Monday, 16 November 2009

Extra-virgin olive oil: Why pay more

by Francesca


Our neighbor, an elderly farmer, speaks lovingly about the olive oil he makes from his trees. He likes to call it “a fresh-squeezed fruit juice,” because it’s the only vegetable oil that comes from a fruit, and not from a seed or a nut. This fresh-squeezed fruit juice has been a key ingredient in the Mediterranean Diet since the late Bronze Age.

Olive oil contains a remarkable range of nutrients and has many healthful properties. In fact, recent medical research has shown it to be beneficial against conditions ranging from coronary heart disease to Alzheimers to colon cancer. But only one kind of olive oil has these characteristics: extra-virgin olive oil, the highest grade, which is made from fresh, healthy fruit that’s been expertly harvested, pressed, extracted and bottled.

picked olives

Harvesting olives is a lengthy and labor-intensive job that in our part of Italy begins this time of year, in the cold days of late November and December. Although there are mechanical ways to pick olives, much of the work is by hand, and it’s hard. To produce one liter of oil you need over 5 kilos of olives, sometimes more. Olives must be picked when they reach just the right level of ripeness, and milled within hours, before the olives start to decompose.

With all this labor to pay for, making extra-virgin olive oil is pricey. Even in an oil-producing region like ours, a bottle of extra-virgin bought in a store can’t cost less than about €10 ($14).

olive nets
olives on nets

In fact, lots of olive oil is sold in stores at half that price, or less. Most of it is labeled “olive oil.” This is an inferior grade to extra-virgin, made from over-ripe olives that have fallen from the trees and collected in nets on the ground, where they’ve started to decompose. The oil extracted from these olives can’t legally be sold as food, only as fuel (it’s called lampante, or “lamp-oil”). So it’s taken to a refinery, where it’s industrially treated, then mixed with a dash of extra-virgin olive oil, and sold as “olive oil”.

Then there’s “pomace olive oil,” which, despite its name, isn’t olive oil at all. It's extracted with solvents from the crushed olive pits, skins and flesh left over from the milling process. Not only does it have almost none of extra-virgin oil’s health benefits, but it also often contains toxic substances. It’s to be avoided at all costs!

You should definitely pay a little more for extra-virgin olive oil: in olive oil, even more than in most other foods, you get what you pay for. (You can read a more detailed discussion of olive oil production, trade and fraud here.)


We live in a prime olive growing area, and my family is the proud owner of an olive grove consisting of … well, only one olive tree! We’ve been putting off the idea of an olive grove until we have our own land. But we’re lucky enough to know the best local producers, and we buy our extra-virgin olive oil, made from the local Taggiasca variety, which has a delicate fruity taste, directly from them – buying from a known source is the best way to make sure you’re getting quality oil. Also, as part of our efforts to forage whatever we can eat from the wild (like the chestnuts I posted about earlier), each November we head out to pick some olives from the old, overgrown, abandoned olive trees that grow on hillsides around our house. I put them in brine for several months to cure them. Meantime, we dream of the day when we’ll produce our own extra-virgin olive oil.


Dana said...

Thanks a million for the lesson. We use it every day. It's often the "souvenir" that we select as we travel the regions of Italy. I didn't know of the fraud. . .wow.

Have a great day everyone.

Simple in France said...

Lovely post! I just toured our local olive press--we live in the South of France. With all the fraud out there, it's very reassuring to know where your oil is coming from. We saw the farmers arriving with their crates of olives, the grinding stones, etc. Completely reassuring.

It makes me so sad living in the South of France when locals tell me, 'it's cheaper in the supermarket.' You would think that the French of all people would know better. But the economy hits us all, I suppose. Thanks for posting on an important topic.

Bec said...

Thanks for sharing this. I didn't know that about extra-virgin olive oil compared to other types of olive oil. I always buy the extra-virgin, but now I have an actual reason other than 'it's what I always buy'!!

Joyce said...

I use oo and evo all the time. My favorite. How cool is this to live so close to all of this. Thanks so much for sharing. xoxo

K @ Prudent and Practical said...

Thanks for the info. There was a special on 20/20 a while back that talked about food labels not containing all ingredients. Many store-brand items contain extras - in the case of EVOO, a large percentage of canola oil and "pure/natural" maple syrup often contains HFCS.

Scottish Twins said...

This is so true, however, extra virgin olive oil is only good for low temperature cooking and for use in the things like salad dressing. Heating evoo to too high of a temperature will cause it to become rancid.

I only cook/bake with regular olive oil and save the evoo for my salads.

ibb said...

I use it a lot. I live also in a oil productive country.
Depending of the use, the kind of oil.

Alissa said...

Do you have an opinion on whether it's worth-while to pay extra for organic evoo?

Francesca said...

Hi Alissa! Typically with organic evoo your chances of getting a pesticide free olive oil are better, though the taste may not improve.

Kate said...

Thanks for the skinny on the various oils that come from olives. I've spent a fair bit of time in Italy, and much of that in Umbria. To my mind, Umbrian olive oil is the best I've ever come across. (Not that I can afford to buy it here in the States.) They take their food pretty seriously in Umbria.

I remember talking to one olive oil producer who described another, larger scale though still pretty modestly sized producer as "a businessman." The contempt which was loaded into the word "businessman" along with the expressive gesture so typical of Italians in general, is something I will never forget. It spoke volumes. The very idea that a producer would disdain the idea of producing oil as "a business" was revelatory. Obviously, he produced his oil out of principle, and for pleasure.

nicola@which name? said...

we live on olive oil here, are careful about purchases, but i didn't know this, either. thank you for this lesson!

Eco Yogini said...

wow- we have been discussing and wondering about olive oil for a few months now (weird for Canadians, I know). We've heard rumours about olive oil not being 'olive oil' or that there isn't enough olive trees in Italy to produce what is being sold.
Thank you so very much for sharing these truths with us- I will be forwarding this article to my Fiancé. We know of a fair trade coffee shop that sells fair trade organic olive oil (not cheap, but like you said- that's the way to go!). :)

Alissa said...

Thanks Francesca, I wasn't sure whether olives were a sprayed crop or not. Thanks. :)

Kavita said...

Your post makes things clear for me as this a hot topic in our house.
On the one hand we are supposed to eat local & then to splurge on olive oil for the heart. It's showing up in gallons in our country.I was wondering which way to go so thank you for the pointers, Francesca.
(Personally, I like the consistency of the oil, the colour & crispness of onions sauteed in it etc., but both my husband & son insist there was life before olive oil). The last bottle of extra-virgin I bought had a tiny bottle of pomace come with it. We had no idea where pomace came from or its use; what the dictionary said was not enough. So thank you again for a wonderful article.

Kasia said...

Hello Francesca, thank you so much for this article! We always go for extra virgin olive oil and I always wondered why it wasso expensive while there are so many olive treesaround here. Well, now I know!
Thank you.

jgy said...

I will appreciate the olive oil we use even more after reading your post---thanks! BTW, in the supermarkets near where I live I can only find very small bottles of (virgin) olive oil. How luxurious it sounds to live near where it is produced and to see it harvested. Wonderful photos too.

MODsquad said...

Beautiful photos! I can't imagine having these trees in our backyard! That would be close to heaven!

GooseBreeder said...

The best oil! Good luck with your own grove oneday.

Chookie said...

K@Prudent, every country is different when it comes to what is adulterated and what is not.

I use EVOO for salads and olive oil if I'm cooking with it.

Emily said...

Wow. Francesca, I had no idea. NONE! The New Yorker article was totally eye opening.

How wonderful that you are able to buy your olive oil locally!!!