Olive Oil – Extra Virgin and Beyond

When buying olive oil I often wondered how there could be so many brands at such different prices.   If you go into Whole Foods the unit price cost per gallon can vary dramatically.  Trader Joe’s sells its ‘organic extra-virgin’ olive oil quite inexpensively.     In addition, one can see distinct color variations between oils in clear bottles.  What does this difference mean in terms of phytonutrients, taste and integrity?

The term ‘extra virgin’ is one that most people including myself are not clear on its definition.   ‘Extra Virgin’ is a baseline standard that embraces any oil made by solely mechanical means, instead of chemical treatment.  It also must have less than 0.8 percent of free acidity, a laboratory measurement of rancidity or free-radicals. Extra-virgin oils also are forbidden to have “disgusting odors such as rancidity, putridity, smoke, and mold”.    Unfortunately the label can say ‘extra-virgin’ even if it does not meet the above standards.

The rancidity level of an oil is interesting.  I most certainly notice a difference between how high a heat I can apply to different olive oils.  Some oils start to impart a rancid smell rather quickly in the frying pan, while others I notice can cook longer.  Olive oil should not be heated at a high temperature, but I noticed some impart a rancid smell even at low temperatures.  (Rancid oils are probably one of the most common ways people increase the oxidative stress in their body.  Olive oil loses its antioxidant potential as it sits, even in closed containers.)

Some of the answers to may questions regarding olive oil quality have been answered by the UC Davis Olive Oil Center.   They released a report stating that 73 of the tested brands of olive oils sold in the United States failed standards for ‘extra-virgin’ olive oil:   “Our testing indicated that the samples failed extra virgin olive oil standards according to one or more of the following: (a) oxidation by exposure to elevated temperatures, light, and/or aging; (b) adulteration with cheaper refined olive oil; and (c) poor quality oil made from damaged and overripe olives, processing flaws, and/or improper oil storage.”

In other words most olive oils sold in groceries skimp out in some way to lower the price.    So many of us buy a ‘first-cold pressed’ oil that is not technically ‘extra virgin’ even though the label states it is ‘extra virgin’.  Olive oil really isn’t much different than nutritional supplements.  You get what you pay for.   In general the more expensive oil the better it did in testing, but sometimes even expensive oils failed a certain category.  (In this study they did not purchase oils from Whole Foods or Traders Joe’s, but rather typical standard American grocery stores found in California.)

Whole Food’s top shelf stocks olive oils that over $120 per gallon.   I’ve had the pleasure of using that olive oil when I was a personal chef for an affluent client.   And boy was this olive oil different!   The flavors and aroma were dynamic and one could tell it significant superiority to the olive oil in my kitchen cupboards.   There most certainly is a difference in quality between a not so expensive oil and more pricey ones.

The question is it worth the difference?   If you are a ‘foodie’ then maybe so.   In terms of health for the general population I am not convinced.   Is having say an extra 0.5% less rancidity worth paying an extra $.50 cents per ounce?  Given all the ways our food can be oxidized I’m not sure it is worth the extra cost.

There is a new book that will be released in a few weeks about the business of olive oil.   It should be an interesting read to get an understanding of how oil is manipulated.

All in all the slick business world of olive oil should be of little concern given the grander lies on a global scale effecting us  socioeconomically.   But it is good to know a bit more about what we are actually purchasing.

Here is an Ode to Olive Oil.

Yours In Health,

George Mandler

Acupuncturist and Licensed Dietitian / Nutritionist


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