What makes olive oils different from one another?
Regardless of whether you are a foodie by choice or family cook by default, the words “extra virgin” on the label of that elusive green bottle of olive oil usually mean three things to most of us: A more exclusive touch to the cooking, a healthier, better tasting meal and a bigger toll on our wallet. But what exactly makes this olive oil so different? The answer is not as cut and dry as you might hope for.
Not all olive oils are created equal
First off, let’s get the terminology straight so this tour of the wonderful, confusing world of olive oils doesn’t get lost in translation altogether. For starters, extra virgin olive oil is simply another term for cold pressed olive oil. And that gets us to the heart of the matter, right off the bat. Finding the best olive oil is not a question of choosing cold pressed extra virgin for dressing and standard grade regular olive oil for frying. It’s all about the making. Turning olives into oil is a craft that goes back over thousands of years and techniques have been passed down between generations. The process is truly a regional art and harvest time plays a major role in flavor and nutritional content. Trying to decipher what the label says about country of origin or whether the olives are hand-picked will give you a few clues, but how the olive oil was actually made is what your eyes should be set on.
Look out for the real deal that is spelled cold pressed
Today, the most common method to extract oil from olives involves a chemical refining process that effectively removes contaminating agents, reduces acidity, improves look and flavor – and increases yield. After grinding the olive fruits, the paste is mixed by adding heat to speed up the separation of oil and water. Instead of crushing the pulp to squeeze out the oil, modern day extraction is completed by spinning the paste in a centrifuge.
Then there’s the real deal, based on ancient traditional techniques that mechanically extract the olive oil through cold pressing. This is how you make pure, extra virgin olive oil. You start off by grinding the olive fruits into a paste using a stone mill, or as in more modern times, a metal tooth grinder or hammer mill. You then mix the paste at cold temperatures and finally squeeze out the oil using a screw or hydraulic olive press, by pressing the paste under round mats, stacked much like pancakes.
The stuff that makes or breaks this liquid gold
Keeping the temperature below 30 degrees Celsius is a natural part of the process when using traditional extraction techniques, hence the term cold pressed. This will also keep the oil’s free fatty acid content down. The level of acidity is an extremely important parameter in determining the olive oil’s quality and nutritional content. It has nothing at all to do with taste, which is a common misconception. This is solely a measure of the olive oil’s level of oxidation, and in effect, its life span. The lower the acidity, the higher the quality and nutritional value. Today, in order to be labeled extra virgin, the olive oil must have an acidity less than or equal to 0,8%, whereas regular virgin olive oil can stay at or less than 2% acidity.
It’s all about polyphenols – nature’s micronutrients
Acidity has become a tricky factor when extracting oil today, as modern food refining processing use heat and centrifugation to eliminate all of the harmful agents that otherwise spoil the smell, taste or look of the product. As heat also increases the acid content in olive oil, this method consequently contributes to reduce the greatest thing about this liquid gold – its natural antioxidants, vitamins and essential nutrients such as polyphenols1. You might have heard about high phenolic olive oil? This is a term that tells you that the oil is full of essential polyphenols. These nutraceuticals are naturally occurring in all plants and they are jam packed with bioactive antioxidants that our bodies desperately need. Apart from all the good they do, polyphenols also add to the distinctive, bitter flavor of olive oil – and they protect the oil from oxidative damage, hence giving it a longer shelf-life. In other words, polyphenols are truly what makes or breaks olive oil.
The next generation of olive oil is already here
So, to summarize. Whether you call yourself a foodie or not, if you’re whipping up a salad or frying an egg, if you want to maximize the natural antioxidants, vitamins and nutrients that are literally bursting in olives, always go for a pure, extra virgin olive oil. Make sure to keep a steady eye on the acidity level on its label too. But last but not least, let that forest-green color, grassy, peppery flavor and fruity aroma be your most palatable seal of approval.
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1. Olive oil polyphenols
Olive oil polyphenols contribute to the protection of blood lipids from oxidative stress. Replacing saturated fats in the diet with unsaturated fats contributes to the maintenance of normal blood cholesterol levels. Oleic acid is an unsaturated fat. The claim may be used only for olive oil which contains at least 5 mg of hydroxytyrosol and its derivatives (e.g. oleuropein complex and tyrosol) per 20 g of olive oil. In order to bear the claim, information shall be given to the consumer that the beneficial effect is obtained with a daily intake of 20 g of olive oil.