Traditions, uses... and some false myths about olive oil
The uses, not only for olive oil, but also of the olive fruit, and even olive wood, either as medicine, cosmetics, hygiene, or decoration, are innumerable.
Virgin olive oil has long played a vital role in the care of the body, either to cure its disease, or to embellish it, from the time of the Phoenicians, through civilizations as important as the Persian, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman, to the Middle Ages, and even in modern day, when traditions are preserved in rural areas throughout the Mediterranean basin. The versatility of olive oil has made it favorable, through the ages, for direct consumption and in the form of ointments or poultices, alone or mixed with other natural products. It has also been given the most common of uses, as its wood is used for the manufacture of furniture of any kind, and it is well known that olive oil soap has been manufactured in many homes until recent times
Surely, its nutritional, medicinal and therapeutic properties are what made it an essential part of the worship of the gods in the classical civilizations and even in Christianity.
For these reasons, both olive oil and the olive branch have become symbols of immortality, peace, reconciliation, wisdom, virginity, intelligence, eternity, fertility, and victory, among others.
EToday, the great versatility of extra virgin olive oil has been recovered in a wide range of products, making it possible to find all kinds of marketed creams, sunscreens, shampoos, gels and body soaps made with olive oil as a base. It is also available in the form of convenient capsules and chewing gum. And its good qualities are even being taken advantage of in the making cookies, potato chips, ice cream, butter, margarine, and olive sorbets or pâtés.
The importance of olive oil also extends to popular culture, as an essential part of festivals, traditions, stories and poetry.
From 0.4° to cold pressed: some misconceptions that should be clarified
But there is another part, not so positive, within consumer understanding, which refers to some of the myths that surround olive juice in present day. One of the most common errors today, when are talking about olive oil, is the predominant idea existing in the mind of the consumer that 0.4° olive oil is ideal for cooking, while 1º is better for raw consumption. This assessment is not entirely correct. The best known and more widely used olive oil is, indeed, refined olive oil, containing a small percentage of virgin olive oil.
The brands traditionally selling these oils have very effectively positioned their use, either for 0.4° or 1°. But it is important to note that olive oil, virgin olive oil, and extra virgin olive oil are all ideal for cooking, each contributing more or less mildness, or better or worse flavor to dishes, depending to their characteristics and taste.
However, we should also keep in mind that there is great a difference between the virgin and refined oils. Virgin oils are the juice of the olive fruit, obtained by methods that do not alter the oil composition, while what is called olive oil (refined olive oil with an added part of virgin) has undergone a refining process, which involves factors such neutralization, bleaching or deodorization. Moreover, extra virgin olive oil also offers a myriad of hues that serve to enrich foods, both raw and cooked.
It is important to clarify that acidity is not the only characteristic that determines the quality of an oil, since other chemical and organoleptic factors also come into play when classifying oil. Low acidity is highly valued in an oil, but as long as the officially allowed 0.8º is not surpassed, there is subjectivity in this sense, in the consumer's palate.
In cooking, virgin olive oil goes further than other vegetable oils because it resists more frying without losing its beneficial health qualities, so ultimately, it is less expensive.
¿Pure olive oil?
Another myth is the traditional use of the term "pure olive oil" to refer to olive oil, because of the connotations that this word has. Conventionally, and for some years, this name responded to what is now defined as olive oil. Officially, it was decided to discard this expression, thereby eliminating the mistake of linking the adjective "pure" with an oil that was actually a blend of refined and virgin, fit for consumption.
Finally, let us do away with doubts regarding the issue of "cold pressed", so reassuring a term for some consumers to read the labels. Before the appearance of the continuous elaboration systems currently used in the majority of mills, the only extraction system was the olive oil press. The first juice extracted directly from olives in a “cold” atmosphere (first press), was of higher quality than those obtained in subsequent pressings. But it was not necessarily extra virgin quality, because achieving this feature depends not only on the extraction, but on many other factors, such as the health status of the olive, the practices in cultivation, the harvesting, climate, the washing of the fruit, preservation of olives, etc..
However, given the justified lack of consumer knowledge, confusing the term "cold pressed" with "extra virgin", many manufacturers are forced to continue to include this phrase on their labels, to the detriment of the designation which should actually allude to the oil of the highest quality.
In all Spanish households, olive oil has always presided dishes in the kitchen and at the table, but it is consumed in a traditional, everyday manner, without knowing the full extent of its value and properties. The olive sector of our country itself has also failed to pass its knowledge on properly. Fortunately, in recent years, everything is changing in this regard and we do hope that gradually we will be able to incur a basic wisdom of this product so dear.
Mª Dolores Peñafiel Fernández
Founder of Mercacei
These terms are often seen by the industry as informal and malicious designations.
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