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Olive Oil: A History Noble, Healthy and Slippery
by Marjorie Dorfman
page 2

Different Varieties and Grades of Olive Oil

olive branchAmong the many different olive varieties or cultivars are:
• In Italy, Frantoio, Leccino Pendolino, and Moraiolo
• In Spain, Picual, Alberquina, Hojiblanca, and Manzanillo de Jaén
• In Greece, Koroneiki
• In France, Picholine
• In California, Mission
• In Portugal, Galega
• In Croatia, Oblica and Leccino
The flavors and stability (shelf life) of these oil types varies s considerably.

In North America, the best-known olive oils are Italian and Spanish, and top-quality, extra-virgin oils from Italy, Spain and Greece are sold at high prices, often in "prestige" packaging. A large part of US olive oil imports come from the EU, especially Spain.

The grades of oil extracted from the olive fruit can be classified as:

• Virgin means the oil was produced without any chemical treatment. It has an acidity of less than 2 percent.
• Extra Virgin olive oil comes from cold pressing of the olives. It contains no more than 0.8% acidity, and has a superior taste.
• Refined signifies that the oil is of a lower quality than virgin oil and technically that the oil has been chemically treated to neutralize strong tastes and acid content.
• Pure olive oil refers to oils that are usually a blend of refined and virgin or extra-virgin oil.
• Pomace refers to olive oil that is extracted from the pomace by using chemical solvents, mostly hexane. Although it is fit for consumption, it is rarely sold at retail, and is often used for certain kinds of cooking in restaurants.
• Lampante oil comes from olive oil’s long-standing use in oil-burning lamps. It is mostly used in the industrial market.

olive oil jarThe wording on olive oil labels is chosen very carefully. Some include:
• "100% pure olive oil" is usually the lowest quality available in a retail store. "Virgin" refers to higher grades.
• "Made from refined olive oils" means chemicals control the taste and acidity.
• "Light olive oil" refers to refined olive oil with less flavor.
• "From hand-picked olives" implies that the oil is of better quality, since producers harvesting olives by mechanical methods are inclined to leave olives to over-ripen in order to increase yield.
• "First cold press" refers to the first oil that came from the first press of the olives. Cold is important because if heat is used in the process, the chemistry of the olive oil is detrimentally altered. To further confuse the issue, it should be stated that extra virgin oil is cold-pressed, but not necessarily the first oils.

Buyers should note that the label on any given bottle of olive oil might indicate that the oil was bottled or packed in one country, but that does not necessarily mean that the oil was produced there. Sometimes, the country of origin may be marked elsewhere on the label. It is also possible that the bottle may contain a mixture of oils from more than one country.

Health Aspects of Olive Oil

Due to the fact that olive oil is considerably rich in mono-unsaturated fats, most notably oleic acid, many studies suggest that when part of a consistent diet, it is linked with a reduction in the risk of coronary heart disease. Since 2004, American producers of olive oil have been allowed to place the following health claim on bottles of olive oil:

"Limited and not conclusive scientific evidence suggests that eating about two tablespoons (23 grams) of olive oil daily may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease due to the mono-unsaturated fat in olive oil. To achieve this possible benefit, olive oil is to replace a similar amount of saturated fat and not increase the total number of calories you eat in a day."

A large body of clinical data suggests that consumption of olive oil can provide many heart-healthy benefits, including favorable effects on cholesterol regulation and LDL cholesterol oxidation. Beneficial effects have been noted in both animals and humans. Some clinical evidence suggests that it is olive oil’s phenolic content rather than its fatty acid profile that is responsible for some of its cardio-protective elements. Studies have shown that olive oil offers protection against heart disease by controlling LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels while raising HDL (the "good" cholesterol) levels. No other naturally produced oil has as large an amount of mono-unsaturated fat, which is mainly oleic acid, as olive oil.

Natural health remedies support the topical application of olive oil as well. The preferred grade for moisturizing the skin is Extra Virgin Olive Oil, especially when used in the Oil Cleansing Method (OCM). This utilizes a mixture of extra virgin olive oil, castor oil and a select blend of essential oils. Olive oil is also used by some to reduce earwax buildup. Jeanne Calment, who holds the record for the longest confirmed lifespan, reportedly attributed her longevity and relatively youthful appearance to olive oil, which she said she poured on all her food and rubbed into her skin.

Culinary use

In the words of Marcella Hazan, author of the cookbook, Marcella’s Cucina:

"The taste of a dish for which you need olive oil will be as good or as ordinary as the oil you use. A sublime one can lift even modest ingredients to eminent heights of flavor; dreary oil will pull the best ingredients down to its own level. Partial clues to the quality of the olive oil you are buying are supplied by the label and the price, but ultimately, the only way to determine which one, among those available, is right for you is to taste and compare."

In all the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, olive oil is the main cooking oil. Extra virgin olive oil is mostly used for cold food such as salad dressings because its strong flavor counteracts the cold’s declining taste in food. Oils are fine for boiling and baking, but for frying foods they should not be used. Frying should be kept at a minimum anyway, but if you must do it, consider using fats that stand up better to high temperatures like clarified butter (not considered "heart healthy" but less damaging than corrupted oils) or refined olive oil. Another alternative is to follow the old Chinese culinary tradition of splashing some water into the wok before the oil, which keeps the temperature down.

An important issue is the freshness of the olive oil because in time, oils deteriorate and become stale. Olive oil will keep up to two years when cool, sealed and shielded against light. As with wines, tastes differ from oil to oil and they are influenced by the soil that the olive trees grow on, and by the moment at which the olives are harvested and ground. As they say, "the soil makes the oil."


Olive oil has had a formidable history and has been a part of human culture and tradition for centuries. It continues to have a well-respected presence in the modern world due to its many beneficial contributions to civilization and the culinary arts. So the next time you drizzle a little olive oil into a saucepan, stop for a moment and give it a little respect. I’d say salute it, but that might be going a bit too far. (Besides, you might drop the bottle.)

Here’s to olive oil; its past, present and future.

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