If there is a foundation supporting the highly touted Mediterranean diet, it is olive oil, the fruit-based substance that Greek epic poet Homer so aptly called liquid gold.
It?s got superb health benefits, it enhances the flavors it contacts, and it can be used either raw or in cooking. It?s simply great stuff, its purveyors agree. And they are as passionate about it as vintners are about their wines.
Indeed, wine and olive oil production have a lot in common. Olive trees are pruned and tended with as much care as the vines upon which wine grapes grow. The soil is nurtured. Rain is either prayed for or cursed, depending on the growing cycle.
But, as with wine, all olive oil is not the same. And it?s important for natural foods retailers to know enough about the differences in oils and how they are made and certified to help consumers make educated buying decisions.
Most retailers know that the olive oil with the best taste and the greatest health benefit is called extra virgin. Other olive oil blends may be called simply olive oil, pure olive oil or extra light olive oil. These are chemically refined in a process that removes many of the oil?s nutritional benefits, according to olive oil experts.
Extra virgin olive oil, however, is stocked with nutrients that are both heart-healthy and that prevent the formation of free radicals. ?The body of evidence is vast that a diet that uses extra virgin olive oil as its basic fat reduces bad cholesterol and increases good cholesterol,? says Daniel Graeff of Lucini Italia, an Italian olive oil company with offices in Miami and Chicago.
But why? After all, extra virgin olive oil doesn?t contain high amounts of omega-3 and -6 fatty acids. What it does contain, however, are high amounts of polyphenols, potent antioxidants that scavenge disease-producing free radicals in the body, says Neil Blomquist, president and chief executive of Spectrum Organic Products, based in Petaluma, Calif.
?They are powerful anti-aging agents, and polyphenols literally work to counteract the buildup of plaque in arteries,? Blomquist says.
The only polyphenols that are fat-based come from olive oil, says Blomquist, who has researched olive oil for years. Because polyphenols are present in fat, they can be stored in fat tissue and used when the body needs them. The polyphenols in other foods, such as green teas and red wine, can?t be stored for future use.
In addition to polyphenols, extra virgin olive oil contains vitamin E and beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A.
Olive oil is said to be extra virgin when it contains less than 0.8 percent pre-fatty acids. To get that low fatty acid content, olives must be crushed and pressed almost immediately after being picked; the longer the olive is off the tree, the more the fruit oxidizes. The more oxidation, the more acidity; and the more acidity, the lower the quality. Graeff says olives ideally should be crushed and their oil extracted within 24 hours of picking, but within 12 hours is even better.
Olives that provide the oil for extra virgin olive oil also are pressed at low temperaturesâhence the term cold-pressedâto protect flavor and nutritional qualities.
Not all extra virgin olive oils imported into the United States are organic, but most are natural. The major pest with which olive farmers contend is the olive fly. Many European farmers use bio-traps, containing female olive fly pheromones, to control the pest.
Of course, every organic extra virgin olive oil imported in the United States must meet USDA?s organic standards.
But the challenge for retailers and consumers alike, when it comes to choosing olive oils, is that beyond the organic standard, the U.S. government has no binding standards for olive oil. As a result, there are olive oils being sold in the United States as extra virgin that don?t fully meet the quality standards for that description.
?This is something retailers need to know. There?s lots of poor-quality olive oil that?s called extra virgin out there,? Blomquist says.
There are, however, rules that ensure appropriate processing of olive oil in Europe, where 90 percent of the olives in the world are produced, and where the Madrid, Spain-based International Olive Oil Council holds court on processing, labeling and freshness standards. But once the olive oil is designated for export to the United States, liberties are sometimes taken with labeling.
For example, today most of the olives in the Mediterranean region are grown in Spain. But, according to Blomquist, two-thirds of the olives grown in Spain go to Italy, where they are bottled and sold to the rest of the world. Therefore, if the label on a bottle of extra virgin olive oil says ?imported from Italy,? or ?a product of Italy,? that doesn?t necessarily mean it?s made from Italian olives.
If you want to make sure the extra virgin olive oil you buy is actually from Italy, however, there is a certification you can look for on the label. It?s called DOP, or denominazione di origine protetta, says Jennifer Lionti of Colavita USA, a Linden, N.J.-based importer of Italian olive oil. It certifies that the olives used in the oil are from Italy. Colavita?s olive oils carry the DOP seal, she says.
Olive oil made in California from California olives also must meet standards similar to those set by the International Olive Oil Council. So far it is the only state to set such standards. Olive cultivation there dates to the 18th century.
But does it matter whether the olives are from Italy or Spainâor Crete or Tunisia or Chile or California? Probably about as much as it matters if a wine is from any of those places. Different regions produce different-tasting olive oils. Not necessarily better, just different. And the taste of extra virgin olive oil is the final parameter by which it is judged.
?It can be sweet or robust,? says Graeff, whose Lucini oils come from olives grown in Tuscany and Chianti. ?The later the harvest, the sweeter, the softer-bodied the oil becomes. The earlier the harvest, the more robust, the more green in color. Ours is a pronounced artichoke flavor with a spicy, peppery finish.?
Interestingly, it?s the peppery finish that indicates the relative health benefits of the oil. ?The more pungent and more peppery, the higher the level of polyphenols,? Blomquist says. He buys Spectrum?s organic extra virgin olive oils from Tuscany, Greece, California and Tunisia.
Good extra virgin olive oil also is what Blomquist calls defect-free. ?It can be grassy, neutral or buttery, but it needs to be devoid of any defects.? It can?t taste vinegary, moldy or fishy or give off an odor of paint. And it can?t be infested with the dreaded olive fly, a pest that bores into the olive fruit. ?If you have too many olives in what you crush that have had olive flies, you?ll taste it,? he says. ?That?s a defect.?
Nancy Nachman-Hunt is a free-lance writer in Boulder, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 4/p. 30