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?

To 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.

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. 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

    Ben wrote on January 21st, 2010
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. i love the chipotle extra virgin olive oil from the olive oil shops ( it’s delicious! they also carry a picual EVOO with a polyphenol count of 500 (!)

    ruby wrote on December 6th, 2010
  6. 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
  7. Thanks Mark – I’ve always preferred virgin olive oil for its culinary superiority but I never really knew what made it different – or why it’s healthier. Now I know.

    Ron Lavine wrote on August 8th, 2011
  8. Hello my family member! I want to say that this article is awesome, nice written and come with almost all significant infos. I would like to peer more posts like this.

    Kaylee Petrello wrote on September 2nd, 2011
  9. I found some Bariani all the way out here in South Carolina. It was harvested 2 years ago, but still has a nice peppery bite. I figure it’s probably still good.

    Susanne wrote on December 16th, 2011
  10. Temecula Olive Oil Company has excellent oil.

    Bonnie Baer wrote on December 21st, 2011

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