Olive Oil: Facts and Fallacies

Abbreviations:
ACCC: Australian Competition and Consumer Commission
FSANZ: Food Standards Australia New Zealand
IOOC: International Olive Oil Council
EVOO: Extra Virgin Olive Oil
VOO: Virgin Olive Oil
OO: Olive Oil – generic name traditionally, but a BROO by IOOC classification
ROO: Refined Olive Oil
BROO: Blended Refined Olive Oil – called OO in recent years
MedDiet: Mediterranean Diet

Even the watchdogs need watching. In its online olive oil coverage, the ACCC has apparently embraced the olive oil (OO) industry’s misleading, deceptive and incorrect terminology. In doing so, the ACCC contravenes its own regulations, “It is illegal for olive oil suppliers to mislead or deceive consumers or make misleading claims or misrepresentations.”

OO has been an important part of the traditional Mediterranean diet (MedDiet) that has recently been accepted by UNESCO as part of the ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’. This imprimatur recognises the vital importance of the traditional Mediterranean cuisine to the health and wellbeing of Mediterranean people. In addition to its nutritional benefits, OO flavours this substantially plant-based diet facilitating extra nutritional, as well as environmental and low family budget, benefits. It is therefore essential that sound traditional practices relating to olive oil are respected and terms and definitions are clear without ambiguities.

On its website, the ACCC refers to:

  1. “The two common types of olive oil are virgin olive oil [VOO] and refined olive oil [ROO].”
    Does the term OO refer to the historic generic name, or to the modern deceptive term that by IOOC regulations is a blend of refined and virgin olive oil? ROO is a recent industrially produced oil that is not available in the retail market. Although it is used by the baking/cake industry (because it is odourless and tasteless), its main use is to produce blended refined olive oil (BROO) that contains at least 70% ROO and falsely named OO.
  2. “Virgin (or pressed) olive oil …”
    Modern OO is primarily produced by centrifugation. Pressed OO virtually does not exist nowadays. Therefore, such reference is unfair to the very few producers of the genuine product.
  3. “The physical production process ensures that the oil is not altered and that it retains its nutritional value.”
    In recent decades, in the main, OO is produced with reduced polyphenols (natural antioxidants) from the use of water during the modern centrifugation extraction process and the filtering that commonly take place. Polyphenols are nutritionally highly beneficial as well as protecting the OO against oxidation thus increasing its storage life.2
  4. “Virgin olive oil is lower quality than extra virgin olive oil [EVOO]. It is more acidic and may have some flavour defects.”
    None of the three subcategories of VOO listed in the IOOC classification (as noted below) are described as having flavour defects. In fact, the first two are described as having ‘perfect taste and odour’ and the third has ‘good taste and odour’.
  5. “The end result of this refining process is an oil that is lighter in colour, flavour and acidity than pressed (or virgin) olive oil.”
    Refined OO is colourless, odourless, tasteless and with zero acidity. Its main use is for the production of BROO.
  6. “Refined olive oils also have a higher cooking temperature, or ‘smoke point’, than pressed olive oils and are generally better suited to cooking or deep frying.”
    Frying, as well as sautéing and cooking with OO, are an integral part of the traditional healthy Mediterranean cuisine. Importantly, OO’s low smoking point is a blessing; it prevents it from being heated at high temperatures that result in damaged products. The standard frying temperature is 185°C and is well below the 210°C smoking point of OO.

    Some basic facts relating to frying are that:

    • ROO has a higher smoking temperature only because, as with seed oils, it is deprived of its natural antioxidants;
    • The frying fat should never reach its smoking point and if it does, it should be discarded; and,
    • The higher the frying temperature, regardless of the frying fat, the greater the damage to the frying food e.g. acrylamide and aldehyde formation.

    As Gertz et al. (2003) say, “The German Health authorities recommended in December 2002 to fry French fries and other starchy foods below 175°C. It is believed that the temperature and duration of the heat treatment are most critical factors of acrylamide formation,”.3 In another study examining fried crisps in domestic deep-frying, it was found that VOOs, especially the ones high in ortho-diphenols (polyphenols), are able to, “efficiently inhibit acrylamide formation in crisps from mild to moderate frying conditions”.4 A more recent study examining aldehyde formation found that, “extravirgin olive oil is safer and more suitable than sunflower oil for shallow-frying.”5

    Surprisingly, OO has another advantage. Its polyphenols, although partly responsible for the OO’s lower smoking point, offer initial protection to the frying oil and they enrich the fried food with polyphenols. In Crete, OO (or VOO by modern definitions) is used about three times for shallow frying before being discarded for soap making or for fattening the pigs. As demonstrated by Andrikopoulos et al., shallow frying potatoes in the same olive oil for three times “contributes to an intake of at least 50% of the natural phenolic antioxidants contained in the frying oil.” 6 Also, “frying ten times with the same fat had little effect upon its digestibility, with olive oil being the most stable of the fats used”7.

    Further, a recent study at Granada University has examined four typical Mediterranean vegetables (potatoes, eggplants, tomatoes and pumpkin) cooked in four ways: deepfrying, sautéing, in water and in water with OO. It was found that deep-frying and sautéing led to the highest increase in phenolic content of the four foods (RamirezAnaya 2015, 430)8.

  7. “Light or extra light olive oil” and “pure olive oil”
    These are recent OO industry terms and are not included in the IOOC classification. Yet, the ACCC, producers, promoters and the media use them extensively to misleadingly and unethically describe the BROO.
  8. “Buy it fresh. The fresher the oil, the better it tastes. … Flavour and nutritional value will decline over time.”
    In the traditional Mediterranean everyday diet, other than tasting fresh OO at thefactory or by frying eggs, fresh OO was stored for several weeks (even months) toreduce its strong bitter taste and for its cloudiness to settle. As an old Italian saying suggests, “bread the following day, olive oil next month and wine the following year.”

    Naturally produced olive oil has a relatively long shelf life because of its highpolyphenol content. It is not as perishable as fresh foods are and it is important that thepublic is not unnecessarily alarmed. Interestingly, in Crete, as elsewhere, it was normal to store a quantity of OO double the annual family requirements – in case the following year’s production was insufficient. Also, in the event that the new OO was inferior they would sell it and continue using the old OO. Yet, Cretans, are reputed to have a very healthy diet and the highest OO consumption worldwide.

    Modern perfectionism is an obstacle to making inroads into the cooking oil market that is dominated by the cheaper seed oils, which, having lost their polyphenols, are protected by synthetic ones. Additionally, seed oils lack the intense flavour that is essential for the implementation of the predominantly plant-based MedDiet.

Modern IOOC Olive Oil Classification
The following OO classification (Dymiotis M., in preparation) is based on the IOOC regulations.9 As can be seen, the history-old generic name OO has now become VOO – even when such oils are compromised by reduction in polyphenols.

  • Virgin olive oil –
    • Extra virgin olive oil has an acidity of less than 0.8%, an organoleptic assessment score higher than 6.5 and perfect taste and odour.
    • Fine virgin olive oil has an acidity up to 1.5%, an organoleptic score higher than 5.5 and perfect taste and odour.
    • Semi-fine virgin olive oil has an acidity up to 2%, an organoleptic score as low as 3.5 and good taste and odour.
  • Lampante olive oil is a VOO but with an acidity higher than 3%. In the past, it was used as fuel. Nowadays it is refined.
  • Refined olive oil is a lampante OO that has been refined by mechanical, chemical and thermal means; it is colourless, odourless, tasteless; and has zero acidity.
  • Olive oil is a blend of ROO (over 70%) with the remainder VOO to restore some colour, odour and taste. Misleading terms such as pure, 100%, extra light, genuine and natural are used by the industry to describe this oil. In recent years two new categories have appeared in the media: light olive oil and extra light olive oil, both of which are indistinguishable from BROO.
  • Crude olive-pomace oil is extracted from the olive-pomace (the olive pulp after the extraction of the OO) using petroleum-based solvents.
  • Refined olive-pomace oil is refined crude olive-pomace oil and is colourless, odourless, tasteless and with zero acidity.
  • Olive-pomace oil is a blend of refined olive-pomace oil (about 90%) and the rest VOO to restore some colour, odour and taste. Chlorophyll is often added to give this oil a greener colour.

Another modern development initiated by IOOC is the introduction of the subjective by nature organoleptic assessment for judging OO quality. But, as long as the OO is extracted without interference to its natural characteristics, the taste evaluation could be left to the consumer – the same way it was done for millennia. Strangely, from a humble everyday food flavourenhancer, OO has become a luxury item with prohibitively high prices for the generous quantities required in the traditional MedDiet.

OO has served the Mediterranean people well over the millennia in salads and cooking, without complicated terms and classifications or endorsement by celebrities or a relentlessly false and deceptive advertising and marketing, or even talk about healthy foods and ingredients. The choice of food was based on availability from unpackaged, unrefined and unprocessed foods and on fresh local produce. The vast practical knowledge and expertise of older Mediterranean people can become a valuable guide for the revival of important components of this diet. As with their ancestors, older Mediterranean people are the master users of OO and the creators and practitioners of this multi-beneficial diet.

Suggestions / Recommendations
ACCC, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) and OO authorities should instigate measures so that the OO industry ceases:

  1. Highlighting ‘best’, ‘greenest’ and ‘freshest’ OO ignoring that such OOs, in the main, have reduced polyphenols, green OOs are costly and vulnerable to photo-oxidation and fresh olive oil is too strong and bitter and was traditionally avoided.
  2. The use of water during OO production.Filtering the olive oil.
  3. Misapplying the term ‘cold pressed’.
  4. Deceptively labelling BROO as OO.

Further, for quality OO and lower production costs, authorities should:

  1. Establish a code of practice with consumers in mind – not marketers.
  2. Define olive oil i.e. an olive fruit juice extracted naturally from healthy olives minus the wastewater that is removed by natural decantation.
  3. Introduce methods for easy detection of: loss of natural character; adulteration; and, contaminants e.g. the presence of traces of iron (from mild steel olive crushers) and chlorine (from the use of chlorinated water) that act as catalysts for oxidation. Establish audit procedures to verify the claims made by growers, producers and merchants and introduce penalty provisions for those who do not comply with the claims they make.
  4. Scrutinise marketing and advertising for unethical and misleading practices.
  5. Encourage the production of olive oil from “turning colour olives” i.e. olives that have just turned black, as recommended by IOOC and practiced traditionally by OO producers, for maximum yield, lower production costs and optimum flavour.
  6. Abandon the subjective by nature and costly organoleptic assessment.
  7. Encourage consumers to purchase OO in larger quantities.

Values
Re-examine value systems so that the rights of producers and marketers are balanced against their obligations to respect consumer rights for unbiased information. ACCC could start by implementing its own rhetoric, “It is illegal for olive oil suppliers to mislead or deceive consumers or make misleading claims or misrepresentations.”

Conclusion
Low cost olive oil labelled simply and accurately is essential for the successful implementation of important elements of the successful MedDiet. Modern perfectionism is an obstacle in overcoming the market dominance of seed oils that are deprived of their natural polyphenols and flavours. Consumers are entitled to unbiased information free of falsehoods and transient fashionable nutrients and ingredients. ACCC and FSANZ could become leaders in restoring confidence in the OO market for healthier, pro-environment and low family budget dietary practices.

1 For my most recently published paper about the traditional food I grew up with in Agros, Cyprus, visit: Food, Memories and Pleasure: Grandmother’s Practices
For traditional Olive Oil visit: Debunking Modern Olive Oil Myths M. Dymiotis, Olive Oil: Facts and Fallacies
2 Lercker, G., N. Frega, F. Bocci, and G. Servidio, 1994. “”Veiled” extra-virgin olive oils: Dispersion response related to oil quality.” Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society no. 71 (6):657-658.
3 Gertz, 1981. “Chemical changes of Oils and Fats at Elevated Temperatures,” Keynote Lecture – Conference Paper: 14-C. Chemisches Untersuchungsant Hagen, Postfach 4242, D-58042 Hagen, Germany.
4 Napolitano, A., F. Morales, R. Sacchi, V. Fogliano. 2008. ‘Relationship between virgin olive oil phenolic compounds and acrylamide formation in fried crisps’, Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 56(6): 2034-40. <doi: 10.1021/jf0730082>
5 Nieva-Echevarría, Bárbara, Encarnación Goicoechea, María J. Manzanos, and María D. Guillén. 2016. ‘The influence of frying technique, cooking oil and fish species on the changes occurring in fish lipids and oil during shallow-frying, studied by 1H NMR’, Food Research International, 84: 150-59. <doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.foodres.2016.03.033>
6 Andrikopoulos N.K., G.V. Dedoussis, A. Falirea, N. Kalogeropoulos, H.S. Hatzinikola. 2002. ‘Deterioration of natural antioxidant species of vegetable edible oils during the domestic deep-frying and pan-frying of potatoes’, International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition. 53(4): 351-63. <doi: 10.1080/09637480220138098>
7 Varela G., O. Moreiras-Varela, B. Ruiz-Roso, R. Conde. 1986. ‘Influence of repeated frying on the digestive utilisation of various fats’, Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 37: 487-490. < doi: 10.1002/jsfa.2740370509>
8 Ramírez-Anaya, Jessica del Pilar, Cristina Samaniego-Sánchez, Ma Claudia Castañeda-Saucedo, Marina Villalón-Mir, and Herminia López-García de la Serrana. 2015. ‘Phenols and the antioxidant capacity of Mediterranean vegetables prepared with extra virgin olive oil using different domestic cooking techniques’, Food Chemistry, 188: 430-38. <doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.foodchem.2015.04.124&glt;
9 IOOC. Olive Oil Quality I

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