August 20, 2010

The Good, The Bad, and the EVOO

sites/default/files/olive_oil_green.jpgExtra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO). It’s a label you’ll find on a wide variety of products, but what does it really mean? More importantly, how does it differ from other labels, like “pure olive oil”?  If you find the answer to these questions elusive, you’re not alone.

In July, the UC Davis Olive Center released a study questioning the legitimacy of imported olive oil labeled “extra virgin.” According to the researchers, of the imported samples they examined, as many as 69 percent of those labeled “extra virgin” failed to meet the standards established by the International Olive Oil Council. A startling percentage of the olive oil had either been been degraded over time, diluted by lower quality oil, or made from poor quality or damaged olives.

In August a group of California restaurateurs and chefs turned up the heat on the issue by filing a lawsuit against several imported commercial olive oil companies named in the UC Davis study, such as Bertolli, Star, and the Rachael Ray brand.

Meanwhile, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is preparing to put into effect a new set of domestic guidelines that would spell out standards for a new voluntary label called “US Extra Virgin Olive Oil.” With all this controversy, one thing is clear: olive oil is murky business in more ways than one.

Hot and Cold

“When people hear ‘extra virgin olive oil,’” says Jonathan Sciabica of Sciabica and Sons, “they think it means it’s cold pressed, or it means it’s the first press.” In reality, he says, neither is necessarily true.

Earlier in the history of the olive oil industry, Sciabica says, when people actually squeezed burlap bags full of olive puree, the idea that the oil would be named “first press” or “second press” made some sense. “Now,” he adds, “with the modern method of making olive oil, what we consider a first press is mechanical extraction, so there’s really only one true press. There’s always some oil in the pomace left over, but not that we can get to. Nor would we want to.”

At this point, small companies generally discard the pomace. Some reuse it as fuel; others, like Sciabica, sell the pomace to cattle ranches for feed. Large olive producers, on the other hand, will use a chemical called hexane to extract the remaining oil, which will in turn needs to be refined (taken to extremely high temperatures while in a vacuum) to remove bitterness and other unsavory flavors and colors.

Here’s where “pure olive oil” comes into the picture, a term Jonathan Sciabica finds frustrating. “Your gut reaction is that it’s good because it’s pure,” he says.  In reality, the name refers to a blend made of a minimum of 10% virgin olive oil (a category below extra virgin) with as much as 90% refined, extracted olive oil that has been filtered, chemically treated, and steam blasted to make it edible.

“It’s the Olives, Stupid”

sites/default/files/olive_oil_plate.jpgLike Sciabica, Sebastian Bariani of Bariani Olive Oil is tired of misleading labels. “People will come up to my booth at the market and ask me what “Extra Virgin Supreme” means. And I’ll say ‘nothing — it’s just marketing!’”

To Bariani, whether or not an olive oil qualifies as extra virgin is beside the point. “EVOO has to meet certain parameters and undergo chemical analysis and tasting, but not all EVOOs are the same, so that’s not really saying much.” For example, in terms of polyphenols, an antioxidant found in olive oil, EVOOs can contain a wide range — from as low as 200 to around 800 (the latter is the quantity in Bariani Olive Oil, according to Bariani).  

Many large-scale producers use olive varieties bred to produce large quantities of oil, Bariani says. Harder-to-care-for varieties, such as Mission and Manzanilla (both historic California varieties), however, yield a higher quality, more flavorful oil.  The pressing process is also key. “If the process is cold, the nutrients stay in the oil — and it shows in the analysis. But if you heat up the oil to eliminate defects, you lose many of the nutrients.”

Neither Sciabica nor Bariani plans to adopt the U.S. label any time soon, mainly because they’re doubtful their customers will know to look for it. But both men are heartened by the mere fact that the issue is being raised.

“Most people don’t realize there’s a difference between olive oils, and they don’t know that we’re even making olive oil in California,” says Sciabica. (99% of the olive oil consumed in the US is said to come from out of the country). “This is the biggest step toward recognition we’ve had since my grandfather started making olive oil in 1936.”

Bariani agrees. “The fact that these other big brands are being questioned has definitely helped our business, as it has other local producers.”

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and its educational programs. Learn More »