Written Oct 16, 2022 by Jorryn Yapadi, Brain and Cognition Student - University of British Columbia, Canada.
While North Americans are certainly a consumer in the olive oil market, the average American only consumes about one litre of olive oil in a given year; meanwhile, the average consumption per person per year in Italy is 14 litres per year, and that number shoots up to 20 litres per year in Greece.
Olive oil is a healthy fat, and using it to replace our bad fats like canola oil and seed oils is a great way to improve our diet.
However, there is more to olive oil than simply just snagging a bottle off a shelf in your local grocery store.
Believe it or not, there are a lot of products that are fraudulently labelled as “Extra Virgin Olive Oil”, while in reality, that does not say anything about the quality of the product contained within. Before getting into what we should look for on the label of a so-called “olive oil product”, it is important to realise that, like a corked bottle of wine, there is a lot of information that we don’t know.
For instance, the oil could come from damaged fruit, which results in defects in the oil. It could be old, and therefore slightly rancid. A common happening is that olives sit in large piles before being pressed, and often they stay in that state for longer than what is ideal, which results in fermentation.
This results in an aroma that smells and tastes like cured olives, which is not good for extra virgin olive oil.
So, what are the important things to look out for on labels?
Not the best-before date, but the harvest date.
In olive-oil-producing countries of the northern hemisphere, like Spain, Italy, or Greece, the harvest of olives occurs from October to November every year.
Between the pressing of olives to its packaging in bottles, stores in North America receive the oil within December to February, just a few months after harvest.
As I explained earlier, it is important that the harvested olives are pressed and packaged as quickly as possible to ensure that the olives do not age and become fermented.
That’s right - although in many ways olive oil is similar to wine in terms of the search for quality, unlike wine, olive oil does not improve with age. In fact, the opposite is true: as olive oil ages, the less quality it holds.
A cultivar of olives is a variety of olives - there are many of them across the world, each of them unique in the combination of colour, shape, and flavour.
It may be non-trivial to consider the statement of olive cultivars on the label of an olive oil bottle. Another way to think of it is that if we know the cultivar(s) from which the oil is pressed, we can be sure that the seller knows the specifics and authenticity of what they are selling, instead of the possibility of it being a blend of oils from all over the place.
Just like the reason for knowing the olive cultivars, it is also important that the seller identifies the estate or region of the olives from which the oil is pressed. To restate the possibility of the product being a blend, this practice causes the oil to lose its sense and taste of place, contributing to its lack of quality.
We want to look for localised olive oil, which is oil that is pressed from olives that are grown close together. If they grow together, they go together.
A principle to keep in mind is that good producers have good transparency: having a label that says “Extra virgin olive oil, organic, first cold-pressed, product of Italy” doesn’t tell us anything about the quality of the oil that we are buying.
As I mentioned, we should be able to know, from reading the label, what the harvest date is, what olive cultivar(s) were used, and the place of origin.
On the topic of transparency, we should buy olive oil that is encased in a clear dark bottle, and not light bottles, since that allows for the photooxidation of the oil, thus degrading it. The bottle should not be plastic, since that would leach unwanted oils and bad texture into the oil.
Most importantly, we should buy a bottle that can be consumed in a 2-3 month period, for the ageing reasons stated previously. Treating EVOO like a fresh fruit juice (since that’s what it is, technically), we wouldn’t want to keep the same bottle for a year, since that would “spoil” the oil.
EVOO should be stored in a cool, dark environment, and away from the sun, the stove, and other warm areas. The ideal storage temperature of EVOO is around 13 degrees Celsius, which is about the same temperature of a wine cooler.
Of course, why buy something if it doesn’t taste good?
Fortunately, there is a conventional way of tasting the differences in different olive oils, which is helpful for determining preferences and optimal pairings. There is a technique called stripaggio used by olive oil tasters, which is essentially the spaying of oil throughout the mouth with a unique slurping motion that causes the oil to be distributed throughout the cavities of the mouth.
An ideal taste is a good, clean taste, one that imposes merit onto itself.
Though the flavours of EVOOs vary, we can put each one on a spectrum with two polar opposites of an intensity gradient: on one end, a buttery, sweet, and mellow flavour, and on the other, a grassy, bitter, and peppery taste.
A delicate fish would call for a more buttery olive oil because any stronger and it would overpower the fish, and on the contrary, a robust steak would call for a spicier olive oil in order to compete with the tenderness of the meat, thus heightening its flavour.
Just like wine, we can pair food with different EVOOs, and it is very important that we pour or drizzle the raw oil onto our dish after cooking the dish (not the oil!) for maximum nutrient retention.
Going back to the idea of a peppery olive oil, the reason for that is a naturally-occurring chemical compound named oleocanthal that is a key component to polyphenol and antioxidant benefits in olives.
The pepperiness and/or bitterness that we might find in some EVOOs are not due to high acidity levels or the fact that the oil has gone bad, but rather an attribute of quality. Of course, the strength and intensity of these flavours vary based on olive cultivar and the timing of harvest.
For instance, the earlier an olive is harvested (while it is still green), the less the quantity of oil obtained, but the higher the levels of oleocanthal. Inversely, when an olive is harvested in its later stages (when it has turned black, for instance), there will be a higher quantity of oil, but there will be less oleocanthal, which reduces its intensity and results in that buttery, light taste.
If you haven't tried a high-oleocanthal olive oil, a great one to start with is Zenolive's EVOO from Tunisian-grown olives. Although I don't use it on all occasions or for cooking, it is a great pair for steaks and heavier soups. It also goes well with salads and gives a lasting, hearty flavour as a dipping oil.
There are many, many different kinds of olive oils that come from olives from all over the world. These are the rare gems, the real meaning of olive oil, and the beauty of flavour in one of the most fundamental ingredients for our bodes: fat.
Whether we are casual olive oil consumers or eager tasters of EVOO, as long as we know what we want, all we have to do is look for it - an authentic extra virgin olive oil.
Because you deserve to live authentic.
Click here to find out more about Zenolive and how you can get those polyphenols quickly.
Click here to learn about the benefits of polyphenols in peppery EVOO.
Click here to uncover the shocking truth about vegetable and canola oil.
Lugavere, M. & Coleman N. (Hosts). (2018, October 17). How to Buy the Best Extra-Virgin Olive Oil (No. 31) [Audio podcast episode]. In The Genius Life. Max Lugavere. https://www.maxlugavere.com/podcast/nicholas-coleman-olive-oil