I had known for some time that there were a lot of myths about olive oil floating around there, but it was hearing a talk at the International Food Blogger Conference last July by Dan Flynn, executive director of the University of California, Davis, Olive Center that made me want to do my part to shout out some olive oil facts to help bust the myths. (Here’s a blog post I wrote a few weeks later.)
Then in August, I saw that Oregon Olive Mill was going to be offering an olive oil tasting at my local Whole Foods. I had no idea that anyone in the Northwest was milling olive oil, so that was an exciting addition to the future article that was forming in my head. (Travel tip: If you’re looking for a lovely wine country getaway with an olive oil twist, Red Ridge Farms, home of both Oregon Olive Mill and Durant Vineyards, has some pretty lodging options.)
In researching the article, I reached out to the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) for more information, and their executive vice president, Eryn Balch, was very helpful. As much as it pained me, I only had room in my Seattle Times article to use a fraction of the information I gleaned from her, so I am (as is often my custom), putting some of the extra “outtakes” into this blog post! I’ll start with a Q&A from my exchange with Balch.
A Quick Q&A + Videos
Q: Can you clarify the role NAOOA plays in verifying that EVOO sold in the United States is, in fact, EVOO?
A: Yes, the NAOOA regularly tests all types of olive oils. To check for authenticity and purity (adulteration with other oils, or refined olive oil in EVOO) we use laboratories recognized by the IOC [International Olive Council] to run a full battery of tests to confirm the proper grade level. For the NAOOA Quality Seal program, extra virgin olive oils must also pass a sensory evaluation by an IOC-recognized panel (currently, all IOC panels are located overseas) in addition to the laboratory analysis.
Q: Since “home testing” olive oil by putting in the fridge or assessing its color isn’t a reliable test of quality, what should consumers look for? Is a quality seal the only sure way? Is the NAOOA Quality Seal the only mark of an oil that meets quality standards?
For purity and authenticity, laboratory testing is the only way to confirm adulteration. Luckily, associations like ours spend a lot of our budget checking for adulteration and alerting authorities when we find it so consumers don’t have to worry much. A good rule of thumb would be if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Quality though can be checked through smell and taste. The most common challenge would be old or improperly stored oil which becomes rancid. Think of what rancid smells and tastes like in other products, such as nuts. If someone isn’t sure, you can learn by making an oil go bad—put some oil in a clear glass container with no lid and keep it in a sunny window and/or hot place. Check on it once in a while until you notice a change in the aroma. On the palate, rancid flavors are often described as waxy (crayons), cardboard, or peanut butter. If you taste it, even a mildly rancid oil will be very flat and have a greasy mouthfeel.
Consumers can also practice by taking a class, visiting a store that has samples open for tasting, or reading tips and watching videos online.
Q: Is there any home cooking method that would likely use a temperature that exceeds EVOO’s true smoke point? A lot will depend on the quality/age/condition of the oil.
A: I use EVOO for everything—sautéing, baking, roasting, grilling, searing, pan-frying, and have never had a problem. But, I do think this is where value comes into play—with extended heating like long roasting times, you will lose some flavor, especially complex nuances. In that case I would use a reasonably priced everyday EVOO for the roasting and then finish the dish with a drizzle of a more complex-flavored EVOO.
Q: My understanding is that quality EVOO still has its antioxidants, which protect the oil from degrading when heated (so while those antioxidants may be used up during cooking and not be available to our bodies, we still benefit from the qualities of the monounsaturated fatty acids themselves—which have not been degraded)?
A: Antioxidants are different from monounsaturated fat, which is the “good” fat. While antioxidants diminish both over time and at high heat, the monounsaturated fat content doesn’t change. Both the FDA and the American Heart Association have recognized the cardiovascular health benefits of replacing saturated fats with monounsaturated fat like olive oil. Most importantly, in the big picture good foods work together to increase overall benefits, for example some studies have shown that the body absorbs more nutrients from greens and vegetables when these are consumed with a monounsaturated fat like olive oil.
More Links to Olive Oil Facts
- Olive Oil Tips for Consumers (from UC Davis Olive Center)
- The UC Davis Report that got so badly misrepresented (in case you want to geek out a bit)
- An Olive Oil Times article about a New York Times infographic that unfortunately helped spread the myth that most olive oil is adulturated