Add extra virgin olive oil to the list of foods that might not be what they claim to be.
Now that the tomatoes in our garden are starting to ripen, I wanted to make sure I had everything I need to make bruschetta — toasted bread topped with tomatoes that have been tossed with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and basil. But as I set out to research new extra virgin olive oils to try this summer (some people try different wines, I experiment with olive oil and balsamic vinegar), I came across Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by New Yorker writer Tom Mueller.
Mueller, who lives in Italy in a stone medieval farmhouse surrounded by olive groves with his family, found that bottles labeled "extra virgin olive oil" aren’t as virgin as they claim — extra-virgin olive oil means the oil was made from crushed olives, with nothing else added or other processes involved. What he found out about the way resellers add lower-grade oils and artificial coloring to create so-called extra virgin olive oil is enough to give any bread-dipping olive oil lover pause.
It was also enough to turn Mueller into an olive oil activist. He’s launched the “Truth in Olive Oil” movement to bring attention to the fact that some olive oil isn’t even made from olives at all.
Here’s what I learned. Olive oil is one of the most frequently adulterated food products in the European Union, particularly in Italy, the world’s leading importer exporter and consumer of olive oil. Oil produced in other countries is passed through Italy, just so distributors can slap a label that says “Made in Italy” with a picture of an Italian flag, a painting of Mount Vesuvius or a donkey pulling a cart overflowing with olives, he says.
He also told me that most of the olive oil found on the shelves of grocery stores is little better than lampante —or lamp oil, which means that it should only be legally sold as fuel for burning, not eating. Yuk. Since producing the pure stuff takes time, skill and money — harvesting the ancient olive trees found throughout the Mediterranean is physically demanding and cold-pressing the olives requires the right equipment — olive oil fraud is rampant.
“By and large, what’s out there is crappy, low-grade stuff,” Mueller said in an interview from his home outside Genoa. “You can take rotting olives sitting on the ground for months and you can make an oil out of it. You process it to remove the smell and the rotten taste. And you remove the antioxidants, removing all the health benefits.”
And because there is no real enforcement of laws abroad or in the U.S. about what can be labeled as extra virgin olive oil, there’s nothing stopping unscrupulous suppliers from labeling whatever they want — colored cheap soybean oil or canola oil — as olive oil. “No one is checking and so you can get away with it all around the world,” he found. “There’s all this horrible, awful stuff and they all wear the same label: extra virgin, cold pressed, made in Italy.”
The good news is that there are olive oil makers, notably in California, who are making the pure stuff and trying to raise awareness about what a good olive oil really is. They are passionate about the products they deliver because they are “true believers” in olive oil, he says.
Mueller has also started building a list of top producers and great olive oil stores by country on his website, which he’s constantly updating. He’s already put together pointers to suppliers and brands in North America, Italy, Spain and Greece and is working on France and Austria. Some of his favorites in the U.S.: California Olive Ranch, Berkeley Olive Grove 1913 and Pacific Sun Olive Oil. They are widely available.
Where to begin? “People need to rethink what olive oil is,” Mueller said. “It’s fresh squeezed fruit juice. Olives are fruit. Olive oil is not liquid, industrial fat. Right now, you find it in the supermarket aisle with other liquid fats like peanut and canola oil. But guess what? It should be sold with the cheese. It’s a fresh fruit juice, and it should be consumed in the year the olives were harvested.”
He are a few useful pointers for choosing olive oil:
• Taste before you buy. Go to specialty olive oil stores where the staff can tell you how, where and by whom the oils were made. Or better yet, get the freshest oil by going to an actual olive mill if possible. Sound expensive? It’s not really when you consider that many folks pay $15 for a bottle of wine, he says. “It’s a false economy to buy less-than-great olive oil that won’t give you the health benefits that can help you live a longer life,” Mueller notes. “A good olive oil is good for you and lasts longer than one night, which is how long that bottle of wine is around. It’s a great investment in food and in your health.”
• Buy olive oil in dark glass or metal containers. Heat, light and oxygen are the enemies of olive oil, speeding spoilage. Avoid clear plastic and glass. Mueller says a dark glass or metal container works best. Olive oil is also best when it’s young. It’s a fresh fruit juice, after all, that doesn’t improve with age. So buy what you think you will use in a relatively short period of time (say a month). Otherwise, your oil may go rancid. Store it in a cool, dark place (a.k.a. not on the counter next to the stove.)
• Go for freshness. See if the oil is marked with the date of harvest and then try to buy oils from this year’s harvest, Mueller says. The reason: best buy dates may not be an accurate indicator of freshness. Best buy dates are usually two years after an oil is bottled. But some suppliers might store their olive oils for years before bottling them so the best buy date might not reflect the harvest date.
• View the labels with caution. Remember that labels touting “packed in Italy” or “bottled in Italy” doesn’t mean that the oil was made in Italy or made from Italian olives. “Generally speaking, avoid oils whose precise point of production — a specific mill — is not specified on the label,” Mueller says. There are quality certification seals you can look for — the Protected Designation of Origin, or “DOP” in Italian. For California oils, there’s the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) seal.
• Experiment. There are 700 varieties — or cultivars — of olives, each producing oils with their own unique flavor. Try a few.
By now you may be wondering if this is too much fuss about olive oil. Mueller has an answer for that: “When I talk to people about how I’ve done this work on olive oil, they’ve said, ‘Olive oil, that’s nice.’ It’s kind of a first-world problem. If it just stopped at olive oil, I would agree,” he says. “But the more I look into it, the more I see and now I’m thinking about a book about all these food frauds and the great people doing the good stuff. There are questions that need to be asked about a thousand foods.” Thanks to Mueller, the questions about olive oil have been answered. — CG
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