars. Ultra Premium is a new certification process, with a comprehensive set of requirements for production, transportation, storage, and testing to ensure the freshest possible oil.
Educating families and health conscious people about the benefits of olive oil is one of the perks the business. “It’s a great way to spread the good word,” says Haney. “It’s suggested we intake between one to three tablespoons per day” to take advantage of the health benefits of olive oil.
“It’s an all-around great product,” says Crosby, “with so many benefits.” She encourages experimentation with cooking and baking. The trick, she says, is to be mindful of the flavor. A mild oil is better for sauteing, while a bolder oil makes a good marinade or vinaigrette, and blood-orange-infused oil makes fantastic brownies. Both establishments have Facebook pages with tantalizing recipes.
“I love olive oil,” concludes Boss. “I use it quite liberally. I don’t think there are too many food substances that can’t be improved by olive oil.”