The fruit from which it is derived was reputedly given to the Greeks by the goddess Athena as a gift. Homer called it “liquid gold”, and prophets from various religious have had their heads anointed with it. And yet, you can buy this mysterious nectar at your local Spar.
I am talking, of course, about olive oil, the oil pressed from the fruit of the Olea europaea or European olive tree. Once the preserve of well-heeled foodies, this versatile, delicious and healthy product is now widely available and at sometimes surprisingly affordable prices.
All created equal?
We all know that the oil is good for us because of its high content of monounsaturated fatty acids and antioxidative substances. Studies have shown that olive oil offers protection against heart disease by controlling LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels while raising HDL (the "good" cholesterol) levels. Are all olive oils created equal?
Definitely not! If you take a look around, you will find that there is a range of olive oils, and a range of prices. Some slippery customers at the lower end of the market are happy to sell you heavily processed, chemically treated oils in the hope that you will be fooled into thinking they are as healthy as any other olive oil. Sadly, the rule of “you get what you pay for” generally applies, and often the cheaper brands are no better for you than good old sunflower oil. Here is the low-down on what to look out for.
The International Olive Oil Council (IOOC) has defined the following grades of olive oil, and because all labelling must adhere to the definitions as standardized by the IOOC, the specific label is your guarantee of quality.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil is the oil from the first pressing of the olive fruit through the cold pressing process, where the olives are crushed in an environment that does not exceed a certain temperature, as heat degrades the oil. The resulting oil must have an acidity of less than 0.8% and possess a superior flavour.
Virgin Olive Oil is also cold-pressed, but the fruit tends to be of a lower quality, which leads to a higher acidity level (still less than 2%).
Pure Olive Oil/Olive Oil comes from the second cold pressing of the olive fruit or from a chemical extraction of the olive mash, with a maximum acidity of 1.5%. It also may be a blend of oil obtained from a combination of pressings. It lacks superior flavour but has a higher smoking point than virgin or virgin oil, making it better for deep-frying.
Refined Olive Oil is an oil that has been chemically treated to neutralise its acidity – tasteless, but with low acidity (less that 0.3%).
Olive-Pomace Oil is the last dregs of oil extracted from the leftover pulp after the first and second pressings, using solvents and heat. It edible, but is not something a foodie should be putting in their mouth.
“Light” Olive Oil is a marketing concept and not a classification of olive oil grades. It is completely unregulated and therefore you have no guarantee what its content should be. The olive oil may be blended with other vegetable oils, and may not have any fewer calories than regular olive oil.
Any other descriptions on the label (“100% pure”, “first press”, “bottled in…”) are sales speak. You have been warned!