Olive oil is one of those foods that we are supposed to consume with abandon. In terms of health, it is rich in monounsaturated fats—particularly oleic acid—that is associated with a “heart healthy” diet. It is a prime component of the so-called “Mediterranean diet” that is touted as a lifestyle choice that can lead to longevity.
In my house, olive oil and butter—not margarine, but real honest to God butter—are the two fats that get used in cooking the most. Each has their place and the flavors are quite different. However, after hearing an interview with Tom Mueller, author of Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, I have deep reservations about the bottle of goodness in my pantry.
Apparently, it’s a charade. You may think you are buying extra-virgin olive oil imported from Italy. In reality, you are probably buying some other grade of olive oil that was actually grown and pressed in a country other than Italy. To become “Italian” the oil was imported to Italy for bottling and exported from that location thus “Italian” olive oil. That would be no different than sending a big jug of wine from New York to Bordeaux, changing the bottle, and calling it “French.”
How pervasive is this problem? In the interview, Mueller posits that approximately 4 out of 10 bottles labeled “Italian” are merely packaged in Italy.
Even worse, there is a lot of olive oil that is adulterated. At the worst, according to Mueller, is that producers include non-olive oils in blends and sell the resulting product as “olive oil.” Another trick is to use low quality olives, refined through a process to resemble extra virgin olive oil, and selling the result as tradition extra virgin olive oil. This is all a play to produce cheap olive oil.
And get this, these adulterated products—even if they contain lower quality olive oils—do not possess the health benefits of true extra virgin olive oil.
So, what’s the solution? Like everything with regard to food in the modern world, it’s about knowing and trusting the producer. Unlike tomatoes or pork, it is very tough to source olive oil from a local producer in Iowa.
First, read this report from the University of California-Davis. It is a very rigorous study that details many brands of olive oil which passed several levels of testing in order to be considered virgin or extra virgin. Surprisingly, or not so surprising if you have listened to the interview with Tom Mueller, is that 69 percent of imported olive oils and 10 percent of California olive oils failed the sensory standards for extra virgin status. This would be unsurprising if all of these samples had not been labeled as extra virgin. Talk about fraud.
Second, find a brand of olive oil you can trust and stick with it. Recently I have changed my purchasing habits away from imported olive oil toward California grown olive oil. Why? I want to keep the dollars in the U.S. economy and there is less incentive to lie about the origins of U.S. olive oil, unlike the Italian appellation.
At my local Costco, I found this olive oil:
California Olive Ranch was one of the companies that had all of its samples pass the sensory panels in the UC Davis report. The Miller’s Blend is supposed to have more flavor than a traditional extra virgin olive oil.
Getting two 1 liter bottles for ~$15 is just icing on the cake. Or drizzle on the ice cream if I follow the advice of Tom Mueller.