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.
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?