A pointless and misleading quest for best and freshest olive oil making it costly – unaffordable for the healthy and pro-environment Mediterranean diet!
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND – The old ways
A major feature of the traditional olive oil is its simplicity. Since ancient times, olive oil was produced by small producers using a communal press – usually associated with the church. In the main, the olives were harvested at the turning-colour stage: for best olive oil, maximum yield and optimum flavour. Although the olive harvesting and the processing carried out under adverse winter weather conditions, the olive oil was good. It served well the healthy, flavoursome and pro-environment Mediterranean diet.
This traditional olive oil was a genuine olive fruit juice. After stone-crushing the olives, the paste was pressed to obtain the olive fruit juice. Natural decantation separated the olive oil from the wastewater component. Being lighter, the olive oil sat at the top and was easily separated from the heavier wastewater. If water was used for a second pressing, the olive oil was demoted to second press.
This historic olive oil was rich in flavour and natural antioxidants (called polyphenols). In addition to their health and flavour-enhancing benefits, polyphenols protect the oil against oxidation enabling long storage life. This historic press method, although laborious, was, and still is, simple and the best way to produce olive oil.
Tasting was done at the press mill – the Greeks using bread and the Italians pasta. The olive oil was then stored for a few weeks/months to soften its strong bitter taste; if it had small defects, it was consumed first – a practice which eliminates waste. Very defective olive oil was called lampante and was used as fuel – usually for lighting lamps.
Traditionally, there was only one type of olive oil. It was common to successfully store it for two years – just in case the following year’s production was inadequate. If the new olive oil was not as good, they kept the old olive oil and sold the new. Interestingly, in ancient Athens, olive oil was produced and stored for up to three years and was offered as a trophy to the winners of the Pan-Athenian Games, held every four years.
Importantly, the terminology used was very simple. The term olive oil (or just oil in Greek) indicated a genuine olive fruit juice. Although the oil was ‘pure virgin’, it was not called virgin, let alone extra virgin. As no irrigation of the olive trees took place, no water was used during the production process and no filtering took place, the olive oil was naturally rich in flavour and antioxidants.
Although the historic olive oil was one of the smallest ingredients of the traditional healthy Mediterranean Diet it has played a significant flavour-enhancing role for this substantially plant based diet. Unlike modern years, the olive oil was a low-cost ingredient and an excellent source of nutrients. The same olive oil was used for everything – salads, cooking and frying.
- The historic olive oil was nutritious and a vital flavouring ingredient of the healthy, pro-environment and low-cost Mediterranean Diet (MedDiet).
- Modern olive oil terminology is false, misleading, deceptive and an obstacle to the promotion of the MedDiet.
- In recent decades the Olive Oil Industry has legitimised practices (e.g. use of water and filtering) that lead to reduction of natural antioxidants.
- The historic olive oil, having served the traditional Mediterranean diet exceptionally well as a flavour enhancer, can now flavour emerging vegetarian and vegan diets.
- The recent futile quest for best and freshest olive oil leads to higher production costs and to confusion that favour the highly refined cheaper seed/vegetable oils.
- Clear and unambiguous terminology and messages are essential for successful implementation of the MedDiet.
- Linguistic integrity should be protected and respected.
- Olive oil, once a humble flavouring maiden of the Mediterranean diet, has now become a very costly ‘extra virgin’ – too expensive to serve the Mediterranean diet.
Puzzling and contradictory ‘advice’ to my students: Olive oil is the best; but, do not use modern ‘olive oil’ – it is industrially refined!
Several benchmarks relating to olive oil and the Mediterranean diet started in the 1950s:
- The International Olive Oil Council (IOOC), now called International Olive Council (IOC), was established as an intergovernmental organisation of states producing olives and olive oil.
- The epidemiological cardiology Seven Countries Study began in this decade. It quickly established that the traditional diet of the rural areas of the Mediterranean was healthy, with a long-life expectancy and protective against chronic disease. Prof. Ancel Keys, the leader of this study, used the term Mediterranean Diet to describe this healthy diet as practised in country areas in the 1950s and beyond. The term was formalised in the 1990s.
- Massive changes to olive oil production:
- The slow but effective stone crushing of the olives was replaced by the fast but inefficient steel crushers, necessitating mixing the olive paste with warm water which leads to polyphenol loss.
- The laborious but advantageous press extraction process was replaced by the fast centrifugation decanter – with warm water added, leading to antioxidant loss. Three products come out of the decanter: olive oil, wastewater and solids (olive pomace).
- The decantation of the olive oil is now done by passing the oil through a vertical decanter with more water added to remove impurities which, again, leads to further polyphenol loss.
- Finally, the olive oil is filtered, resulting in further polyphenol loss.
- Note: While in the historic press extraction process the use of a very small quantity of water demoted the olive oil to second press, now, the use of much larger quantities of water and the filtering have been legitimised by the olive oil industry! However, despite the modern unnecessary loss of polyphenols, olive oil is still rich in polyphenols.
- Seed oils, although deprived of all their natural antioxidants are instead enriched with industrially produced synthetic antioxidants, dominate the market.
- Associated with these changes is the escalation of linguistic vandalism where the term olive oil now refers to a refined olive oil – colourless, odourless and tasteless.
- Remarkably, and confusingly, modern olive oil is called virgin olive oil, with varying degrees of ‘virginity’e. extra virgin, fine, semi-fine and virgin. Yet, with the modern reduction of polyphenols it is anything but. Consumers are unaware that modern ‘olive oil’ is a highly refined and industrially produced olive oil. This constitutes linguistic vandalism and dishonest marketing. Authorities are called to address this anomaly!
- Unlike the traditional simple evaluation of olive oil, the tasting test is now in the hands of expensive but subjective olive oil tasting competitions – the most famous one being the New York Olive Oil Competition. Once the olive oil receives a prize, its selling price becomes exorbitantly high making it unaffordable for the everyday Mediterranean diet. Another drawback is that modern practices disadvantage small producers – who, anecdotally, produce better quality olive oil.
- Despite the modern convenience of using fossil fuel, which makes the extraction of olive oil quicker and cheaper, modern olive oil is unjustifiably very expensive. Worse, even the ‘best” prize winning olive oils are now subject to polyphenol loss.
- It is well-known in the olive oil industry that the olive oil from larger producers is fatigued – possibly from the very large storage containers and the large pumps.
The modern quest for ‘best olive oil’ is typical of modern marketing practices i.e., highlighting real or presumed positives and downplaying or ignoring negatives and hidden complexities.
The olive oil industry should ponder: What is the point of aiming for ‘best’ olive oil, based on subjective taste criteria, when it suffers antioxidant loss and is too expensive for the healthy everyday Mediterranean diet!
In my career as a researcher and teacher of the practical aspects of the Mediterranean diet, olive oil included, I have observed massive consumer confusion. Regrettably, even the media and academia are confused, misinformed and unaware of the industry’s regulations and production practices.
Statements of fact
Best olive oil comes from non-irrigated and non-fertilised olive trees and it is extracted by stone crushing the olives, pressing the olive paste, the oil is cleared by natural decantation and no filtering takes place.
Spain is by far the largest producer of olive oil, followed by Italy (which is also reputed to be the largest exporter and importer of olive oil) with Greece a distant third. Greece, however, is the largest producer of extra virgin olive oil percentagewise, arguably because production is mainly in the hands of small producers.
SEED and VEGETABLE OILS
In general, seed oils – also called vegetable oils – are produced industrially using chemical and thermal treatment at very high temperatures and are deodorised and chemically bleached. Such processing leads to total loss of natural antioxidants, necessitating enrichment with synthetic antioxidants. However, the extensive use of non-renewable energy resources makes them cheaper and more damaging to the environment. Yet, with their lower prices and deceptive and misleading marketing, seed oils dominate the market.
The failure of government authorities to establish well-thought-out policies and regulations has allowed the seed oil industry and lobby groups to influence the definition of oil. Regrettably, the current definition for oils is based on the chemical composition of highly refined seed oils – ignoring the olive oil’s richness in natural antioxidants and its healthy record.
Consequently, and paradoxically, under the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) regulations, olive oil received a lower star rating than the highly refined industrially produced seed oils. It is astonishing that the natural olive oil, with its proven health and other benefits, has been rated lower than the industrially produced seed oils!
This is a scandalous anomaly and policy makers and regulatory authorities are called to urgently address it!
Authorities are called to:
- Ensure that the oil industry respects linguistic integrity and avoids anomalies where industrially produced refined seed oils receive a higher star rating than olive oil – naturally produced with proven healthy attributes.
- Address linguistic vandalism – a powerful modern instrument for misleading and deceptive marketing, where the historic term olive oil, now denotes an industrially-produced refined olive oil.
- Make it mandatory for olive oil producers to declare that:
- Water use and filtering have not taken place in the production of their olive oil.
- Cold pressed olive oil is produced by stone crushing the olives and the olive paste is pressed and extracted without the use of water.
- Protect consumers against modern marketing that highlights real or presumed advantages and overlooks negatives and hidden complexities.
- Ensure that policies and regulations are not influenced by lobby groups – from large corporations and vocal groups.
- The term Mediterranean Diet refers to the totality of the traditional diet of rural areas in the 1950s. It was based on unprocessed plant foods with very little use of animal derived foods (and fish in coastal areas).
- Although the MedDiet has been identified as healthy and with a long-life expectancy it has been distorted and abandoned. Yet, Authorities and even Academic institutions use the term MedDiet to describe modern dietary practices that are based on industrially produced foods.
- Two ingredients stand out in the traditional MedDiet – olive oil and bread:
The use of olive oil, although small in quantity, has played a vital role as a flavour enhancer and nutrient provider for this substantially plant food MedDiet. However, in recent decades it has suffered from linguistic vandalism and reduction of its natural antioxidants. Also, the associated higher production costs make extra virgin olive oil prohibitively expensive for the multi-beneficial MedDiet. Even more astonishing is that ‘olive oil’ now denotes a highly refined olive oil.
Modern Bread, made with highly refined and with lower nutritional value, dominates the market. As the architect of the Lyon Heart Study, Michel de Lorgeril, suggests:
The bread we eat today is definitely not the bread our grandparents ate. … Over the past 50 years, thousands of new strains have made it to the human commercial food supply chain without a single effort at safety testing … Clinical studies are urgently needed (3).
Until a few years ago, celiac disease was believed to be quite rare, affecting one per several thousand people. At present, the number of people with it has expanded to at least 1% in most geographic areas (4).
We have seen great changes in the prevalence and clinical presentation of two diseases linked to wheat: the celiac gluten-induced enteropathy and non-celiac gluten sensitivity from new wheat hybrids introduced into human foods (5).
Let science, facts and reason guide decision making, policy development and regulations – not unelected powerful corporations and vocal lobbyists.
All human activities and value systems, from conception to the grave, must be scrutinised for impact on environmental and human health.
*Markos Dymiotis has a special interest in the traditional Mediterranean Diet of the 1950s – the diet he was born and grew up with in Cyprus. He has been teaching the practical aspects of this diet (including olive oil and olives) since 1989 with the CAE, Melbourne and has written several articles including peer reviewed papers. He has been an Honourary Research Fellow, La Trobe University.