The Mediterranean Diet is recognized as one of the best Health promoting eating plans. Studies have consistently demonstrated that this way of eating reduces risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity. One of the principal ingredients in the Med Diet is olive oil. Unfortunately, good olive oil is hard to find in this part of the world. Oh, there are plenty of choices in the grocery store but, finding a high-quality oil is all about knowing what to look for.
Olives are fruit and therefore olive oil is basically fresh squeezed fruit juice. Most olive oil in American grocery stores is put into tanker trucks and shipped to large bottlers in Italy. The oils come from Tunisia, Morocco, Spain, Turkey and Greece. In good years, when growers produce more oil than they can sell they simply keep it and mix it into the next year’s harvest. Imagine mixing some of last year’s fruit juice with this year’s harvest. Labels that read “Bottled in Italy” or “Product of Italy” are generally recognized by American consumers as a mark of quality. However, a lot of the oils that we are buying are blends that are of very poor quality and some are even rancid.
Consumer studies by the Olive Center at the University of California-Davis and the industry’s domestic trade group, the North American Olive Oil Association, both found that perceived health benefits and flavor were the top two reasons Americans buy olive oil, yet they often get neither.
The only control consumers have on quality is identifying specific label designations. When shopping for a quality oil look for a harvest date. This will quickly narrow your search. Unlike wine, olive oil will never be better than on the day it was bottled. Buy oils with no more than a year earlier harvest date. All oils go rancid when exposed to light, heat or air. Harvest date insures that you are buying a fresh product.
Extra Virgin is no guarantee, but its absence on a bottle is a guarantee of inferiority. Choosing European oils with a geographic indication like DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta, Protected Designation of Origin) or DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata, Controlled Designation of Origin), improves your chances of quality. These label designations indicate the olives were grown in a designated quality zone and produced with more oversight.
The California Olive Oil Council COOC certifies California oils and employs more strict enforcement and testing than the USDA grade certification. Put one of their certified oils (with a harvest date) next to a name brand Italian oil with no harvest date and geographic indication and you will immediately taste the difference.
Ignore terms like light, pure, “best by” dates or “bottled on” dates. Terms like “First Pressed” or “Cold Pressed” have no regulatory meaning and are therefore useless marketing terms. Most olive oils today are not pressed at all but are spun out of olives using centrifuges. Country of origin is no guarantee of quality.
The real reason to buy quality olive oil is taste. Once you taste the good stuff, it’s worth knowing the labeling details to find it more often. And when you do, both your health and your palate will thank you for it. A good resource on this subject is “Real Food, Fake Food” by Larry Olmsted.
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with many years’ experience practicing nutrition therapy in local hospitals and clinics, teaching nutrition and developing healthy recipes. He helped create the popular TV show Memorial Cooking Innovations celebrating the world of food and health. Memorial Cooking Innovations is produced by St. Luke’s Health and the City of Lufkin. It currently runs in 62 cities and is locally available on Sudden Link cable TV channels and online at www.chistlukeshealthmemorial.org.