Suggestions and improvements welcomed

Olives & Olive Oil

By Mark Dymiotis

Response to: ‘Oil and trouble’, Epicure, Melbourne, March 15, 2011

A spice merchant calls those using good olive oil for frying and cooking “stupid”. This is very unfortunate.

The Epicure article attempts to clarify the confusion surrounding oils but because of inaccuracies the readers are left even more confused.

For balance, the reporter interviewed people from many different backgrounds, especially chefs. In spite of this, the article is heavy in statements but weak on factual information. And, just because the reporter’s resource list includes Choice magazine and Better Health (in assosiation with Deakin University) it does not make the olive oil classifications and the terminology correct.

Of all the mass produced oils, olive oil is the only one which is unrefined and comes with its own natural water soluble antioxidants that, in addition to being healthy, protect olive oil against oxidation. All other oils – apart from the boutique ones – are refined and protected by synthetic antioxidants.

Interviewing older Greek and Italian people – the master creators and practitioners of the healthy and tasty Mediterranean diet – would have provided very much needed first-hand practical information.

Traditionally, Mediterranean people used the best olive oil they could obtain, either from their own olive groves or from the market. They never aimed for prize winning olive oils. Their evaluation of olive oil was based on individual taste preferences. Yet, it is such olive oil that has contributed substantially to the health benefits and to the wonderful flavours of Mediterranean cuisine – not the stocks favoured in recent years, even by very famous chefs.

In Crete, where the Mediterranean diet originated, Cretans used olive oil for everything including frying – where the same olive oil was used about three or four times, after which they used it for soap making or for fattening their pigs. In addition, the acidity of their olive oil was often higher than today’s preoccupation with very low acidity levels.

The modern suggestions of using more than one type of olive oil is a perfectionistic practice that risks speedy oxidation even of the best olive oil. Also, contrary to current advice, properly produced olive oil, even though it does not improve with age, lasts a lot longer than a year.

The unofficial but traditional classification of olive oil was very simple: olive oil, for food; and inferior quality olive oil (called lampante), for lighting lamps.

Nowadays, the International Olive Oil Council has come up with the following classification:

  • Virgin olive oil (with extra virgin olive oil being the most important sub-category).
  • Lampante olive oil (defective olive oil not suitable for human consumption).
  • Refined olive oil (not available on the retail market) that is produced from lampante olive oil.
  • Olive oil (containing at least 70% refined olive oil, the rest virgin olive oil).
  • Olive-pomace oil (containing at least 90% refined solvent-extracted olive oil from the olive-pomace – the solids left after the extraction of olive oil – and the rest virgin olive oil).

Regretably, this classification system has brought confusion not only to the consumer – including the Mediterranean – but to the media as well. I am still to see a media article without inaccuracies in the description of olive oil. Even books for the consumer often contain inaccurate information.

Terms such as pure, light, extra light, natural and 100% do not exist in the IOOC’s classifications. These are deceptive terms used by the industry to describe the official but inappropriately named olive oil category as described above.

Also non-existent are the widely used terms cold pressed and first pressed. As virtually all olive oil nowadays is produced by centrifugation, a better term would be cold extracted.

The modern preocupation for producing the best prize-winning extra virgin olive oil with very low acidity and for using very fresh olive oil has led to higher costs. Low-cost but properly produced olive oil, together with the wonderful flavours that come from it, are essential for the implementation of the healthy and environmentally friendly Mediterranean everyday diet. Olive oil, which is at the core of this diet, deserves more accurate classifications, terminology and information for consumers.

The traditional Mediterranean Diet

The traditional Mediterranean diet (i.e. the diet of this region before the 1960’s) is promoted as healthy and protective against disease. The Greek diet is regarded as the prototype Mediterranean diet. Traditionally, due to their dietary and lifestyle practices, the Greeks have very good health and life expectancy – without an expensive health care system. In Greece, the people of the island of Crete have a better health record and perhaps not surprisingly, the highest consumption of olive oil (25 litres per capita) in the world.

The Greek traditional diet is based largely on fresh, unprocessed seasonal plant foods. It is low in saturated fat and high in dietary fibre, starch, antioxidant vitamins (from cereals, fruit and vegetables) and polyphenols (from wine and olive oil).