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Extra Virgin Olive Oil: From the Grove to the Stove

By Johan Mengesha

In Greek mythology, it is believed that the olive tree was a gift from Athena to the people of Attica as she competed with Poseidon for the honor of being the city’s patron god, an honor she would go on to claim. Had it been the Food and Drug Administration Athena had to impress, she probably would have lost to Poseidon and his gift horse.

Their bad cholesterol will go down, blood pressure will drop and even heartburn can get better.

Dr. Catherine Shanahan, MD

Part of a Heart-Healthy Diet

Dr. Catherine Shanahan, MD, a family physician in Bedford, New Hampshire, believes olive oil is a superior product compared to certain other fats, such as vegetable oils, due to the way those other fats are produced.

“During the process of extracting (vegetable) oil, the fatty acids are exposed to more heat than they should be and begin to degrade," Shanahan said. "Then, during refining steps called bleaching and deodorizing, the degradation really takes off."

Shanahan, author of the book Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food, said vegetable oils have more polyunsaturated fats than monounsaturated fats, something that makes them more susceptible to heat than olive oil. When exposed to high temperatures, nutrients such as Omega-3 are lost from the oil, according to Shanahan.

“If someone switches to extra virgin olive oil, you’ll see all kinds of benefits,” Shanahan said. “Their bad cholesterol will go down, blood pressure will drop and even heartburn can get better.”

In November 2004, the FDA concluded that there was enough evidence of the health benefits of olive oil to officially endorse claims that doctors and nutritionists have been making for years. They released a statement that said “limited and not conclusive evidence” suggests that 2 tablespoons of olive oil per day might reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. The oil should be substituted for saturated fats you might be consuming, and it should not increase your daily caloric intake. Not a ringing endorsement, but one just the same.

Domestic Olive Oil

Virgin olive oils are defined as oils extracted from olives that haven’t received any treatment besides washing, decanting, centrifuging and filtration, and that haven’t been exposed to any conditions that could have altered the oils in any way. There are three types of virgin olive oils: Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), virgin olive oil and ordinary olive oil. The USDA has specific requirements for what gets to carry the "extra virgin" label, stating that those oils has to have excellent flavor and smell, at least some hint of fruitiness, and zero defects. The levels of oleic acid in the oil also play a part, where EVOO cannot exceed 0.8 grams per 100 grams of oil.

As media coverage of EVOO has increased in the past few years, touting its many health benefits, so has the domestic production of this golden oil. Dan Flynn, executive director for the UC Davis Olive Center, said California produces 99 percent of the nation’s domestic olive oil and that the 2010 numbers will exceed 1 million gallons for the first time.

“To put that in perspective, the U.S. consumes 75 million gallons of olive oil per year,” Flynn said.

The reason for the increase is due to more olive trees having been planted in the past that are now ready for harvesting. Flynn said there were about 6,200 acres of land used for olive growing in 2004, and in 2010 that number has reached about 22,000 to 25,000 acres. Compare that to the 6 million acres in Spain and 3.5 million acres in Italy, and you realize why olive oil is so widely used in the Mediterranean countries.

Researching the different types of olive oil can be compared to entering the world of wine tasting. There are fancy terms thrown around, such as astringent, harmonious and herbaceous, which are all good. Esparto, fiscolo and dreggish, on the other hand, are not. When it comes to harvesting and storage, it all plays a major part in how the final product will get along with your palate. Missing are the French Oak barrels so visible in wine-making. In the production of olive oil, prolonged storing of the fruit before milling can make the oil taste “fusty,” a dirty, dusty flavor caused by rotten or fermented olives.

The New Wine Tasting?

One of California’s many olive growers is Temecula Olive Oil Company, a family-run business founded in 2001. They have tasting rooms in Old Town Temecula and Old Town San Diego where the public is welcome to a free olive oil tasting to sample their products, which vary by season. One of the first EVOOs you might taste is the Citrus Reserve, a remarkably fresh-tasting oil cold pressed with blood oranges, guaranteed to awaken your inner chef and have you start thinking of recipes to try it with as it’s coating your taste buds. You will find no bread to dip in the oil, instead you take a small sip of the oil in a tiny plastic container.

“Bread can mask the flavor of the oil,” said Alexa Hokanson, manager at the Old Town Temecula location. “People can be a bit resistant to sipping the oil as opposed to dipping. Especially older people, who remember taking a spoonful of castor oil or cod liver oil as kids.”

That’s why she likes to start off with the citrus oil, because it gets people to associate it with food, and then they open up to the whole experience. The ensuing journey of extra virgin olive oils and balsamic vinegars is an experience that doesn’t require as sophisticated a palette as wine tasting does. The flavor can be subtle, or it can perform a culinary coup d’etat of your senses, burn your throat and slip your credit card to the cashier before you even know what happened. It’s an adult candy store fully endorsed by your inner organs.

In the Kitchen

Dione Duhon, executive chef of The Fit Gourmet of New Orleans, a gourmet home delivery company, only cooks with EVOO for her clients. Duhon, an honorary graduate from Le Cordon Bleu in London, England, said she switched over to cooking with EVOO after one of her clients requested to have all their food cooked with olive oil. As she tasted the food cooked with olive oil, she realized how much better it tasted and made the switch for all her dishes.

“I love to grill with it,” she said. “The olive oil allows the natural flavors of the vegetables to come out.”

High-quality EVOO can be on the expensive side, but you don’t need to use a lot of it. Duhon recommends tasting as you go.

“It’s easy to add, but difficult to take away,” she said.

There is a lot of contradictory information regarding cooking with EVOO, and it all comes down to the smoke point. The smoke point is the temperature at which the cooking fat breaks down and, as a consequence, loses its health benefits while toxic products form. In other words, if you’re cooking with olive oil, and you notice it starts to smoke, get rid of it and start over.

“You will take the oxidation from the oil and put it in your body,” said Los Angeles-based dietician Ashley Koff, RD. “It takes a good thing and makes it bad for you.”

However, according to the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC), EVOO has a smoke point of 410 degrees Fahrenheit, making it more than suitable to cook with. The quality of the oil will play a part in how fast it reaches the smoke point. Smoke point will probably vary slightly from oil to oil, so if you’re unsure, you can always buy a frying thermometer and measure it whenever you buy a new bottle.

With all the health benefits of olive oil, it's hard to come up with reasons for why you shouldn't make the switch to EVOO. So the next time you're strolling down the oil isle of the grocery store, pick up a bottle of olive oil and give it a try. Make sure it's extra virgin and spend a few dollars more for a good brand. Your health will improve, and you will enjoy your food a lot more.

EVOO Shopping Tips

Shopping for olive oil can be quite confusing with all the options presented, but there are clues to look for. The UC Davis Olive Center's Dan Flynn suggests looking for a harvest date on the bottle to determine the age of the oil. He said the expiration date is not always a good indicator of the age of the oil because it is based on when the oil was bottled, not when it was pressed.

Stay away from bottles if they have been exposed to direct sunlight or heat for a long time, as the oil is very light and heat sensitive.

For domestic olive oil, look for the California Olive Oil Council seal, a marker for high-quality olive oil, according to Flynn.

When you open bottle at home, take a small sip and smell it. It should smell fresh and have a fruity flavor to it.

A lot of California olive oil producers sell their products online as well, so even if you're not on the west coast, you can still get a hold of some domestic olive oil if it's not available in your local grocery store.

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