The quick answer: The extra virgin olive oils in your supermarket may not be all that innocent. Try the California oils and see if you don’t like them better.
The Problem with Olive Oil
I should be addressing this week’s Healthy Change subject—vegetables—but we’ll get to that tomorrow. Today we have a more interesting comment from a reader: What brands of olive oil can be trusted?
It’s a great question. I don’t know the answer but I think that collectively our readers might. So I’ll offer some information to start the conversation and ask for comments.
When I wrote the recent post disparaging vegetable oils, I noted that olive oil now gets equal shelf space in the local supermarket. That’s a big change from a decade ago and I noted an important difference between the two food groups: There were just a few vegetable oil brands (Best Foods, Wesson Oil, Mazola Oil, Kraft Foods) but there was a plethora of olive oil brands.
I returned to the store and counted the olive oil brands—14. It’s odd that the food giants haven’t dominated such an ancient product. Three countries—Spain, Italy, and Greece—produce ¾ of the world supply, but other Mediterranean countries like Turkey, Morocco, and Tunisia play a role, as does Argentina, Australia, and, drum roll, California.
California is a relatively recent player (it produce 3% of the world supply). The original Spanish friars planted olive trees around the missions but the industry slowly died due to the low cost of imported oils. In recent decades there’s been a revival and excellent California olive oils are now available.
Benefits of Olive Oil
I have to be brief here as the beautiful wife said the last post was too long. There’s an excellent summary of EVOO benefits here. A brief summary:
- Anti-inflammation: The plant nutrients, especially polyphenols, have potent anti-inflammatory effect.
- Anti-cancer: An Italian research institute reviewed 25 studies of olive oil and cancer. The results confirm the cancer risk reduction effect of olive oil, especially for breast cancer.
- Cardiovascular: Besides the anti-inflammatory benefit, olive oil is rich in antioxidants, including vitamin E and beta-carotene (vitamin A precursor). Both are beneficial to vascular health.
Who Can You Trust?
There’s a big problem with olive oil: Real olive oil is far more costly than other vegetable oils, so you can make a lot of money by slipping in cheaper oils. In his later years, Mark Twain wrote a nostalgic book about his youth called Life on the Mississippi. In the book he recounts, or imagines, a dialogue between two traveling salesman. One brags about the money that can be made by shipping cottonseed oil to Italy where it is chemically treated and bottled as olive oil for shipment back to the US. It’s a slippery business.
More recently, a UC Davis study found over 2/3 of the imported EVOO brands sold in California aren’t what the label claims—they’re mixed with lower grades or other oils. One of the California EVOO brands also failed the test. (It should be noted California growers funded the testing.) For EVOO labeling, there’s no law against cheating, as the FDA hasn’t set standards for olive oil grades.
Olive Oil Aisle Visit
Here are a few things I noted in the olive oil aisle:
- Price —Olive oil costs more; prices ranged from 27 to 76 cents/oz. (in the 500 mL size), though most cost in the 50-60 cent range. Why the difference in price? I couldn’t tell—except the more expensive came in more interesting bottles. It’s a big question with olive oil—what justifies a higher price?
- California olive oil—I looked for domestic olive oil but everything was imported, even from less known countries like Tunisia. California olive oils are gaining popularity, but they’re not that common yet. I later found a bottle—Trader Joe’s Extra Virgin California Estate Olive Oil.
- Taste test —The beautiful wife and I tasted three extra virgin olive oils—two imported and TJ’s California EVOO. Conclusion: I thought the California EVOO tasted much better; the others had a heavy, almost-rancid taste. The California oil had a fresher grassy taste. Better yet, TJ’s 500 mL bottle only cost $6.00. Not in our taste test: Costco offers a California EVOO from Cullen Creek; per Costco, you have to buy a liter but it's a good value we want to try some day.
Please comment: Do you have a favorite olive oil? Please share your experience.