Since the history of the olive tree predates written language, it’s hard to get a handle on the early days of olive oil production. Olive trees were first domesticated in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) around 6000 years ago. Olive oil production has been documented as early as 2500 B.C. in the Minoan civilization in Greece. In the Ancient World, it was used for things like lamp oil, medicinal ointments, and even played an important part of religious ceremonies and anointing royalty or warriors. From the Mediterranean basin and Middle East, olive oil production spread to Italy, where it became an important part of Roman culture. Excavations of Ancient Greek and Roman sites from as early as the Bronze Age find documentation of pressing methods and these Mediterranean cultures mechanized the process in their own time using various cylinders and countermeasures. The Romans, particularly, were responsible for a significant uptick in oil production during the late centuries of the Republic and early centuries of the Empire. During the first century of the Roman Empire, emperors encouraged plantation and production of oil in their territories, including Spain, once again expanding the olive oil footprint. Eventually the olive tree was brought to the New World by Spanish explorers in the 1500s and in the 1700s the Franciscan Missionaries planted olive groves as they established their Missions along 600 miles of California coast. With a rich history tracking ancient civilizations and empires, olive oil has remained an important cultural touchstone with incredible staying power.
Olive Oil’s long history has revealed some nice health benefits to go along with its great taste. Olive oil is an important component of the Mediterranean diet, whose cardiovascular benefits have been documented. Studies have been done that have pointed to olive oil’s possible role in preventing factors leading to heart disease. Studies have also shown a related ability of olive oil to positively affect blood pressure. The Mediterranean diet has also been linked to helping with weight loss and even diabetes management. From a chemical perspective, there are a few important components of olive oil that make it part of a healthy diet. First, olive oil is full of mono and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Unlike butter’s saturated fatty acids, these unsaturated versions provide more cardiovascular benefits by maintaining a better balance between “good” (HDL) and “bad” (LDL) cholesterol. Extra virgin olive oil is also known to contain a higher concentration of phenols, which can also be instrumental to balancing cholesterol levels. From a chemical perspective to its part of a larger lifestyle, olive oil is the healthy option.
Olive oil has a variety of designations that indicate quality, freshness and taste. Extra virgin olive oil has been determined to be of the highest quality and unsurpassed taste. This designation is based on a few factors:
- Composition- This might seem a bit obvious, but the oil must be composed of only juice extracted directly from olives. It cannot not be cut, combined, or blended with other oils or flavors and must not be chemically enhanced. You may have seen oils flavored with garlic, lemon, basil, or other herbs and extracts. While perhaps tasty, know that these oils are not, by definition, extra virgin.
- Pressing Method- The extraction method used must be what is called cold pressing. As you might expect, this is done only through mechanically pressing without the aid of any heating elements. This again, is to insure an unadulterated or altered product.
- Chemical Composition-There are also a couple chemical composition benchmarks an oil must meet to garner the extra virgin label. The free fatty acid and peroxide levels correlate with the breakdown and oxidation of an oil and thus are direct indicators of quality. The international limits set by standards bodies is 0.8% free fatty acid and 20 meq/ kg peroxide.
- Taste- There is no specific way for extra virgin olive oil to taste. It depends on the varietal used, time of harvest and other factors. But extra virgin olive oil is judged by a panel of expert tasters to ensure no defects in the flavor profile.
Unsurprisingly, the health benefits of olive oil are most pronounced in extra virgin offerings. Most of the studies cited in the previous section were done with true extra virgin olive oil. Specifically, extra virgin oils have the highest concentration of polyphenols. These compounds have been linked to the beneficial cholesterol reduction of olive oil. So not only is extra virgin olive oil the best option taste and quality-wise, but it’s also the most beneficial for your health!
Even with the various standards just getting an olive oil with extra virgin on the label is not a guarantee of quality. Recently there have been studies that close to half the imported olive oil labeled as extra virgin does not meet quality standards. This is extremely frustrating for consumers who are paying a premium for that extra virgin designation. Whether they are looking for the superior taste or the added health benefits, consumers are being deceived by what they trust is a higher quality olive oil. Luckily there are a few things you can do to make sure your olive oil is of the highest quality.
First, you should always check for a harvest date. Olive oil does not get better with age like wine. It is more susceptible to oxidation, deteriorating and losing many of its healthy properties. This is often the issues with the imported oils. There can be a waiting times that stretch into years before those oils hit the shelves, eliminating any quality they may have had. Choosing an oil with a recent harvest date will help avoid these issues.
Secondly, you can look for oils that verify quality via chemical analysis. A true extra virgin olive oil as defined by international standards will have no more than 0.8% fatty acid and 20 meq/kg peroxide values. These values can be verified by the oil manufacturer independently or as part of a certification program. The California Olive Oil Council (COOC) has a particularly rigorous certification process. Their chemical analysis standards are actually even more stringent than international standards. The COOC requires a maximum of 0.5% free fatty acid and 20 meq/kg peroxide. In addition to the chemical analysis certified extra virgin oils must be taste tested by an approved panel. This kind of qualification and benchmarks will also help you determine whether the oil you choose is truly worth of its extra virgin label.
The main enemies of extra virgin olive oil quality are heat, light, and air. So you should store your oil in a cool, dark place. Also, be sure to keep your oil closed as much as possible.