Shock waves reverberated through my house last week when I learned (albeit, late: this was news last year) that the extra virgin olive oil I’ve been using is… is… it’s so hard for me to say this… FAKE!
Before we look at the how and why of fraudulent olive oil, we need to first look at what olive oil is in the first place. While we usually think of Italy when we think of olive oil, we need to understand that much of the olives used in the production of olive oil originate elsewhere, like Spain, Morocco, and Tunisia. In fact, the New York Times reports (in a very interesting illustration) that the oil is actually pressed from olives grown in these countries before being exported to Italy. Once in Italy, the oil gets “cut” (diluted) with other oils to varying degrees before bottling and exporting to countries around the world. Sometimes chlorophyl is added to make the oil a more natural color. Here’s a video on how one company extracts the oil from the olives:
In addition to the aroma and taste that olive oils bring to the table, there’s also the health benefits that should be considered. Oils that come from animals, like in meat, eggs, and dairy, are saturated fats, meaning their carbon atoms are completely and equally saturated with hydrogen atoms to make a molecule that is solid at room temperature. Plant oils like olive oil and canola oil are unsaturated, meaning they have fewer hydrogen bonds. Unsaturated oils are liquid at room temperature. If the carbon chains that make up unsaturated fat molecules have one double (carbon-to-carbon) bond, they are monounsaturated; two or more double bonds make them polyunsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats are considered healthier for the heart than saturated fats, and monounsaturated oils (like olive and canola oils) are healthier than polyunsaturated oils (vegetable and corn oils) due to their cholesterol-lowering properties. Polyunsaturated oils can be made solid at room temperature by artificially adding hydrogen atoms to the molecules by a process called hydrogenation. Partially-hydrogenated fats, like margarine, vegetable shortening, and “trans-fats”, are considered evil because the human body has no way to process them once digested. Marshall Brain summarizes the health effects of the fats we consume in our diet, with a nod to the essential fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6):
- Limit your fat intake to about 30 percent of the total calories you consume. Do not try to cut fat intake altogether, because you do need the essential fatty acids. A gram of fat has nine calories, meaning that if you consume 2,000 calories in a day your total fat intake should hover around (2000 x 30 percent / 9 calories/gram =) 67 grams of fat.
- When consuming fat, try to focus on mono-unsaturated fats like olive oil and canola oil, or on essential fatty acids.
- When consuming essential fatty acids, try to balance your intake of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Do that by consuming tuna/salmon/trout or omega-3 oils like flax seed oil.
So that’s why olive oil, being a monounsaturated oil, is an important ingredient that should make up much of that 30% of the total, daily calories in a healthy diet (like the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet). But now we learn that olive oil is not what it appears to be. Deane Alban says “there is money to be made in olive oil forgery”:
How do you fake olive oil? Olive oil can be diluted with poor quality oils or sometimes there is no real olive oil at all. Cheap and unhealthy soy or canola oils are colored with industrial chlorophyll and flavored with artificial flavorings. Yum.
Alban explores what we’re getting when we buy “virgin” olive oil:
The term “virgin” when applied to olive oil doesn’t mean quality. There are four levels of virgin olive oil. The lowest grade of virgin olive oil is not fit for human consumption and designated for “other” uses, like making soap.
The top of the line olive oil is extra virgin. This means it’s cold-pressed so the temperature during processing hasn’t exceed 86 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s also supposed to meet high standards of acidity and taste.
Independent tests at the University of California found that 69% of all store-bought extra virgin olive oils in the US are probably fake.
Oh man, that’s crushing! Looking at the label of a popular brand of “extra-virgin” olive oil (formerly) sitting in my pantry, I see that the country of origin is Spain (not Italy, where the product’s name would have you believe it came from). I also note that in the 14 grams of fat in each (one tablespoon) serving, 2 grams are saturated fat, and 2 grams are polyunsaturated fat. 28% of this brand of oil is not olive oil!
Kiri Tannenbaum explains why it’s also not “extra virgin”:
What does “extra-virgin” mean anyway? Extra-virgin is a term that olive oil producers use to relay that the olives have been pressed only one time during the process and that the oil has not been altered by chemical solvents or refined in any way. So it’s not possible for an olive oil to be “extra-light” or “blended” and also be “extra-virgin.”
Alban has lists of those brands which pass the “EVOO” test, and whose which fail. It’s interesting that a couple of brands from California exceed those from Italy in terms of quality and taste.
Time to head out and search for the “real thing.”