Do you know the difference between extra virgin olive oil and just… olive oil? I had always thought they were mostly the same, just that EVOO, as that Rachel lady named it, was maybe a bit more pure- and certainly more expensive. But actually there is a huge difference, which I just learned pretty recently by accident.
A few months ago I got to stay with my grandmother in Arizona. Grandma is a great cook, and is always very conscious about my eating habits. But I wanted to eat (and share) some greens, so I stopped at the nearest grocery store and purchased a big bunch of kale. I was hoping to steam it lightly and then making a simple oil + citrus dressing and introduce my family to green goodness. Grandma was generous and let me raid her kitchen to make my kale dressing, and I have to say the exercise was… enlightening. I thought the light olive oil would round the flavor of the dressing, but it actually tasted like… nothing. Just greasy, without any flavor at all. I was pretty shocked. Regardless, the dressing turned out great, and everyone (even my seventeen year-old cousin) enjoyed the greens. Hooray!
This exercise of cooking with other ingredients got me thinking about the different types of olive oil on the market- and how to choose the best one for our cooking needs. Amazingly, the olive oil we enjoy here in the United States is not really the good stuff. Ready for the truth about olive oil? According to the book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, most of the oil here and in Europe is lower-quality, potentially adulterated oils. The true extra virgin oil is volatile, health promoting, and amazing, by all accounts. The stuff we have here is considered by Italian standards to be lampante oil– oil for lamps!
According to The International Olive Council, the intergovernmental olive oil organization responsible for outlining quality standards and monitoring olive oil authenticity, extra virgin olive oil is defined as, “oil obtained solely from the fruit of the olive tree, to the exclusion of oils obtained using solvents or re-esterification processes.” And yet– so much more goes into it!
Here’s a breakdown of the process (adapted from Wikipedia):
Olive oil is the only culinary oil obtained from fruits (rather than nuts or seeds). First the olive fruit is turned into a olive paste. This paste is then malaxed (slowly churned or mixed) to allow the microscopic oil droplets to concentrate. The oil is extracted by means of pressure (traditional method) or centrifugation (modern method). After extraction the remnant solid substance, called pomace, still contains a small quantity of oil.
The grades of oil extracted from the olive fruit can be classified as:
- Virgin means the oil was produced by the use of physical means and no chemical treatment. The term virgin oil referring to production is different from Virgin Oil on a retail label (see next section).
- Refined means that the oil has been chemically treated to neutralize strong tastes (characterized as defects) and neutralize the acid content (free fatty acids). Refined oil is commonly regarded as lower quality than virgin oil; oils with the retail labels extra-virgin olive oil and virgin olive oil cannot contain any refined oil.
- Olive pomace oil means oil extracted from the pomace using solvents, mostly hexane, and by heat.
Pomace oil is the stuff you REALLY want to avoid. According to the Olive Oil Times:
“While extra virgin olive oil is often denoted as being “first cold-press,” what is termed “pomace oil” cannot even qualify as being “second press.” Once the typical, mechanized extraction of olive oil from the olive fruit is complete, some 5-8 percent of the oil still remains in the leftover olive pulp or “pomace.” Although the pomace oil that is extracted is still technically oil that comes from olives, this is done via the use of chemical solvents, and therefore should never be termed, directly or indirectly, as olive oil.”
So how do we know whether the olive oil we purchase is quality or not? The answer is: I don’t Know! It’s not often that I like to admit that, but I’ve yet to find a reputable source of standards for the US. The one source that I’ve found is the site Truth in Olive Oil. The author, Tom Mueller, lists his favorite extra virgins found in the US market.
Bertolli Oil (no relation): http://www.bertolli.com/ca-en/products_oliveoil.aspx
World’s Healthiest Foods: http://whfoods.org/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=132
Truth in Olive Oil: http://www.truthinoliveoil.com
International Olive Council (link above)