The further I delve into this slippery world of olive oil the more complicated it gets. I can see that this is going to become a lifelong learning topic. I’ve now read several studies and books, attempted a myriad of recipes and tasted multiple olive oils relatively easily acquired in Rochester. I will summarize my findings which are crazy – and considering how much olive oil you probably use if you like to cook – really important; because while we buy bottle after bottle of oil thinking we’re doing ourselves a favor by using olive oil, we may in fact be doing the opposite for someone else’s profit. Here is the simplified breakdown as I understand it:
Origination: just because it says product of Italy does not mean it’s a product of Italy. Don’t get me wrong, Italy is not the only culprit. But it’s the worst, and since embarking on this oily adventure, I have pretty much stopped buying “Italian” olive oil. This product origination deception is practiced on the public via large scale supermarket suppliers. There happen to be a lot of large processing facilities in Northern Italy relatively speaking – which is interesting since the country’s main olive producing region is in the South. These processing locations receive olives from various places – some from Italy, Spain, Greece, Tunisia, wherever they are grown and can be gotten cheaply. These olives are shipped to these locations where they are processed, bottled, labeled “product of Italy,” and sold in your local supermarket. Bertolli for example, is name that American’s recognize. According to Tom Mueller this company doesn’t even own an olive grove. And when you think about it, it makes sense. How many olive trees would Colavia need to have in order to provide gallon jugs of oil to every supermarket in the entire country? Right. The problem with this whole shipping business, besides the lie, can be found in the deodorization category.
Deodorization: chemical processes are used to make oil from old rancid olives. The second the olive falls from the tree its decomposition process begins in order to nourish the seed within for germination. Bruising accelerates this process. Good olive oil is pressed within hours of that separation, and the fewer hours the better. Deodorization is a process that allows producers to still make oil out of olives that have been sitting around getting musty and gross before they are pressed. The old olives are pressed, and the oil is chemically deodorized to remove its offensive tastes and odors, and subsequently further refined to remove the chemicals. Thus relieving it of any health benefits, eliminating the chemical properties that make the olive oil fat healthy, and basically giving you some other man made creation that slightly resembles olive oil. Recently there has been a new initiative to protect local growers by labeling bottles with a seal that indicates that the olives are from the region they say they are. Wegmans has begun doing this. This is a step in the right direction, unfortunately, it does not mean that the oil has not been deodorized.
Naming: There is no such thing as “light” or “virgin” olive oil. Even the label “pure olive oil” is deceitful. The only real olive oil is first cold pressed extra virgin. This is something else. It is either a.) a different less expensive seed oil with a little real olive oil added to it to make it smell right and look a little darker, or b.) worse, not a little real olive oil added, but a little chlorophyll added to make it green, or c.) extracted after the first press to get every last drop out of the already smashed olive and its leftover seeds. This process requires refinement to extract the oil, and then separate it from the water and chemicals needed to extract it. Might as well save your money and buy canola oil, these oils are not what you are looking for in olive oil – a monounsaturated fat.
Adulteration: real olive oil is frequently cut with cheaper seed oils. According to a UC Davis study, “Of the five top-selling imported “extra virgin” olive oil brings in the United States, 73 percent of the samples failed the IOC sensory standards for extra virgin olive oils”(IOC is the International Olive Council). In order to make more money and take advantage of European agricultural subsidies, large oil companies apparently quite frequently add cheaper oils to real olive oil to stretch them and save money. Again, you are not getting what you think you’re paying for. If you look past the fact that this is a California University and of course they will hope that their findings lead you to purchase California olive oil, there is a lot of basic information in this study that helpful in determining what to look for and how to buy without doing your own extensive study. According to this same study, the top five worst offenders for your information are Star, Bertolli, Colavita, Filippo Berio, and Pompeian.
At first I found all of this information to be incredibly discouraging, and even infuriating, when I think of the years I’ve spent consuming crap and serving it to my family and friends. This is also horrible for small farmers who produce real olive oil. If you read into this for yourself, you’ll see how they get pushed around by their various governments and bigger companies who have incredibly incestuous relationships with those governments. The FDA is aware of all of this by the way, they just have bigger fish to fry.
Its difficult to know what to buy because there are no easy answers and the bottles almost never give the information that you’re looking for. I came to the conclusion that each oil I wished to try, needed to be investigated individually. But don’t worry! Once you start investigating the world of really good olive oil, it becomes very interesting.
Next time, good olive oil! Keeping in mind that I’m still a relative amateur, I’ll share with you what I’ve learned about the supply here in Rochester, and what to look for when you buy, and the most common question I’ve gotten – what about Wegmans organic extra virgin olive oil?
International Olive Council (IOC) www.internationaloliveoil.org
Olive Oil Times www.oliveoiltimes.com
Evaluation of Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Sold in California; UCDavis Olive Center www.olivecenter.ucdavis.edu
Extra Virginity, the Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller
Virgin Territory, Exploring the World of Olive Oil by Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Disclaimer – I am not an IOC member, nor chemist, nor professional taster, nor grower. I’m a cook that likes to experiment and research. I have tried to reduce everything I’ve read to a few paragraphs and this is by no means a complete representation of the information available. If you see any incomplete information or inaccuracies that can be refuted with research please do leave a comment. We are after the truth around here.