The adulterated virgin

The truth behind your olive oil

By Paula Johnson

Olive oil—the food and medicine of the gods. Even the tree that produces the olives contributes to its mythic nature: it recovers from fire by sending up new shoots from the root ball to regrow the tree. The ancients were obsessed with olive oil. Texts record pharaohs making sacrifices of olive oil to the sun god Ra, the Bible talks of Christ’s feet being anointed with olive oil and Odysseus suddenly becomes as glorious as a god after spreading the oil on his body. It’s used to make soap, perfume and lotion, soothes sunburn and diaper rash, it’s a solvent, lubricant and a furniture polish. Olive oil is medicinal, containing powerful antioxidants. It’s an ancient wonder and a modern scandal.

The modern scandal is referring to the estimate by Tom Mueller, author of “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil,” that close to 80 percent of what is imported from Italy is not the extra virgin olive oil that the bottle’s label claims it to be. Olive oil is one of the easiest substances to adulterate by cutting it with lower quality seed oils like sunflower, which have no smell, and adding chlorophyl and beta-carotene for color and fruitiness. The profit for deodorizing and rebranding fake oil is substantial—higher than the narcotics trade, with a gallon of pure oil costing $50 while a knock of comes in at around $7. And who is responsible for consumers being ripped off? The Italian mafia (known as agromafia) now control everything form the labor, production, transportation and export of most of what is found in our supermarkets. What contributes to the problem is lack of federal regulation. The USDA standard for olive oil isn’t mandatory, so a producer doesn’t have to pursue certification showing its extra virgin oil is legitimate.

Only a fraction of what’s certified makes it to the shelves of the local grocery. And if it is there it will not be at a bargain price. You can be absolutely certain that cheap olive oil you bought isn’t pure olive oil at all.

Wait, what? So that stuff you’ve been splashing on your salad isn’t real olive oil? How do you know, and how do you buy the authentic product? First, it’s important to know exactly what olive oil is and how it’s made.

Think of olive oil as a fruit juice (which it is), similar to stone fruits like cherry or a plum. You wouldn’t want fruit juice that isn’t fresh, and it’s the same with olive oil. By law, extra virgin olive oil must be made from healthy, expertly picked olives, and milled within 24 hours to preserve flavors and avoid spoilage.

Freshness is what counts in olive oil. How do you know if it’s still fresh? Look for a date on the bottle. Oil that is more than 12 months old should be avoided. If you read the back label, you’ll see an expiration date (usually two years after an oil was bottled) but what you’re looking for in particular is the harvest date; the further away the two-year date is, the fresher the oil is. However, not all bottles have this information on them.

As to the bottle itself, olive oil should never be in a clear glass bottle. If glass is used it should be dark to keep the oil from being exposed to light.

What about the other terminology you see on labels? Cold-pressed, for example, refers to the time when oil was made using hydraulic presses, but that process is outdated. Olive oil is now made using a centrifuge, which spins, separating the oil from the skins, pits, flesh and water. So when you see a label claiming cold pressed or first press, it’s not accurate, it’s marketing.

The label can be misleading in other ways. Just because there’s a picture of an Italian villa on the label doesn’t mean it’s from there. You might see the term “country of origin.” The FDA requires that the country of origin—meaning where the olives are from and where the oil was made—be listed. You can usually find it on the back near the nutrition facts panel. Unless you see a specific estate name on the label, know that there’s often more than one country involved. A lot of big volume producers will buy oil from various parts of the Mediterranean region and then will blend them. “Bottled in,” “Packed in,” “Imported by” don’t necessarily mean where the oil was actually made. Italy bottles a lot of oil made in other countries. What’s labeled olive oil or light olive oil goes through a heat and chemical refining process (due to defects such an off odor or low-quality fruit) and shouldn’t be purchased at all.

What about taste? I asked Mueller, who also runs the website truthinoliveoil.com. He pointed out several factors. Bitterness and pungency are usually indicators of the presence of healthful antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. Sweetness and butteriness most often do not. Both in flavor and aroma, genuine extra virgin oils have a marked fruitiness reminiscent of fresh olives, and typically have some level of bitterness and pungency. In great oils these characteristics are harmoniously balanced, together with complex aromas, flavors and aftertastes that bloom gradually on the senses.

“Above all,” Mueller advises, “seek out freshness, choosing oils that smell and taste vibrant and lively, and avoid tastes or odors such as moldy, rancid, cooked, greasy, meaty, metallic and cardboard. Also pay attention to mouthfeel: prefer crisp and clean to flabby, coarse or greasy.

“Once someone tries a real extra virgin—an adult or a child, anybody with taste buds—they’ll never go back to the fake kind,” Mueller says. “It’s distinctive, complex, the freshest thing you’ve ever eaten.”

Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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