As noted above, the reality is that there are three - officially and regulated - commercial grades of olive oils recognized by the European Union (EU) and the International Olive Council (IOC): Olive Oil, Virgin Olive Oil, and Extra Virgin Olive Oil. As it is, however, in recent times, various commercial brands have begun to label their oils using terms such as "mild" and "intense" within the Olive Oil category (refined with some virgin). This new name is not contained in any legislation and tends to create confusion for the consumer, since it somehow tries to cover the entire range on demand, based primarily on refined olive oil.
The varying organoleptic intensity of oils is strongly associated with virgin and extra virgin oils because it is these oil types that contain the trace elements that are eliminated in the subsequent refining chemical process.
If we want a strong oil in scent and flavor, the we will pick an extra virgin from organoleptically more potent varieties, such as Picual or Hojiblanca, among others. And if what we want is something milder, we should turn to an Arbequina or Empeltre extra virgin, for example.
All olive oils have the same healthy qualities
This is not so. Virgin olive oils, olive juice, are comprised approximately of 97-98% triglycerides (fatty acids) and 2-3% minor elements or unsaponifiable fraction. Well, this last percentage - only present in virgin and extra virgin -, despite being small in volume, consists of over 250 compounds, among which are antioxidants, vitamins, chlorophylls, carotenoids, glycosides, etc.. These compounds are the ones responsible for giving oils their color, scent, and flavor. In the refining process, these minor elements are eliminated.
With this background we can distinguish two types of healthy qualities in olive oils:
Those that protect against coronary disease (blood pressure, heart, diabetes, cholesterol), thanks to the high percentage of oleic acid, monounsaturated in olive oil. These benefits are attributable to the three commercial categories, whether virgin or refined.
The remaining healthy properties attributed to olive juice in recent times, which are many. Powerful cellular antioxidant effect against various types of cancers (breast, colon, etc..), effects against cognitive diseases (Alzheimer's disease, senile dementia, etc..), positive effects on erection, anti-aging, vasodilatory effects, etc.. This set of health benefits is in fact due to the minor elements mentioned earlier, and therefore, only attributable to virgin and extra virgin olive oils.
In other words, olive oil (refined) is good, but virgin oils are exceptional, and they are the only ones that make it possible to enjoy all of the health benefits that are discovered day to day by the international scientific community.
Bitterness and pungency are defects in an olive oil
Despite being completely false, this is a widespread belief among the Spanish people.
The bitterness in olive oils comes from oleuropein, a powerful antioxidant found in healthy and well developed olives. The pungency, which is actually is a tactile sensation, comes from oleocanthal, an ester with anti-inflammatory properties.
Bitterness and pungency, provided they are moderate and balanced, show that oils have a higher proportion of minor elements and the olives were milled at their best. They can also usually be associated with highly positive organoleptic aromas and flavors, for the culinary uses of the oil.
Some defects in oils related with… those oils “we’ve known forever”
There is widespread confusion, especially in oil-producing areas, that certain defects are actually positive qualities because consumers are reminded of the oils "they’ve known forever". This applies especially to the defect known as “atrojado”, or fusty.
Fustiness comes from an anaerobic fermentation, a decay that occurs when olives, once collected, await grinding for more than 24 hours. Therefore, the fusty attribute in an oil is undoubtedly a defect and never a positive quality. In fact, if it appears in the official tasting, the oil cannot be qualified as extra virgin, and if its intensity is large (greater than 3.5 over 10), then the oil will be classified as lampante and should be refined.
It may remind us of romantic old mills, or even recall childhood memories, because most oils were previously fusty ... but this is, infact, a defect.
Olive oil tasting is subjective because it is performed by people
False. The official tasting of olive oil is a formal science, perfectly standardized, and it is performed by professionals who are trained and officially certified. When the same oil is officially tasted by two expert panels, the differences in the final organoleptic assessment are non-existent or very small.
Therefore, tasting must endure as a required parameter for the official classification of olive oil, because this is the only way to offer the world a unique, fruity product, devoid of defects. The opposite scenario is to certify the death of the healthiest of known foods, extra virgin olive oil.
José María Penco Valenzuela
Project Director AEMO