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9 Things You Need to Know About Olive Oil

The ancient Greeks were on to something when they referred to olive oil as an “elixir of youth and health.” This oil is derived from the fruit of the olive tree, cultivated mainly in the Mediterranean for over 5,000 years. A few millennia later, research continues to untangle all the potential health benefits of making liberal use of this culinary grease in our diets. Time to strike oil, indeed.

Shall we declare olive oil the gold standard for healthy culinary grease?

Yes, olive oil can be considered a health-hiking food but that should not motivate you to pass shooters around the table. It’s important to remember that as a pure fat it is a very calorie dense with each tablespoon supplying 120 calories. So using it too liberally can send your diet into calorie excess which could be bad news for your six-pack pursuit. As a general recommendation, it’s probably a good idea to limit your total portion of liquid oils including olive to 2 tablespoons daily.

For as many different olive oils there are nowadays, it seems there are just as many confusing and at times misleading terms plastered on labels. Here’s how to decipher the verbiage so you know what you are getting.

But since the refined versions still contain just as much monounsaturated fat they are hardly junk food.

The light (refined) variety of olive oil has a more neutral flavor and greater heat tolerance (higher smoke point) than extra-virgin or virgin so it’s a better choice for high-heat cooking such as grilling your steak or for use in baked goods when you don’t want a strong olive oil flavor to come through. Besides, an investigation in the journal Food Research International found that heating extra-virgin olive oil can cause some of its antioxidant potency to go downhill.

The upshot is that you are best served using much less expensive refined (light) olive oil for cooking purposes and saving that bottle of pricey extra-virgin for unheated applications such as salad dressings and dips when you can better take advantage of its robust flavor and health-hiking nutrition.

It’s a fallacy that you need to hand over your paycheck to score a worthy bottle of extra-virgin olive oil. Sure, there are some exquisite bottles of oil from estates in France and Italy that cost a small fortune, but there are also plenty of options on the market that ring in at less than $20 a bottle that still bring to the table wonderful flavor nuances. It might just be a matter of trying out a few brands to see which one pleases you most.

The flavor is influenced by the growing region and type of olive tree it is extracted from. While one oil can be peppery and assertive, another will taste fruity or grassy. Again, use your taste buds to determine which one you want in your kitchen.

The vast majority of the estimated 750 million olive trees cultivated for olive oil production are found in the Mediterranean, mainly Spain, Greece and Italy. But that does not mean these regions have a patent on making great olive oil. Truth be told, some of the best olive oil I’ve doused my salad greens in have hailed from the U.S., with budget-friendly prices. In the 18th century, Spanish missionaries brought olives to California and planted them along the coast. But today, just about 5% of the estimated 90 million gallons of olive oil consumed annually in the U.S. are produced here. Which is a shame, because of what is outlined below.

Strict production regulations including outlawing chemical extraction, testing for defects, and allowing a very low content of free fatty acids – an indicator of freshness – means extra virgin olive oils bearing the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) or Olive Oil Commission of California (OOCC) seal have a leg up on many of their European counterparts. Georgia is also producing quality oils under the guidance of the Georgia Olive Growers Association. Some people are spurred on to buy closer to home by quality concerns of extra-virgin olive oil hailing from Europe where some extra-virgin products are cut with low-grade oils or mislabeled. Yes, olive oil fraud is sadly not uncommon.

And American producers can often take their product from harvest to store shelves quicker than products from Europe helping assure a fresher tasting oil.

So go ahead and practice some gastronomic patriotism with these three stand-out American oils.

Like lettuce and berries, olive oil is a perishable food and several factors can affect its quality and freshness—from temperature and light to how long it’s been sitting on the supermarket store shelve. Pouring rancid oil on your spinach is never a good thing.

Extra-virgin is best consumed within two years of the olive harvest date. Unfortunately, many olive oils don’t provide their harvest dates (likely because they’re combining a blend of oils from different countries with differing harvest dates). But several oils do provide these dates somewhere on the label and you can look for the most recent harvest date you can find. When purchasing online, try to pick a product where the harvest date is listed on the site somewhere.

Avoid buying olive oils in clear glass bottles, which increase the likelihood of light damage which hastens rancidity. Instead, look for bottles that are packaged in tinted glass or tins. If your oil does not come in a dark bottle make sure to store it in a cool, dark area. Oil’s enemies are oxygen, heat, and light. Plastic is permeable which can cause the oil to oxidize and degrade faster than oils stored in glass or tin—though a plastic bottle is likely fine if the oil is used up within a couple of months.


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