Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
6 May

Is All Olive Oil Created Equal?

cookingoilTo begin with, there are several types of olive oil, each determined by the method of processing.

Virgin olive oil is produced only by physical means, rather than by chemical treatment. The best stuff comes from only ripe olives (as green and overripe olives produce bitter and rancid oil, respectively) ground into a paste using millstones or steel drums. By definition, a virgin olive oil has not undergone any processing other than washing, decanting, centrifuging, and filtering (although none of these are required for virgin oil, nothing else is permitted). Some heat can be applied and, as long as it doesn’t alter the composition of the oil, the process can still be dubbed virgin pressing.

Refined olive oil is poor quality (either due to acid content or other defects) virgin oil that must be refined if it is to be edible. Refining is usually done with charcoal filters or chemical processes. Refined olive oil is more shelf-stable, but it’s also essentially flavorless.

Olive pomace oil is extracted from the olive solids (pomace) leftover from the pressing, usually with chemical solvents. This isn’t really olive oil, and it’s definitely not meant to be eaten. Most olive oil-based soaps you see are made with olive pomace oil.

Blended olive oil is, in my opinion, to be generally avoided. While it can be a blend of different olive oil varieties, it’s usually blended with canola or some other vegetable oil. You’ll get increased shelf life and polyunsaturated fat content along with less monounsaturated fat. No thanks.

Light olive oil isn’t actually less caloric; it just lacks flavor. Besides, why would anyone want to eat less monounsaturated fats?

Extra virgin olive oil is widely regarded as the pinnacle of olive oils. According to the International Olive Oil Council (of which, beware, the United States is not a member), extra virgin olive oil must contain at most 0.8% acidity, with a “superior taste.” Extra virgin can also be unfiltered (which deepens the flavor and reduces shelf life) or cold-pressed (wherein the pressing is slow and gradual, without generating much frictional heat, and which results in better flavors). Extra virgin also contains the most polyphenols, which are some of my favorite antioxidants.

What to Look For – A Few Things to Keep in Mind About Olive Oil

Just because something is labeled “extra virgin,” though, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good. In fact, rather than buying a mid-priced or inexpensive bottle of Italian or Greek extra virgin olive oil, you might look for a local – or at least domestic – brand. Those extra virgins are fragile oils, and the journey from the Mediterranean can result in a bland bottle. I’ve also read that a lot of the extra virgin that makes it over here in mass quantities isn’t worth it (and that’s been my experience, sadly).

Most grocery stores will have a decent extra virgin olive oil on hand, but you’ll probably pay more for less at the traditional grocers. Online vendors are another option. I tried O & Co. recently and was blown away. I actually get most of my olive oil from Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, or the local farmer’s markets. In fact, I recently came across a California unfiltered, cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil at the Santa Monica Trader Joe’s for around $7 a pint. This is far better than the jug of imported Greek oil I used to buy there (luckily, it was sold out, or else I might have gone with it like always). It’s drinkable, straight from the bottle, and it doesn’t coat your mouth in a jarring way. Don’t get me wrong – it’s oil, but it’s lighter and more delicate than most. Plus, it has that herbaceous olive scent that you want in an olive oil. When it goes down, you get that peppery aftertaste on your throat (that’s the antioxidant tocopherol content and a sign that the oil comes from the first harvest).

When choosing an oil, treat it a bit like wine and engage your senses. Smell it – it should smell like olives, very clean and almost like grass and apples. Don’t rely too much on sight – the color of an oil is easily manipulated. Instead, go with the one that really matters: taste. Take a half teaspoon or so into your mouth and swirl it around (again, like wine). First and foremost, it should taste like olives, but there are other flavors in the best oils. Grassiness, apples, even fennel are pretty common in really great olive oil. If it’s metallic-tasting, it’s probably rancid. If it’s light, delicious, and barely coats your mouth (without feeling greasy), it’s probably great stuff. And then my favorite part, the finish. The best oils from the first harvest with the highest antioxidant content will leave a spicy finish on your throat, like mild peppers.

Just experiment. Keep trying them until you find one you like. The different varietals are all unique, so your journey might be a long one.

The thing with olive oil is that you need to use it the right way. The best extra virgin, unfiltered, cold-pressed olive oil should never be used to sauté something because heat can mar the delicate flavor. Instead, use high quality stuff as a finisher. Cook with butter then top the dish off with your prized extra virgin oil. That way, the taste and nutritional benefits are retained without wasting any of your precious nectar on a cast iron skillet.

Storage
Store your oil in a cool, dark place. Heat and light are now your biggest enemies (be sure to buy an oil in a dark bottle). Extra virgin is the least stable, so keep it at a good temp (somewhere between 57 and 65 degrees, like a wine cellar). You can refrigerate other olive oils if your kitchen is too hot, but refrigerating extra virgin olive oil can disrupt the delicate flavors. If you get extra virgin that’s tasty enough, of course, you won’t have to worry about long-term storage – you’ll be guzzling it straight out of the bottle.

I’m always on the lookout for new varieties of olive oil. Anyone got any recommendations (preferably available in Southern California or online)?

Further Reading:

Is All Cheese Created Equal?

Is All Chocolate Created Equal?

The Art of Compromise

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I like to cook with organic ghee or coconut oil & drizzle w/ EVOO…though sometimes I get lazy & just cook with the good stuff. Sad but true.
    I wish I knew of some wonderful oils to recommend. I like to go to Williams-Sonoma and sample the oils they have – there’s always a dozen or so to try. They are like fine wine and often just as expensive!
    I read recently that places like the Hill Country in Texas are producing olive oils now so if any Apples live near Austin you can get some local EVOO at Farmers Markets or the famous Central Market now. Lucky you!

    Marci wrote on May 6th, 2009
  2. http://www.sciabica.com/magento/

    I’ve been getting stuff from them for a bit now. They’re awesome.

    Zach wrote on May 6th, 2009
  3. I love making homemade salad dressings with just olive oil and balsamic vinegar… lettuce coated with that combo just tastes amazing!

    Holly wrote on May 6th, 2009
  4. Most (all?) light olive oils are not olive oil at all, but some other oil. If you read the fine print on the bottle you will see that it is really OLIVE tasting OIL, with the tasting in tiny print.

    I love some good olive oil combined with a splash of aged 10 years balsamic vinegar (There is a noticeable different between aged 3 years and aged 10 years, I haven’t been able to find anything aged longer) on my salads.

    Henry Miller wrote on May 6th, 2009
  5. Well, it’s not in Southern California, but I got some great olive oil from St. Helena Olive Oil company in Napa. It was actually gift, but I received the rosemary infused oil. The olive oil plus their aged balsamic made a delicious combo for my salads. I’m a college student and it’s fairly expensive so I’ve been holding out on buying my own. Lately I’ve been getting my olive oil from Trader Joe’s as well. I found the website if anyone wants to check it out. The website is http://www.sholiveoil.com

    dom wrote on May 6th, 2009
  6. Look into the Italian oils imported by the Rare Wine Company in CA. I buy a case of oil from them every year and they are the most amazing oils. The oils they import are the best olive oils I’ve ever tasted – period. If stored properly, they age reasonably well also.

    I still have a few bottles of oil from the 2007 harvest and my case of 2008 oils should arrive shortly.

    Damon wrote on May 6th, 2009
  7. Being on Paleo, I drink olive oil a few times a day – about a mouthful each time, then chase it with either milk or coffee so I don’t gag. I’ve noticed that even after years of doing this I still hate the taste of olive oil! I think I’m going to try better oil rather than the huge, cheap jug-o-oil I usually get from Publix. Thanks for the article Mark!!

    James wrote on May 6th, 2009
  8. Damon,

    Which oil do you buy?

    tee wrote on May 6th, 2009
  9. Mark, what is the brand of California olive oil you found and liked at Trader Joe’s? I want to look for it!

    Kim wrote on May 6th, 2009
  10. Ah, but I really prefer butter. :-)

    Meeses wrote on May 6th, 2009
  11. Of all olive oils, i’d use extra virgin, and YES, definitely buy it in a dark glass bottle.

    What i’m a big fan of is almond oil, i really love the flavor it gives meat when i saute’ and it’s great drizzled on a salad.

    Donna wrote on May 6th, 2009
  12. Kim –

    The most recent one I picked up is:

    “Extra Virgin CA Estate Olive Oil” (unfiltered and cold pressed from arbequina olives)

    Pretty good stuff for the price.

    Mark Sisson wrote on May 6th, 2009
  13. Thanks! I will definitely look for this at TJ. I’m glad you pointed out the benefit of looking for local brands. I’d always thought the imported stuff was supposed to be better.

    Kim wrote on May 6th, 2009
  14. How long can I reasonably keep a bottle of olive oil after opening it? What if I store it at room temp varying from 68-74 degrees? I have usually purchased large bottles that take me a year to go through…seems like a bad idea now!

    Rodney wrote on May 6th, 2009
  15. What do you think of the Costco Kirkland brand of olive oil that comes in the big jugs?

    Mark wrote on May 6th, 2009
  16. I LOVE the Trader Joe’s CA cold pressed olive oil. Best cheap stuff around (I keep a bottle at work ;)

    I would add that if you use extra virgin olive oil you should be careful to not use it in a blender or food processor, as it can become unpleasantly bitter. I’ve ruined hummus and pesto with this mistake. I wrote an article about the scientific explanation for this phenomenon if anyone is interested.

    darya wrote on May 6th, 2009
  17. Bariani EVOO is stone-crushed, cold-pressed, pesticide-free, decanted and unfiltered. Bottled in dark glass and every batch is labeled with a harvest date so you know exactly how long it’s been on the shelf. (A boon for those of us concerned about the notoriously fast oxidation of pricey oils!) It’s usually deep green in color, with that spicy bite that comes from loads of polyphenols.

    You can order online from them directly (http://www.barianioliveoil.com/) or via Amazon, as well as through a lot of health/raw food websites. The (family-owned and -run) business is located in Sacramento. I never have trouble finding their product in Whole Foods and other markets here in the SF Bay Area, but your grocery-hunting mileage may vary.

    Truly, Bariani is the Cadillac of olive oils. I tried switching back to a cheaper variety once–never again. Salads just don’t have the same kick without it!

    …And no, I don’t work for the company. :)

    Hope that helps!

    –Longtime reader, first-time commenter.

    K. wrote on May 6th, 2009
  18. I have been buying the California Estate Cold Press Olive Oil from Trader Joe’s, and for the first time, after having read your blog post, tried it by itself. I tasted exactly what you described: olives, slight hint of grass, subtle taste of fennel, and finally, the peppery tingling on the back of the tongue and down the throat. Wonderful! Thanks for an awareness of olive oil beyond its healthfulness.

    John wrote on May 6th, 2009
  19. Great article Mark!

    Aussie girl here and I buy the big 4 litre tins and keep refilling my small bottles. I always buy a Spanish Olive Oil produced and packed in Spain called “Moro – Aceite De Oliva Espanol”. I use the ‘Extra Virgin’ for all my salad dressing and light sauteing or drizzling over food and ‘Pure’ for all my other cooking needs that may require more heating or quantity for recipes or cooking. I also use the Extra Virgin with added chilli or lemon for a dipping oil when I serve things like Dukkah.

    I simply love olive oil for its versatility, texture and flavour and always say it’s good for the coat :)

    Sonya wrote on May 6th, 2009
  20. Try David Rosengarten’s Fresh pressed olive oil club if you are willing to pay for some great oils.

    http://www.davidrosengarten.com/content.asp?type=site&id=162

    Steve wrote on May 6th, 2009
  21. Grok never had olive oil.

    Why not use something more natural, like lard?

    Much better for you…

    Bob wrote on May 6th, 2009
  22. Thanks Mark for another very informative article. I always hated EVOO, thought it tasted crappy. But now I realize I was just buying crappy EVOO. lol. I will look for the good stuff at Trader Joes and report back.

    Ailu wrote on May 6th, 2009
  23. Good article. Beware though. A few years ago, the was a case of fraud involving olive oil. Some small time producers were labeling their olive oils as higher quality oils, and charging a huge premium.

    Greg at Live Fit wrote on May 7th, 2009
  24. Hahaha, one more day and I would just ask why you advertise something that has terrible plastic taste. Now I now I just bought wrong oil

    wraithc88 wrote on May 7th, 2009
  25. Mark, I buy the Costco Kirkland organic ex. virgin. Tastes pretty good to me.

    Big John wrote on May 7th, 2009
  26. EVOO rocks. I have about 8oz a day, mostly just drizzled over anything I eat, so it’s worth it to pay a few extra bucks for better oils.

    I also use EVOO in my morning smoothie but have never had an issue with bitterness.

    Two notes about using olive oil for salad dressing:
    1. Since EVOOs have very distinct taste profiles, if you want the flavor of your vinegar or other ingredients to play a larger role, use regular olive oil.
    2. Fastest and simplest way to mix a salad dressing: throw 3T oil in a large bowl, add a dash of your favorite vinegar, some dulse flakes (or salt), plus a liberal sprinkling of black pepper. Whisk briskly, throw in your veggies, mix with your hands to coat, wash hands, and enjoy. (Using your hands is very Primal!)

    Josh Roman wrote on May 7th, 2009
  27. great redesign !
    You just neeeeeed to put a green apple on that somewhere !)

    space wrote on May 7th, 2009
  28. Don’t skimp with the cheap stuff. Suppliers have been know to dilude them.

    Tips for buying EVOO:
    1. Get the fresh stuff. It’s supposed to be green, cloudy and flaky.

    2. Buy in a tinted container. I like glass over tin so I can see the oil.

    3. Avoid supermarkets. They sell low quality stuff. Look for a local market. Ethnic (spanish especialy) grocers are the best.

    In MA, *TJ* sells one of the worst oils. It fails the standard above. You can tell it degrades in it’s journey from Italy > CA > MA.

    But *Whole Foods* sells a wonderful bottle. It’s the 365 brand — the $7.99 (in MA) bottle.

    jack Christopher wrote on May 7th, 2009
  29. I’m with Bob. Grok didn’t have olive oil.

    I simply don’t use it any longer. My lipids come from flesh, nuts and seeds. Plus that wonderful fruit, the avocado.

    Olive oil is created with some pretty harsh chemicals. Most of what I buy in the store is of poor quality. I live in Austin, so there is no shortage of good stores, just a shortage of good oil.

    By the time I can buy decent olive oil, it is more expensive than caviar. It’s simply not on my list any longer.

    Clare wrote on May 7th, 2009
    • That’s great reasoning, Clare. What do you put on salads?

      Dennis wrote on December 14th, 2011
  30. Arbequena from the Olive Press near Napa is amazing. It won best of california in 2008. The Olive Press is actually in the same building as Jacuzzi winery. Skip the wine and try the oils. They have several oils but Arbequena is by far the best.

    Marshall wrote on May 7th, 2009
  31. Hey Mark, I bake a lot and have a question. Is light tasting olive oil safe to consume, or has it been processed to the extent that it’s damaged? I need a neutral tasting liquid oil for baked goods (made with almond flour and coconut flour) that can’t be made with butter. EVOO imparts too much of a floral quality. Coconut oil is too firm at room temperature for some applications. Thanks!

    Lauren B wrote on May 7th, 2009
  32. I personally don’t care if Grok didn’t have Olive Oil, I absolutely love it!

    Jerry wrote on May 7th, 2009
  33. Bariani out of Sacto,CA is the best I’ve tried.Dark bottle,green cloudy oil,nutty taste up front and peppery in the back.Places to buy are Whole Foods and farmers markets.

    joe wrote on May 7th, 2009
  34. McEvoy Ranch was a vendor at the Marin County Farmers Market and they also have a store at the San Francisco Ferry Building. It’s pricey, but very high quality. My parents took a tour of their olive ranch and said it’s legit! Check them out here: http://www.mcevoyranch.com/html/index.php

    bfaber87 wrote on September 28th, 2009
  35. Mark, I invite you to give our oils a try. Each oil is selected and evaluated each harvest to make sure it is a high quality oil. It is wonderful to see someone who has done the research, and who understands the difference between olive oils. Please take a look http://www.avantisavoia.com.

    Ben wrote on January 21st, 2010
  36. I used to work for O & Co. and will vouch for the amazing quality of the products, although the price tag for most of it seems outrageous, the flavor of some of them (olive oil from Tuscany, for instance) is unique and worthwhile if you’re an oil snob. When I still thought buying European was worthwhile, I skipped the pricier Italian and French variety and went for the Spanish (Andalusian). It was half the price and went with a wider variety of foods (mellow flavor).

    Jenny wrote on May 9th, 2010
    • I should also add that now I buy domestic organic for the same reasons mentioned above.

      Jenny wrote on May 9th, 2010
  37. I also use the Trader Joe unfiltered locally grown, EVOO. It taste really good and fruity. It makes an excellent salad dressing.

    Cathie McGinnis wrote on August 4th, 2010
  38. My fiancee gets the credit here she is a UC Extension Farm Advisor and one of her crops is olives…there is a BIG reason why CA Olive Oil is better than 98% of the imported extra virgin olive oil. The CA Olive Oil industry is relatively new and composed of very enthusiastic growers focused on quality and using the latest technology available. CA oil olives are processed within hours of picking so the amount of fermentation and oxidation is virtually nil. In Europe and Turkey etc. most of the oil olives are picked then can sit in piles for 24-48 hours before processing so there is a fair amount of fermentation and oxidation….I suggest tasting the two side by side and you can taste the oxidation in the import (unless you pay a fortune for it).

    Paleopete wrote on September 10th, 2010
  39. i love the chipotle extra virgin olive oil from the olive oil shops (www.theoliveoilshops.com) it’s delicious! they also carry a picual EVOO with a polyphenol count of 500 (!)

    ruby wrote on December 6th, 2010
  40. A neat trick to prevent oxidation of olive oil is to add a drop of astaxanthin (squeezed out of a supplement capsule) into the oil. The astaxanthin will turn the oil slightly red, letting you know that it’s there and working.

    Buy olive oil in small bottles and don’t leave the cap off more than you have to.

    stan wrote on April 27th, 2011

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