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Friday, September 7, 2007

Is Your Olive Oil a Wolf in Sheep's Clothing?

Olive oil is fabulous. Let's just get that fundamental truth out there. Good quality olive oil is a delight for the palate. But it is also gaining fame as a "good" oil for your body. A pharmacist friend of mine once told me in no uncertain terms that we would all be healthier if we used olive oil in place of the other common oils in the American diet. The monounsaturated fats that predominate in olive oil are much better for you than polyunsaturated or saturated fats of other oils. He explained the chemistry behind olive oil's benefits to me at the time. I have forgotten the science, but remembered his lesson. You will see that most of my baked goods make use of healthy olive oil in place of generic vegetable oil or soya oil.

And Americans have a growing love affair with olive oil. Americans will consume nearly 10 times as much olive oil this year as they did in 1980.

So I was upset to learn that my beloved olive oil has apparently been the focus of organized crime. That's right folks. The mob may be messing with your olive oil.

There are apparently two different versions of this scam. In the first version, lower grade olive oil is packaged and sold as the more refined extra virgin olive oil. In the second version of the scam, olive oil is adulterated with any number of other inferior oils. At the most extreme, bottles filled almost entirely with soybean oil are being labeled and sold as olive oil.

So who is protecting you?
The answer seems to be no one. In Europe, with its robust artisanal producers lobby, there are regulations and standards for bottling that oversee everything from wine to cheese to olive oil. For example, in recent years you may have noticed that what used to be called "champagne" must now be labeled sparkling wine, because only wine produced in a particular region can claim the name champagne. The US FDA has no such standards or oversight. Even the head of the North American Olive Oil Association isn't fussed, noting that so much attention is being paid to food imports tainted by harmful bacteria, that adulturated olive oil just isn't a concern.

Some companies have their own internal testing standards. If the government isn't providing protection from inferior (albeit not life threatening) olive oil, perhaps the marketplace will. In the high end market, companies may feel a profit motive to ensure high quality and maintain their reputation for quality products. Of course, this means that only consumers with money can afford to buy their way out of questionable olive oil.

What can you do?
If you can afford to do so, be suspicious of very low cost olive oil. Stick to reputable producers. When possible, buy olive oil that specifies the domaine, or region where the olives come from.

The rest of this won't protect you from scams right now, but will help you develop a delicate enough palate to suss out good quality olive oil in the future. First, buy olive oil in small amounts, and use it within three months of opening. Consider shopping somewhere with a reputation for gourmet quality foods, such as Oil and Vinegar where I shop for mine.

If you are unsure what kind of olive oil you will like, or are just developing an appreciation for gourmet olive oil, consider hosting an olive oil tasting party. Tasting olive oil like wines is all the rage. Olive oil 'flights' are offered at several high profile restaurants in Chicago.

How to host a tasting party...
Invite friends over and ask each couple to bring a small bottle of high quality olive oil to share. It is best to have enough glasses so that each person can have a separate glass for each oil. This may mean asking people to bring their own glasses, or consider stopping buy for some inexpensive stemware from your local dollar store. Sip the oils, allowing them to hit each part of your tongue and reach all your taste buds. You might try to hold some oil in your mouth and pull in air to aerate, as you would with wine.

In the end, you will be able to pick the oil you like best, and sleep better knowing that you are actually getting all the delicious monounsaturated fats your body needs.

For more information, see the original Chicago Tribune story.


gabster said...

I so enjoyed reading this post. My love affair with olive oil began when my sister-in law came back from Sicily with gallons of the wonderful oil made from the olive trees next to her home. My cooking instantly was taken to a new level with this wonderful addition.

Steve said...

By the way, some so called "quality oil oil" is a blend of other oils--known fact. I only buy fresh California Olive Oil with a fresh expiration date. I also buy Rice Bran Oil because it is loaded with antioxidants and vitamin E more so than olive oil. I also bake and high heat saute with rice oil--smoke point 490!!!

The Skinny Gourmet said...

Steve, while researching this online I discovered several others who recommended sticking to US olive oil producers who have some internal oversight from their professional associations. I have never heard of rice bran oil but you make a great case for trying it!

Gabster...I'm envious. Olive oil from tress next door sounds fabulous.

Anonymous said...

I buy California Olive oil-my favorite is McEvoy as it is produced in small quantities. I also use rice oil to cook with because there are so many health benefits that olive oil does not that rice oil offers.

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