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Virginity Questioned: How Extra Virgin Olive Oil Lost its Purity

Virginity Questioned: How Extra Virgin Olive Oil Lost its Purity

Thanks to Rachel Ray, extra virgin olive oil (or “EVOO” as she has playfully deemed it) has become a grocery staple in American grocery stores as well as American kitchens. Remember, it wasn’t so long ago that olive oil in the home meant that rancid bottle of Bertolli hanging out in the back of the pantry with the discarded bottles of molasses and rice wine vinegar. Now, EVOO is front and center in the kitchen and used for just about everything from salad dressings to cakes. In the past decade, American olive oil consumption has doubled, and one look at the relative plentitude of EVOO options at the supermarket, and one would think we are living in the golden age of the EVOO superfluity.

Think again.

A new study from the University of California- Davis claims more than two-thirds of random samples of imported so-called extra-virgin olive oil fall far short of the esteemed EVOO designate, and in some cases were rancid or adulterated with lesser oils. “It’s like we have our own CSI: Olive Oil lab here,” chemist Charles Shoemaker of UC Davis told NPR this past week, and Shoemaker wasn’t all that surprised when his state of the art lab uncovered that 14 of the major EVOO brands failed certain purity and virginity tests. Even Rachel Ray’s house brand failed to live up to EVOO standards, but she was in good company with brands like Pompeian, Bertolli, and Colavita (to name a few).

Of course this is of little surprise to anyone following the olive oil racket/business, as Tom Mueller reported a few years back, in an excellent New Yorker piece, about how the olive oil market is grossly polluted all sorts of bogus oils. Seems as if the demand for high quality EVOO exceeds the supply in some sectors (or at least exceeds the affordable supply) and is often doctored by, or cut with, some lesser oils like soybean oil, hazelnut oil, sunflower seed oil, and even lamp oil (an inferior low grade oil made from spoiled olives that have fallen from the tree).

But really why should this matter? To understand the importance of why this truly matters you must look at the olive, as not simply the raw material for oil, but as a stone fruit, like a nectarine or a cherry. Whereas most vegetable oils are extracted in a refinery from seeds or nuts, using solvents, heat, and intense pressure; the best olive oils are made using a simple hydraulic press or centrifuge, making them more like fresh-squeezed fruit juices than like industrial fats. Extra virgin is the crème de la crème of olive oil (in essence a rich antioxidant-rich juice of the olive fruit), and according to European Union law, extra-virgin olive oil means the oil has been made by physical means, using no chemical solvents and it must meet 32 chemical requirements, including having free acidity of no more than 0.8 percent. Sure you could be cooking with bottles of inferior oils, but really why would you (note: while EVOO is highly recommended for just about everything, EVOO under high heat tends to break down some of the flavor and nutritional compounds of the oil, and some say is a waste of money – you would probably be better off using the lesser cold filtered olive oil)?

I realize for a portion of the population, this fall from grace means everything, but for the majority of consumers this is a mere blip on the cooking oil radar – if that. Does this loss of virginity make an impact on how you buy and use olive oil, or are you just as happy with a lesser product, just as long as it passes the taste test?

Read more: Basics, Eating for Health, Following Food, Food, , , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

71 comments

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5:40AM PDT on Apr 6, 2013

interesting

12:41AM PDT on Oct 12, 2012

I am happy to use olive oil and know that it's healthier than other oils, whether virgin, extra virgin or not.

1:10PM PDT on Sep 26, 2012

This whole issue is why I now buy the majority of my olive oils from a small company in California. My farmer's market also carries local Arizona olive oil. I think France has better regulations regarding their olive oil than do Spain, Italy or Greece.

12:37PM PDT on Jul 18, 2012

Did I miss something? How do we know if it's real or not?

8:00AM PDT on Aug 12, 2010

The same argument about so-called "extra virgin" olive oil, is raging in S.Africa.
Most of us have decided that we buy an imported olive oil from Portugal. In howar that is extra-virgin, one cannot tell of course.
It is like finding out, a girl is not an extra-virgin anymore but do we really care if she is lovely and has a nice character?
I am not serious here, of course.
We have to rely on the supermarkets code of conduct and that is about all we can do!

3:59AM PDT on Aug 6, 2010

I agree with Cathryn W. - I think I'll be getting my olive oil from the local farmer's market in the future.

4:17PM PDT on Aug 5, 2010

Olive oil is an excellent choice for cooking provided it is not heated at too high a temperature. Because it is made up mostly of monounsaturated fats and saturated fats it has a higher melting point than other oils. When it is heated it does not become toxic or turn to transfat. The problem with mixing other oils in with it, apart from the danger of allergic reactions, is that their composition may be largely polyunsaturated which has a low melting point and will become toxic.
P.S. Never use canola oil for cooking. It has a perfect balance of the polyunsaturates Omega 3 & 6. Expellar pressed organic canola oil is a wonderful way to get healthy.
The GM in canola is in the protein not in the oil.

10:33AM PDT on Aug 3, 2010

It's true there are many fancy bottled / bargain priced EVOO's out there. I come from the island of Crete - Greece and cultivating olive trees to get the oil is... you cannot imagine how deep inside our genes. 9 out of 10 families here have never bought olive oil in their life (including my family). We all have our own olive fields, or our parents, or our grandparents, uncles, brothers, and in the winter (december to february) we take our friends and go to our field to collect the olives and bring them to the oil extraction plant where they are cold pressed to give their precious juice. We don't even pay the factory money. They just keep about 10% of the oil that comes. And there are some great small producers that make some amazing (internationaly awarded) extra virgin, organic olive oil. You can find it at www.fromcrete.com

3:34AM PDT on Aug 3, 2010

Who would have thought!

1:02AM PDT on Aug 3, 2010

thanks

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