Response to: ‘The real thing’, Epicure, The Age, Melbourne, April 13, 2010
By Mark Dymiotis* ©
That Australian olive oil is of excellent quality is unquestionable. However, attacking imported olive oils with half truths, misleading and incorrect statements and omission of vital information is unwise. It leads to confusion to newcomers, as well as to traditional users, and impedes the highly desirable promotion of olive oil. It is ironic that the olive industry highlights best quality olive oil yet, it tolerates, overlooks or is not aware that some modern practices compromise best quality and storage life.
Cold pressed / olive crushers
The term ‘cold pressed’ is used but such a process does not exist nowadays – with minor exceptions. As most olive oil is extracted by centrifuge, a better term would be ‘cold extracted’. Gone, too, are the traditional olive stone crushers, replaced by modern high speed olive crushers that require water to facilitate efficient extraction of olive oil leading to loss of antioxidants.** In addition, many crushers are made from mild steel that imparts iron traces into the oil, acting as a catalyst for oxidation thus reducing olive oil’s storage life.
Misleading olive oil categories
The article makes a distinction between ‘pure’ and ‘light’ olive oil and devalues the latter. They are the same. These terms, as well as ‘natural’, ‘100%’ and ‘genuine’ do not exist in the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC) classification. They are part of a marketing ploy to promote the official but deceptively called ‘olive oil’ category. At least 70% of ‘olive oil’ is refined olive oil – the remainder is virgin olive oil added to restore colour, odour and taste.
Encouraging people to use more than one olive oil at a time can create conditions (e.g. higher surface exposure to oxygen and higher exposure to light) for quicker oxidation, especially for the usually green Tuscany type olive oil. Traditionally, only one olive oil was used – the best one people could afford to buy or produce from their own olives. The same olive oil was used for everything including frying.
It is pleasing that the antioxidant content of olive oil has rated a mention in this article. This is a good start to a major aspect of olive oil, as important, perhaps more so, than the highly praised low acidity. In addition to their health giving benefits, antioxidants protect olive oil itself against oxidation – even during frying – and extend its shelf life. Traditionally, in Crete, the island where the healthy Mediterranean diet originated, olive oil was used extensivelly for frying but only for 3 or 4 fryings after which it was used for soap making or for fattening the pigs. The olive oil industry keeps quiet or is unaware that some modern practices compromise antioxidant content. This explains the opposing views where the olive industry argues that olive oil does not last longer than a year while older people say that olive oil lasts a lot longer. Modern actions affecting antioxidant content include:
- High speed olive crushers.
- Use of water at various stages of the extraction process.
- Mechanical decantation of olive oil.
However, in fairness, even if the olive oil has lost some of its natural antioxidants, it is still better than other supermarket oils that have lost all their natural antioxidants and instead are protected by added synthetic antioxidants.
It is stated in the article that extra virgin olive oil is the best and healthiest, but this is true only when the olive oil has not lost any of its natural antioxidants. Given a choice between an extra virgin olive oil that has been filtered, including the prize winning ones, and a virgin olive oil that has not, I would choose the virgin oil.
Boutique-type olive oil
The objective of the Australian olive industry to produce prize winning olive oils and to compete with the very expensive overseas boutique-type olive oils is unwise. It is the cheaper but properly mass-produced olive oil that the Australian olive oil industry should be aiming for. This is where large volumes of sales and health benefits reside. It is questionable whether even wealthy people would be prepared to use the expensive boutique-style olive oils in their everyday diet and in the quantities that are required for health and flavour enhancing benefits.
‘Fresh is best’, is another advice given in the article, but, in view of the fact that olive oil is only produced once a year, the relevance of such advice is questionable. Very fresh olive oil is usually bitter and gives the feeling of burning in the throat which even some Mediterranean people find strong. A more appropriate objective would be to inform the public how to best use and store olive oil and to encourage bulk buying so that the healthy Mediterranian diet can be practised at low cost – essential for a sustainable diet.
Good quality olive oil lasts longer than a year. In Crete, it was common practice for households to store quantities of olive oil twice their yearly requirements in case the following year’s production was low. The following year, if their olive oil was inferior, they would sell the new oil and keep the previous year’s oil for themselves.
In addition to declaring war against defective imported olive oils, the Australian olive oil industry can become leaders in: a) demystifying olive oil; b) producing good quality olive oil at lower prices; and c) better promotion via simple messages. Measures like the ones below are a positive step in this direction:
- Increase consumer confidence by using simple terms that accurately reflect the product. Call the various types of olive oil by their proper names i.e.:
- olive oil, the natural product that is extracted using natural methods and defined as olive fruit juice minus waste water, produced from naturally grown olives that have been harvested, transported and stored properly.
- refined olive oil, the colourless, odourless and flavourless oil produced by refining inferior olive oil;
- blended olive oil, the blend that contains at least 70% refined olive oil with the remainder olive oil added;
- refined olive-pomace oil, the solvent extracted refined olive-pomace oil – colourless, odourless and flavourless.
- blended olive-pomace oil, the blend containing about 90% refined olive-pomace oil and the rest olive oil added;
- Follow the old wisdom of growing olive varieties better suited to the local conditions instead of aiming for certain olive oil characteristics – such as the fashionable but expensive Tuscan-type olive oil that is expensive by nature and vulnerable to rapid oxidation when exposed to light, including indoor light. The olive oil produced might not be the ‘best’ but it will be excellent.
- Grow olives naturally, preferably in mountain areas and on calcareous soils, avoiding excessive watering, fertilisers and sprays.
- Harvest the olives at the optimum stage of ripeness for maximum yield and best flavour. This normally occurs when most of the olives have reached the turning colour stage. However, some varieties are best harvested at an advanced stage of maturity resulting in a milder flavoured oil that appeals to many people, especially newcomers to olive oil.
- Aim for naturally produced olive oil instead of, or in addition to, aiming for very low acidity. The healthy Mediterranean diet resulted from such olive oils and very often with acidity levels much higher than today’s preoccupation with very low levels.
- Extract olive oil by the best possible method. Properly produced pressed olive oil is the best but also the most expensive. The two-phase centrifugation system uses less water than the three-phase and therefore preferable. Another good extraction processing system, but also expensive, is the selective filtration system, also known as sinolea.
- Avoid using chlorinated water during the extraction process.
- Crush olives with stone crushers and if this is not possible use low speed stainless steel crushers.
- Avoid filtration.
- Decant olive oil naturally – not mechanically.
- Protect olive oil from contaminants.
- When buying olive oil give preference to olive oil from small and medium size producers.
- Store olive oil in cool dark places and reduce exposure to oxygen e.g. by using only one bottle of olive oil at a time.
These suggestions are easy and common sense. It is their acceptance by Australian and overseas olive oil authorities and their implementation which would be difficult to achieve. Would Australia be able to convince the IOOC to accept such terms or to implement these terms on her own and stop the import of non compliant olive oil? If olive oil authorities are serious about best quality olive oil they have no option but to consider these suggestions.
Expensive tests and not well thought out practices
The olive oil industry, in Australia and overseas, in addition to following practices that compromise best quality olive oil production, engage in actions that lead to cost increases. The over-emphasis on very low acidity and prize-winning olive oils, the requirement for chemical analysis and orghanoleptic assessment, the fancy bottles, the aim for blends with certain flavours and the over-emphasis on freshness lead to increased costs that are detrimental to the promotion of olive oil in the everyday diet in a substantial way and, to compete with the cheaper vegetable oils that are deprived of natural antioxidants.
The modern trend of treating olive oil as with wine is unwise. Unlike wine, olive oil is part of everyday food that enhances the flavour of food and provides health benefits. While olive oil tasting sessions help in promotion and increased awareness, they give the false impression that unless you have the best olive oil it is not worth having. It also leads to cost increases and to risky practices such as using more than one olive oil bottle at a time.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) chairman, Graeme Samuel, stated in the article that consumers should get what they pay for. In order for the ACCC to succeed it must develop a good understanding of olive oil production and sale practices. All producers and processors of olive oil should be obliged to state how their olive oil has been produced and whether the olive oil has been filtered, mechanically decanted or interfered with in any other way. The organoleptic assessment (taste and odour) should be left to the consumer. The ACCC could engage in random and regular testing of olive oil. Any oil that does not meet the requirements of a naturally produced olive oil and the claims made by the producer should attract a fine and publicity.
Healthy / Sustainable diet
Health and environment authorities encourage people to reduce animal food. However, for a diet to be sustainable it must have good flavour and come at low cost. Plant foods, in general, are healthy and low cost but could be lacking in flavour. Olive oil, with its superb flavour enhancing qualities can facilitate the implementation of such a diet without resorting to animal stock that has become the norm in recent years – even by celebrity chefs. The Mediterranean people have implemented their healthy diet for thousands of years using genuine olive oil and in good quantities. We can learn a lot from their practices.
* Mark Dymiotis specialises in the everyday food of Greece and teaches about it with the Centre for Adult Education – including olives and olive oil. www.cae.edu.au or tel. 03 – 9652 0611
** The term antioxidant, in this document, refers to water soluble antioxidants.