LAKE OCONEE — Recently I had the privilege of crossing paths with one of my favorite college professors, Dr. Larry Jack. Dr. Jack and his wife, Carol, have moved to the area and opened a new store, Plantation Olive Oil, located behind Publix in Lake Oconee Village.
When I first heard of the store, I wondered how it was possible to have an entire business dedicated solely to oil and vinegar. I popped in one day to see what it was all about, and walked away with a much better understanding of the many varieties of olive oil, the multiple flavors of balsamic vinegar, and the numerous ways to use them both.
I asked Dr. Jack to help with this week’s column in order to share some of the facts and health benefits of olive oil with you. And when you stop by the store, be sure to ask for a sample of gelato drizzled with chocolate balsamic. You’ll be pleasantly surprised!
We’ve all heard of extra virgin olive oil, aka EVOO. But what exactly is it? According to the International Olive Council (IOC), “extra virgin” is the highest quality and most expensive olive oil classification. In order to receive this classification, the oil must be obtained solely through mechanical means, without the use of solvents, and at temperatures that will not damage the oil. It also must pass both a taste test and lab test.
Unfortunately, the U.S. has not adopted the IOC’s definition of EVOO as a legal standard. That means there is no requirement to inform consumers of important quality freshness indicators. As a result, lesser quality oils may be labeled as “extra virgin,” even though they are not. According to Tom Mueller, author of the book, “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil”, “As much as 69 percent of imported olive oil labeled ‘extra virgin’…isn’t.”
Here are the characteristics you should be aware of when shopping for a quality olive oil:
Crush date: The most important factor in choosing a quality olive oil is freshness. Olives are stone fruit (like cherries, plums and peaches). Real extra virgin olive oil is essentially fresh-squeezed fruit juice. It is very perishable and degrades over time. Always look for the crush date on the label. A “best by” or “expiration date” is not helpful, because EVOO needs to be consumed within 18 months of the crush date. If you don’t know the crush date, you don’t know how long the oil has been sitting on the shelf.
Country of origin: Olive oils have a distinct personality derived from the region, or hemisphere, where they are produced. The crush date and country of origin together define the oil’s freshness and flavor. Oils that come from the northern hemisphere are crushed from October through December. Southern hemisphere oils are crushed from April through June.
Chemical data: In order to be labeled as “extra virgin” by the IOC, olive oil must pass a taste test and a lab test. Therefore, keep an eye out for chemical data displayed on the label to ensure quality and authenticity. The overall acidity of EVOO, also known as its Free Fatty Acid (FFA) content, should not exceed 0.8 percent. Peroxide value (i.e. the olive’s exposure to oxygen during harvest) must be less than 20 meq/kg.
Polyphenols: Tasting EVOO is similar to tasting wine. Some EVOOs are more bitter or pungent than others. This doesn’t mean the oil is rancid, rather these characteristics are often associated with the presence of polyphenols, which are naturally-occurring antioxidants. They help preserve the oil and can be beneficial in helping to lower cholesterol, decreasing blood pressure and reducing the risk of coronary disease. EVOO contains the highest level of polyphenols of any class of olive oils. The polyphenol level of a high-quality oil can range from 100 to more than 500. The higher the polyphenol number, the higher the health benefit. Incidentally, new studies have shown using an EVOO high in polyphenols for cooking or baking can be very beneficial. This flies in the face of traditional thought that EVOO does not have a high smoke point, and is therefore not suitable for cooking with at high temperatures. In truth, EVOOs with a low FFA level and a high polyphenol count have a higher smoke point. High quality EVOO is the most nutritional oil with which to cook.
Packaging: Certain storage conditions can be detrimental to olive oils. Avoid purchasing EVOO packaged in a clear bottle or plastic container. Both UV rays and fluorescent lighting can break down olive oil, so look for oil packaged in dark colored glass or metal containers. At home, keep the oil out of direct sunlight and keep it sealed (either with a stopper or cork/cap). Ideally, olive oil should be stored at room temperature, but don’t fret if someone puts it in the refrigerator. Olive oil turns cloudy and solidifies when refrigerated, but this doesn’t damage the oil. The oil will return to liquid after reaching room temperature again.
Not all olive oils are created equal. Knowing what to look for can help ensure you choose an oil that will not only taste good, but offer the biggest benefit to your health, as well. If you can’t find the appropriate specs on your next bottle of EVOO, know that the oil may very well be better off used for waxing your car than being drizzled on your salad.
Dr. Ramona Warren can be reached at Pathways to Healing, 706-454-2040. Dr. Larry Jack contributed to the research and writing of this article.