Traditional Olive Oil – Revised

By Mark Dymiotis

The promotion of olive oil has been based on the fact that it is regarded as healthy, protective against some diseases and its flavour-enhancing properties. However, for the consumption of olive oil to reach higher and sustainable volume, there needs to be reduction in production costs and a re-evaluation of the promotional tactics.

For consumers to reap the benefits of olive oil they must use it the same way as it was used when the relevant studies took place. The most important of these studies was the Seven-Country Study (US, France, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, Finland and Japan). It started in the late 1950s and continued for several years.

The conclusion that olive oil is beneficial to health was largely based on the fact that the people on the Greek island of Crete had the highest score on major health criteria and the highest consumption of olive oil, in addition to other positive dietary practices.

But the olive oil that the Cretans used was cold pressed and unrefined. In those days olive oil was a natural olive fruit juice and there were only two types: olive oil, for food; and lampante olive oil that was inferior and was used for lighting the lamps.

Today’s ‘olive oil’ category is a highly refined product deprived not only of its natural flavour but it comes with reduction in water-soluble antioxidants. It is unfortunate that in order to get the real olive oil one has to look for virgin or extra virgin that is very confusing not only to newcomers but also to traditional users of olive oil.

A reasonable assumption suggests that for health benefits and enhanced flavour to materialise, the olive oil must be introduced into the daily diet the same way as the Cretans and other Mediterranean people did. I cannot envisage even wealthy people using very expensive olive oil in the large quantities practiced in the traditional everyday diet. Modern practices, while they brought speedy processing and lower acidity levels, have come with higher production costs and small reduction in antioxidant content.

While the importance of low acidity is undeniable, too much emphasis has been placed on it resulting in extra production costs. Consumers should be informed that a virgin olive oil with acidity higher than 1% (but less than 3.3%) is still a much better option than even the best of the ‘olive oil’ category and a lot better than commercial oils that are deprived completely of natural water-soluble antioxidants and are protected instead by synthetic antioxidants.

One area to which the industry could turn its attention – so that lower prices can be achieved – is the packaging of olive oil in larger containers. For this action to succeed, the consumer must be informed how to store olive oil properly: in a dry, cool and dark place and using only one bottle at a time.

Successful and sustainable promotion of olive oil requires actions such as:

• The virgin olive oil label should state clearly: the extraction process e.g. the two or three phase centrifugation system; the thermal conditions during the extraction process; whether water has been used during the extraction or decantation process; and whether filtration took place.

• As all the olive oil is virtually produced with the centrifugation process, the widely used term cold pressed should not be allowed – except for the rare occasions where such process has been followed.

• For the olive oil category, it should be clearly stated that it is a blend of refined and virgin olive oil. Also stated should be the percentage of the refined olive oil content. Misleading terms such as 100%, natural, genuine and pure should not be allowed.

• The olive-pomace oil should state that solvents have been used for the extraction of the remnant olive oil in the olive pomace (the solids left after the extraction of the olive oil) and should include the percentage of refined olive-pomace oil in the blend.

• The panel test scoring could be abandoned. It is very subjective, expensive and without any real benefits to the consumer. As long as the oil has been produced properly the taste evaluation could be left to the consumer.

• An effective monitoring system should be developed and implemented where random, unannounced inspections of the production and packaging of olive oil industries take place – with penalty provisions for those who do not fulfil the claims they make about their produce.

• Most importantly, replace the existing classifications (virgin, refined, olive oil) with: olive oil, refined olive oil and blended olive oil.

The current International Olive Oil Council (IOOC) classifications are not only confusing but they are also misleading. Take for example the following definition for virgin olive oil:

‘Virgin olive oil is the olive oil obtained from the fruit of the olive tree solely by mechanical or other physical means under conditions, particularly thermal conditions, that do not lead to alterations in the oil, and which has not undergone any treatment other than washing, decanting, centrifugation and filtration.’ (Italics are mine.)

As washing (occurring in varying degrees when the centrifugation extraction system is used), decantation, centrifugation and filtration cause loss of water-soluble antioxidants, the use of these words in this IOOC definition is unfortunate. These natural antioxidants are not only beneficial to health but they also extend the oil’s shelf life.

Following overseas trends, the Australian olive oil industry now seems to be aiming for the ‘prize-winning’ extra virgin olive oil. In doing so, they are overlooking that it is the ‘lower-priced’ virgin olive oil that will succeed in creating a broad-based sustainable market. I recently watched a television program where the growers and producers placed great emphasis on the blending of olive oils and on selecting the most appropriate cultivars to produce a ‘Tuscany’ flavour olive oil.

Due largely to the lower oil content of the green olives that are used for the extraction of the ‘Tuscany’ olive oil the production cost is higher. It is also doubtful that the strong flavour, associated with this type of oil, would be acceptable to the newcomer and even to many traditional users. Another drawback is that the green colour of this olive oil, due to its high chlorophyll content, makes this oil vulnerable to speedy oxidation when exposed to light – including indoor light.

Australians in the olive industry often visit the main olive oil producing countries (Spain, Italy and Greece). But, as with other researchers who are investigating aspects of the Mediterranean diet, they appear to overlook the real experts i.e. the ordinary people – the master creators and practitioners of the healthy everyday Mediterranean diet that has evolved naturally through time immemorial – who aim to grow olive varieties that are best suited for their area.

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