September 11, 2013
An Unpalatable Truth - The Olive Oil Scandal
If olive oil is a staple in your families' diet, please read this and then think about finding a trusted olive oil in your local supermarket (not easy) or buying it directly from a producer. Many organic olive oil farms around Europe and even California have consortiums. This means you order your oil before the harvest and the farm ships directly to you. Smaller farms, like mine in Tuscany, produce limited amounts of oil. If you live in Canada, we can ship this year's harvest of our hand picked, organic, cold-pressed Extra Virgin olive oil to you in time for Christmas. If you live in the United States, I recommend that you try Frances Mayes' (from Under the Tuscan Sun Fame) olive oil. Both are fantastic, but read the facts below - it may just shock you.
I have become obsessed with olive oil. I am fascinated by this sustainable food product in many different ways, but lately I have found myself horrified. A year ago I delved into the world of organic olive oil production, a far cry from painting, decorating and TV production. I wrote a blog about our first harvest in 2012, where we handpicked the 600 olive trees that surround our property, a large ruin in the heart of Tuscany that is uninhabitable at the moment but being converted into a small luxury inn. The olive trees need picking each October. As you can see from the passionate video attached, made by my talented son, harvesting olives is a labour of love on small, organic farms, but the result is a robust, super healthy and delicious product. Sadly this is not always the case with many oils offered at your local supermarket. There is not a parent out there who does not want to give their children the very best, but the world of olive oil is a leading example of how challenging it is to get it right. Let me explain.
Over the last decade we have attempted to understand the plethora of information of the labels on the back of food products. Now we also have to pay attention and understand the labels on the front. If you have made the beneficial switch from highly processed oils such as Canola oil to a natural oil such as olive oil, you must know the facts about olive oil and the scandal that has erupted all over Europe about the abuse of this wonderful product before you make your next purchase or you could be doing more harm than good. As The Daily Mail says – the problem is where there's money, there's crime, and olive oil is a very valuable commodity. This symbol of health and purity has become deeply corrupt. The New York Times best selling book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller, has rocked the world of olive oil production and is a real eye-opener into the world of food labeling. It also defends the extraordinary oils that truly deserve the name "extra virgin". If you get a chance, please read it but in the meantime this is what you should be looking for when you next buy your oil.
From Extra Virginity:
What to look for:
1. Organic This means the oils have not been sprayed with pesticides.
2. Cold-pressed If it does not say cold pressed the oil is extracted by a chemical process.
3. Extra Virgin This is the highest quality and means it has been produced without the use of any chemical solvents. In order for an olive oil to qualify as "extra virgin" the oil must have passed official tests to prove that it is free from any defects and additives.
5. Dark bottles Choose dark bottles or cans over clear glass as they protect the contents from damaging UV rays that make the oil rancid.
6. Date Look for a harvest date or a sell by date (many oils will not have one) because olive oil deteriorates with age. In fact, if you do see a harvest date, you have probably scored a bottle of unadulterated fresh olive oil.
7. Trusted source Find a store where you can taste the oil before purchasing and smell the oil. It should be fresh and fruity and taste a little peppery. If it smells like rancid butter, it is old.
8. Small quantities Only buy a quantity that you will use up quickly, such as a 1L container.
9.Colour The colour of good oil depends on the time of harvest and the type of cultivar and will range from a light green to a deep green.
What to be aware of:
1. The words 'pure', 'light,' 'pomace olive' and just 'olive oil' means the olive oil have undergone chemical treatment, which strips away the benefits of the olives. If the word 'pure' describes your oil then legally there only need be 16% olives in this oil – what else is in there?
2. Don't be fooled by Italian flags and pictures of quaint farms on the label. Large amounts of 'Italian' olive oil on the market are a blend of other oils such as low-grade and even lamp oil. It may say Italian, but check that it is not just bottled and labeled in Italy.
3. Beware of any olive oil under $12 a litter – it is unlikely to be made from 100% olives and extra virgin. Producing genuine extra virgin olive oil is expensive.
4. If the bottle says it has a high FFA (free fatty acids) this generally means it is poor oil.
5. Only extra virgin oils have the full health benefits attributed to olives as the refining process removes many of the vitamins.
6. Fresh olive oil should be peppery and alive and when sipped neat, (I have a spoonful every morning), should make you cough a little as the pepperiness tickles the back of your throat.
7. If it is not organic that means the olives have been sprayed and you can be sure much of the pesticides are in the oil.
8. If it does not say cold pressed then the oil has been extracted by chemical process.
9. If it does not say Extra Virgin then the oil is coming from a mulch of second, third and fourth extractions – it is not straight from the olive after it has been pressed for the first time. It also needs to pass an inspection in order to be called 'extra virgin'.
10. If there is no expiry or harvest date on the container you have no idea how old it is.
I hope this blog does not sound like too much of a nag, but just think; there are generations who think Aunt Jemima is maple syrup (it is actually modified corn syrup, flavoured and dyed). The truth behind your olive oil is exactly the same thing. Like maple syrup, olive oil is an ancient, incredibly healthy super food. You just have to make sure you are buying the real thing.