Ah, the simple days of cooking: a pat of butter, a fat belly. But those days are over, thanks to olive oil and the cooking shows on TV that extol it. Yet olive oil is more than just an alternative to saturated fat; it’s a burgeoning category with health perks never before realized. In fact, a June 2009 report by the North American Olive Oil Association estimates that total U.S. olive oil sales rose by approximately 25 percent from 2005 to 2008.
Mediterranean cultures have long believed that people who eat foods rich in olive oil’s monounsaturated fat have fewer heart- health problems. But when the Food and Drug Administration announced in 2004 that two tablespoons of olive oil a day may lower the risk of heart disease, what was once a theory became an official health claim. Then, a study released in October 2009 by Northwestern University topped them all, finding that proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease are actually deterred by oleocanthal, an anti-inflammatory compound that occurs naturally in extra-virgin olive oil.
A maturing market
Wajih Rekik, general manager of the North American division for Alexandria, Va.-based Terra Delyssa olive oil, says the company’s surveys show a penetration rate of olive oil in U.S. households at around 30 percent—and that figure is only expected to grow. Scott Black, brand manager of Spectrum oils, believes the industry is similar to the wine industry 15 years ago. “Once upon a time, people just asked for the house red or white when it came to wine. Now they know their cabernets from merlot,” he says. “We need that same level of sophistication and enjoyment with what we’re selling. It’s up to us to continue to educate the public on the uses of olive oil.”
Olive oil comes in a bewildering array of varieties. According to the International Olive Oil Council, based in Spain, basically, olive oil is either virgin or refined. Virgin olive oils are processed without high heat or chemicals and haven’t undergone any treatment besides washing, decantation, centrifugation and filtration, according to the IOOC. Within that category, there’s extra-virgin, virgin and ordinary virgin, which are determined by the amount of oleic fatty acid in the oil (0.8 grams per 100 grams for extra-virgin, 2 grams per 100 grams for virgin and 3.3 grams per 100 grams for ordinary virgin). Refined oils can be a blend of virgin and processed oils, and include varieties like “pure,” “light” and “extra-light.” According to the Mayo Clinic, virgin olive oils contain the highest levels of polyphenols, powerful antioxidants that promote heart health.
Americans are slowly falling in love with virgin oils. Extra-virgin olive oil accounted for 58 percent of U.S. olive oil imports in 2008, according to the NAOOA report. Pure olive oil was second (31 percent) and extra-light a distant third (11 percent).
Olive oil is produced in a mishmash of countries; according to the IOOC, manufacturers include not only the European and African nations that surround the Mediterranean Sea, but also Australia, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Japan, Taiwan, Norway, Switzerland, Russia and all three North American countries. Domestically, California is a leading olive oil producer. Black believes there may be a major leaning toward European olive oil in the near future because “labeling is more bound by law over there. If you call a pure olive oil extra-virgin, you would go to jail for that. Find that kind of scrutiny here in the U.S.”
When it comes to extraction, it seems the cold-pressed method is king. “Historically, olive oil was extracted from olive fruit with stone basins with a giant wheel rolling around to crush the olives,” Black says. “Then the hole in the center of the basin would have layers of filters below for separating the fruit and the pits, dripping down into what would become the oil. It’s the same thing now except by mechanical means.”
Jorge de Moya, managing director and founder of Kaniva, Australia-based OliVaylle olive oil, argues that the term “cold-pressed” is basically meaningless because it’s unregulated. He believes removing the pits from the olives is actually a more important production step. “It’s been proven that the content of the taste and health benefits are higher when you remove them. People think we’re crazy because we lose 2 to 3 percent of the olive, but it makes the taste so different. You want the best drops instead of all the drops.”
Although olive oil’s health benefits are clear, some companies say the bottle shouldn’t be. “Packaging is one of the most important aspects of successful olive oil,” de Moya says. “We pack in very dark, thick glass. If you pack it to keep out light, put the cork on correctly and keep it at 13 to 15 degrees centigrade (roughly 55 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit), it will last five or six years. Without that, the shelf life is only three to eight months, depending on exposure. Every time you see a clear glass bottle with a green olive inside, it’s obvious they don’t care about quality or don’t know.”
Eric Butterman’s home state of Texas harvested more than 100 tons of olives in 2007, according to the Texas Olive Oil Council.