Valdosta Daily Times

October 6, 2013

Don’t fall for fake extra virgin olive oil

Stuart Taylor
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — Take a look in your kitchen.

Somewhere in the cabinets and cupboards, you probably have some type of cooking oil: vegetable oil, canola oil, olive oil. Maybe virgin olive oil, maybe even extra virgin olive oil.

But that extra virgin olive oil might not be quite as extra virgin as you think.

That’s what a study by the University of California found a few years ago. Looking at California-grown and imported extra virgin olive oil, research found that 10 percent of California-grown and 69 percent of imported extra virgin olive oil failed to meet USDA and International Olive Council regulations.

The oils were tested on sensory standards — taste, smell, etc. — and the ones that failed were described as fusty, musty and rancid. Some of them were downgraded to virgin, which brings to question what “extra-virgin” actually means.

There’s a litany of check marks that have to be met for an olive oil to qualify as extra-virgin.

First and foremost, the olives have to be processed within 24 hours of being harvested. Processing has to involve no chemicals and has to be conducted under temperatures less than 30 degrees C, or 86 degrees F.

After the olives are washed — with water and only water — and ground down into an olive paste, they’re run through a machine called a malaxer. Think of the malaxer as a long trough with spiral mixing blades. The mixing helps the oil pick up more flavor from the olives, and a slight heating, if necessary, improves the separation of the oil and the olives.

For that separation, olive oil producers have a few choices, with one of the newer ones being the use of a centrifugal decanter. As the name implies, the decanter uses centrifugal force to separate the oil from the olives, spinning them apart.

Water used in the process is filtered out from the oil, leaving fresh extra-virgin olive oil, with a color somewhere between Day-Glo yellow and Mountain Dew.

The oil is allowed to settle and is then bottled, packaged and sent off to restaurants, grocery stores and kitchens.

Extra virgin olive oils can vary in taste and color — with more than 200 varieties of olives, it’d be hard not to — but they all have to meet the same sensory standards: a mild fruit flavor with a faint, peppery kick at the back of the throat.

Miss out on any of these steps — raise the temperature too high, mix some chemicals into the process — and the oil is downgraded.

Extra-virgin olive oil can also be downgraded with time. Think of it more as fruit juice, really; it has a limited shelf life. If a bottle gets too much sunlight or sits for too long, the oil, like an opened bottle of wine, can decline.

But why should you care? Two reasons.

The first is price. Extra-virgin olive oil usually costs a little extra. This makes olive oil scamming a lucrative market, with scammers passing off low-grade olive oil or hazelnut oil mixed with olive oil as extra-virgin olive oil. It’s a lucrative market, with one investigator of olive oil fraud cases likening the profits to cocaine trafficking.

The second is polyphenol. That’s the antioxidant found in olive oil that can help lower your blood pressure and cholesterol and it’s what causes that peppery kick. Extra-virgin olive oil generally has the highest polyphenol count of olive oils, but that count can go down if the oil ages too long or is improperly stored.

A few things to make the right choice:

— Look for a harvest date on the label; it should be no more than a year old for the best quality.

— Buy olive  oil that is in a dark container. When you get it home, store it somewhere cool and dark, in a closed cabinet rather than the shelf by the window.

— And with freshness being key, you can also buy local. The Georgia Olive Growers Association has slowly been working to bring olive oil production back into the region, taking advantage of the Georgia climate’s similarity with the Mediterranean. With the recent addition of an olive mill at Georgia Olive Farms in Lakeland, there’s now a place for area farmers to process their olives into extra-virgin olive oil, bringing a millenniums-old tradition from the Mediterranean right next door.