Olive oil has been a staple in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking for hundreds of years. It has spread throughout the world, with most of the olive oils available in North America being made in Spain, Greece, Italy, and the United States. There are also several varieties of the oil, including organic cold-pressed olive oil.
Types of Olive Oil
Although olives come in two colors, black and green, they are available in hundreds of varieties. Black olives are fully ripe, while green olives are unripe. Any other color, including red or purple olives, are in various stages of ripeness.
Olive oil is made from either green or ripe olives, which produces a wide variety of flavors and colors of it. While some olive oils are made from only one type of olive, there are also olive oil blends containing several varieties.
Olive Oil Processing Methods
The price of olive oil depends on many factors, such as production costs and the crop and weather conditions. The olives put into the best quality extra virgin olive oil are picked by hand, which is one of the reasons real extra virgin olive oil can be expensive.
There are two basic types of olive oils: virgin olive oil and refined.
Virgin Olive Oil
When the oil is extracted from the olives for virgin olive oils, it is only done mechanically. Chemicals are not used in the process. There are three categories of virgin olive oils:
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Virgin olive oil
- Cold-pressed olive oil
Extra-virgin Olive Oil
Extra-virgin olive oil is the highest grade of virgin olive oil that is sold. To earn the grade, the oil must meet certain standards. Among them are:
- A free fatty acid content that is less than or equal to 0.08%.
- It cannot have any defects of aroma or flavor.
- Taste testers must detect some green or ripe olive flavor.
Virgin Olive Oil
If the oil does not meet the standards of extra-virgin olive oil, then it may be labeled as virgin olive oil if:
- There are slight defects in aroma and flavor.
- It contains a higher level of free fatty acid.
Cold-pressed Olive Oil
This term goes back to when presses were used to extract the oil from olives, but today, most olive oil is extracted using a centrifuge. Also, all genuine extra-virgin olive oil comes from the first extraction, and no heat is used in the process.
However, some olive oils will still put “cold-pressed olive oil” on the label as some people specifically look for it. There are some oils still processed by a press, but they are not usually found in stores and would be very expensive.
Refined Olive Oils
If virgin oils do not meet the standards for the virgin label due to defects in factors like their acidity level, then they are refined to remove their odors and flavors. They become a bland, colorless oil that manufacturer’s mix with a small amount of virgin oil to provide some olive characteristics.
There are two refined blends sold on the American market, pure olive oil and extra-light olive oil.
- Pure olive oil may also be labeled as classic olive oil or olive oil. It usually contains less than 10% virgin oil, and it is best for sautéing.
- Extra-light olive oil contains less virgin oil, so it has little olive flavor, and the color is very light. The “Extra-light” label refers to the flavor and not the calorie content.
Identifying Genuine Olive Oil
It is important to be able to tell the difference between genuine extra-virgin olive oil and some of the fake olive oils on the market. Americans spend about $700 million each year on olive oil and, unfortunately, much of it is not authentic.
Consumer Reports did an investigation and found that only nine out of 23 oils they tested were real extra-virgin olive oils. Most of the olive oil sold in stores with an extra-virgin label is made using vegetable oil.
Tips for Identifying Genuine Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
There are some ways to tell if the extra-virgin or organic cold-pressed olive oil is genuine.
- Check the price. Genuine extra-virgin olive oil is expensive and will cost about $10 per liter, which is about 34 ounces.
- Only buy olive oil in dark bottles as they protect the oil from oxidation.
- There should be a seal on the bottle from the International Olive Oil Council or IOC.
- Look for a harvesting date on the label.
- Skip the blends or light olive oils as they are not virgin quality.
- Taste it if possible. Genuine extra-virgin will have a fruity taste at the front of the mouth, and it will taste peppery at the back of it.
Certified Olive Oil
There are some extra-virgin olive oils with a “certified” label on them, but that is often meaningless as the oil could still be fraudulent. However, the North America Olive Oil Association, or NAOOA, certifies extra-virgin olive oil by taking samples from retail marketplaces.
To receive the NAOOA label, the olive oil brand must be a member of the organization and their olive oil should meet or exceed the standards set by the IOC. Each member’s oil goes through testing twice a year to ensure they meet the standards of the NAOOA to earn a certified olive oil label.
Is it Organic?
If you want to buy organic olive oil, then check the label. In the US, there should be a small circular label that shows a green field on a white background. The words “USDA Organic” will be printed over the green field.
To earn an organic label in the US, it has to meet USDA standards, which include:
- Food must be grown without using conventional pesticides.
- Fertilizers used on plants cannot be made from sewage sludge or with synthetic ingredients.
- Foods cannot be radiated.
- Biotechnology cannot be used in the production process.
- The production process must be sustainable to conserve water and soil and use renewable resources.
Since olive oil is imported from several other countries, especially Greece, Italy, and Spain, consumers should be able to recognize the organic label from the European Union since they are all members of it.
The organic label for the EU is a green flag on which there are 12 white stars in the shape of a leaf. Any pre-packaged food product must meet the agricultural regulations of the EU to earn the label.
If a label states the olive oil is organic, certified, original, natural, or genuine, always look for a label to indicate whether it is organic or certified. Otherwise, the words do not mean anything and are just a marketing ploy.
Benefits of Olive Oil
There are many health benefits associated with olive oil, which is one reason it is important to check to make sure the oil is authentic. Cold-pressed or extra-virgin olive oils contain more antioxidants than wine, they have high amounts of monounsaturated fats and polyphenols.
Good for Heart Health
The high amounts of monounsaturated fats help make olive oil heart healthy. These fatty acids work to lower the levels of “bad,” or LDL, cholesterol and increase the levels of “good,” or HDL, cholesterol, which can protect you against heart disease and strokes.
Reduces Blood Pressure
Studies done on olive oil show that its high amounts of polyphenols help to reduce blood pressure and could help reduce the amount of blood pressure medication that some people need to take. However, consult your doctor before lowering your medication even if you are preparing food with olive oil.
Olive oil consumption has been linked to a lower risk of several cancers, including breast, colon, prostate, and digestive tract cancers. The antioxidants present in the oil helps to fight free radicals, or oxidation, which is believed to be one of the main causes of cancer.
Researchers believe that chronic inflammation may be one of the leading causes of many diseases, including:
- Cardiovascular disease
Fortunately, olive oil contains a compound, oleocanthal, which works similarly to ibuprofen, which is an anti-inflammatory drug. The main fatty acid, oleic acid, and antioxidants olive oil contain may also help fight chronic inflammation.
Protects Brain Health
Some studies indicate that olive oil may be able to help fight Alzheimer’s by removing beta-amyloid plaque from brain cells. Also, the Mediterranean diet was showed to help brain function.
Reduces Risk of Diabetes
The Mediterranean diet, in which olive oil is prominent, has been shown to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by 40%. Several studies have also shown a link between olive oil and insulin sensitivity, which reduces the risk of getting the disease.
The benefits of preparing food with olive oil are one reason it is important to be able to determine genuine extra-virgin or organic cold-pressed olive oil from fraudulent olive oils. By checking for labels from the USDA, IOC and/or NAOOA and making sure to buy olive oil using dark bottles, you’ll know that you’re buying the best pure olive oil.