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Olive Oil: Myths vs. Facts

posted on: Nov 4, 2020

By: Noah Robertson/Arab America Contributing Writer

Around the world, olive oil is gaining the popularity it already had in the Mediterranean and the Arab world. Not surprisingly, as it has spread across the world it has been followed by many claims, some true and some false. In my semester abroad in Sevilla, Spain I visited an olive farm and olive oil producer, Basilippo, and I learned some important facts about olive oil production that will help us combat these myths. The popularity of olive oil is growing every day. Let’s take a look at the myths and the facts about olive oil.

Myth 1: Quality Olive Oil Is Very Green and Not Cloudy

The facts: Quality olive oil has a wide variety of colors ranging from pale yellow to dark green and can be cloudy or clear. The appearance does not signify quality. Both visuals simply vary by the type of olive, climate, time of harvesting, and many other factors.

In fact, at Basilippo I learned when tasting olive oils blue-colored glasses are used to avoid color bias. Part of the reason producers use dark colored bottles for the oil is to combat this myth.

Myth 2: Cooking With Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) Makes It Less Healthy and Can Even Be Dangerous

The facts, part 1: This myth needs two separate facts to address them. First, cooking with EVOO does nothing to reduce health benefits. Recent evidence has shown when cooking vegetables with EVOO the healthy phenols (antioxidants) are transferred to the food. There is no loss of health benefits and it is beneficial to use EVOO. If chefs do not cook with it, it is usually because other oils are cheaper.

Cooking with olive oil healthy, safe, and adds extra flavor!

The facts, part 2: The fear of danger from cooking with EVOO comes from a fear of the oil breaking down into toxic components. But EVOO’s smoke point range is 350-410 degrees Fahrenheit  – and for other olive oils, it is 390-470 degrees. These smoke points are better than some other oils, and with an average frying temperature of 356, it is completely safe. At Basilippo I also learned that olive oil leaves less oil behind, can be reused 4-5 times and gives a more flavorful crust when frying.

A sign as Basilippo discussing the benefits of frying with olive oil

Myth 3: Like Wine, Olive Oil Gets Better With Age

The facts: Nope, this is not true – so do not hold on to your olive oil for 10 years. Olive oil does have a limited shelf life (in terms of taste), which is around two years after bottling. Once the seal is cracked the oil will last a couple of months. It is ideal to keep the bottle in a cool dark place to preserve freshness, but the fridge is a bit too cool.

Once the seal is cracked the oil will last a couple of months.

At Basilippo I saw the chambers they put pre-bottled oil into, which are essentially giant stainless steel vats that have nitrogen pumped into them and oxygen kept out to keep the oil fresh. You will also notice olive oil comes in dark bottles to help reduce the exposure to light, which can degrade taste as well.

The sealed containers to store olive oil at Basilippo pre-bottling

Myth 4: Most Olive Oil Is Adulterated (Meaning Impure and Mixed With Other Stuff)

The facts, part 1: While this can be true, it is quite rare. Unlike sunflower or canola oil, olive oil is simply the juice of the olives.

At Basilippo I saw how they pick the olives at the perfect time, carry them gently to the machines, crush them, let the juice flow into a centrifuge, centrifuge it twice to separate the liquid from any sticks or dirt, and then send it to the big storage containers; all while keeping things below 25 degrees Celsius. This process shows how EVOO is produced to be pure as can be without adulteration.

The facts, part 2: While there are some fake EVOO products, they are usually virgin or pure olive oil passing themselves off as higher quality. In order to be EVOO, a sensory tasting board must certify that the oil is free of impurities. Which means they taste and smell each oil and look for things like rancidity, a hint of dirt, or something other than the good smells and tastes (grass is actually a good sign).

In order to be EVOO, a sensory tasting board must certify that the oil is free of impurities.

If the oil has slight taste defects, it is a virgin. Below virgin is just olive oil which is a combination of virgin and lampante. Lampante means the oil has serious and unpleasant sensorial effects and has been refined. This means a bottle labeled “pure olive oil” or “olive oil” should just be used for cooking purposes because it has little flavor (it is safe though). The myth is false. None of the oils are adulterated and refined olive oil is just processed a bit more.

Olive oil cans at Basilippo describing the types of olive oil

Myth 5: “Light” Olive Oil Is Healthier

The facts: The “light” on some olive oil bottles just refers to the color and is usually a tricky marketing ploy in today’s calorie counting times. All olive oil has 120 calories per tablespoon and adding a word does not change that. The “light” olive oil probably means it is just regular olive oil, which as we discussed means it is not super high quality. If you want health benefits go for EVOO.

Bertolli olive oil with the “extra light” much larger than the “tasting” below it

Myth 6: The Best, and Most, Olive Oil Comes From Italy

The facts: Many people associate olive oil with Italy. But the quality of olive oil simply depends on the growth and production process. Italy is only the third-largest producer of olive oil with Spain at number one and Greece at number two (the U.S. sits at six). There are multiple Arab countries high on the list: Tunisia (4), Morocco (7), and Egypt (9), which is an important reminder that olive oil is a staple in Arab cuisine despite many associating it only with the Mediterranean.

Each part of the world produces a different type of olive oil with unique flavors due to the varying climates, soils, harvesting, and production techniques used.

An interesting sign at Basilippo details harvesting of olives

Myth 7: A Bitter Taste Means the Olive Oil Has Gone Bad

The facts: Nope, this actually means it’s probably quality and has a unique flavor. Each olive oil tastes different, best experienced with EVOO.

There is a special way to taste them as I learned at Basilippo (see below for the tasting method). The EVOO may be peppery, buttery, woody, and some can be flavored with things like orange peel for a dessert EVOO. My olive oil at Basilippo was quite peppery, but also had a bit of grassy and tomato aromas and background flavors.

How To Taste Your EVOO

  1. Ideally, you have an olive oil tasting glass, though a stemless wine glass is similar: pour a small amount of oil into the glass.
  2. Rub the bottom of the glass on your palm to warm up the oil and release its flavors and aromas.
  3. Put your nose up to the glass and breathe in. Breathe out into the glass, and breathe back in for the fullest scent.
  4. Now that you have the aroma put the glass up to your lips and sip a small amount of the oil, do not swallow yet.
  5. Before swallowing let the oil sit in your mouth and breathe in rapidly through the sides of your mouth to aerate the olive oil (it will make a strange sound).
  6. Now swallow!

With quality EVOO you should smell multiple aromas such as grass, fresh tomatoes, wood, pepper, and many more. You will taste some of these flavors. As for first-timers, the taste is much harder to distinguish than the aromas.

Lastly, it is so important to remember that each olive oil is unique and each flavor differs. Aim for EVOO and use it as much as you like on just about anything for a little extra flavor and health. Do not be afraid to cook with it and do not hold onto it for too long.

Meanwhile, enjoy and feel glad knowing you are now an olive oil connoisseur!

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