Olive oil really is the heart and soul of the Mediterranean Diet. As Dr. Antonia Trichopoulou, renowned Mediterranean Diet expert and nutrition scientist from Greece wrote in The Oldways Table, “Over and beyond its intrinsic value, olive oil represents a vehicle (or delivery system) for high consumption of vegetables and legumes, plant foods that form the core of any healthy diet around the world.” In other words, olive oil is what makes the vegetables go down!
As we write in Oldways’ 12 Ways to Use Olive Oil, it’s hard to think of a reason not to use olive oil every day. It keeps well, has a delicious taste, and oﬀers remarkable health beneﬁts. Studies show that people who make olive oil a part of their diets have lower rates of diabetes and other chronic illnesses.
The good news is that supermarkets, gourmet shops, and online stores oﬀer dozens of choices at many diﬀerent price points. The bad news, as we’ve found from questions we get from consumers, is there is a lot of confusion about which olive oil (or olive oils) to buy. In addition, there are a number of myths about olive oil that add to the general confusion around this healthy product.
To dispel the many myths and to oﬀer solid advice about purchasing olive oil, we called upon several experts.
“Most expensive is best” is a myth—Phil Meldrum of FOODMatch
Phil Meldrum is CEO of FOODMatch, a producer and importer of Mediterranean specialty foods with a focus on olives, antipasti, and ingredients. FoodMatch partners with growers and now supports communities throughout the Mediterranean, preserving the way of life of generations past for generations to come, as well as protecting the biodiversity and ecological integrity of the environment in these regions.
Among many other Mediterranean products, FOODMatch sells extra-virgin olive oils from Greece, Spain and the US. In addition to years of business and personal traveling and tasting, buying and selling, Phil is also a great cook. No surprise that he has some great advice about buying olive oil.
Phil believes the biggest myth is that the most expensive is the best. People ask him “what is the best olive oil?” There isn’t one. Once you reach a certain level of quality extra-virgin olive oil, and if it is fresh and if it has been stored properly, it’s about personal preference. He enjoys many diﬀerent oils from earlier harvests that tend to be more pungent to later-harvest, sweeter oils.
The key is to explore. Have an everyday extra-virgin olive oil for dressings and cooking, and then explore other oils for dipping bread or a punch of ﬂavor drizzled to ﬁnish a dish. His everyday oil is a sweet, fruity oil from Crete, and he also enjoys Nocellara Del Belice varietal from Sicily, and sometimes a pungent Picual oil from Spain, or a milder oil from California. Tunisia is also producing some nice extra-virgin olive oils. They are all enjoyable. There is no best. It’s fun to experience the diﬀerent taste proﬁle every time you open a new bottle. There is no need to break the bank for an excellent extra-virgin olive oil.
Finally, be sure to store your extra-virgin olive oil properly—in a cool, dry, dark cupboard, away from heat.
You can heat and cook with olive oil—Joseph R. Profaci of the North American Olive Oil Association
Joseph R. Profaci is the Executive Director of the North American Olive Oil Association, a nonproﬁt trade group that promotes the consumption of all types of olive oil by communicating olive oil’s health beneﬁts, ﬂavors, and culinary versatility.
Joe and the NAOOA have been relentless in their quest to dispel myths, reduce consumer confusion about olive oil, and to level the playing ﬁeld among olive oil producers around the world.
The NAOOA website is a fountain of information about olive oil—so much so that its URL is aboutoliveoil.org. Among the many useful pages, last summer they published a quiz about the many myths ﬂoating around the internet about olive oil. Take the myth buster quiz yourself, but here is one of our favorites:
When you heat extra-virgin olive oil, it loses its health beneﬁts. It should only be used raw.
Knowing that market research reveals that consumers are confused about olive oil, the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) recently petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to establish a standard of identity for olive oils. One statistic on their website is startling: Nearly one in three people don’t believe or aren’t sure that olive oil comes from olives. (It does!)
Joe Profaci and the NAOOA believe that consumers need to know the diﬀerences among olive oil grades, and producers should all be required to play by the same rules for olive oil labeling. That’s why they believe this standard will help consumers.
Before a standard can go forward, the FDA needs to hear from consumers. To help make this happen, the NAOOA has a consumer petition on their website that consumers can sign. The NAOOA will forward all petitions to the FDA.
Joe Profaci’s advice about buying olive oil: It all comes down to preferences, taste and budget—and also whether your primary interest is health. All olive oils are healthy, but as a general rule, the stronger the taste, the higher level of polyphenols, the more health beneﬁts, and also a higher price. There is one caveat on the health side—there is no consensus on what is the optimal level of polyphenols, so at some point, more may not be healthier.
Joe says that if a consumer is concerned about fake olive oil and about getting scammed, his advice is that he or she should buy brands they know, from retailers they trust. If a consumer wants to try something new, be wary of paying a price that is too good to be true.
Buying olive oil is investing in your health—Fausto Luchetti, Former Executive Director of the International Olive Oil Council
Fausto Luchetti was the Executive Director of the International Olive Oil Council (now called International Olive Council) during the time that Oldways and the Harvard School of Public Health developed the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, and the subsequent years of growing awareness and increased consumption of extra-virgin olive oil around the world.
As Fausto and the Council looked to promote olive oil worldwide in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he believed that it made no sense to promote olive oil without a context. The context? It is the Mediterranean Diet: eating the right way by eating vegetables, beans, whole grains, fruit, ﬁsh, with extra-virgin olive oil, and a little bit of wine.
Fausto Luchetti’s bottom line about choosing olive oil: Buying olive oil is investing in your health. If you are health conscious, if you take care of your health, $15-20 for a bottle of olive oil is not a lot.
In his kitchen, Fausto uses three diﬀerent olive oils, at diﬀerent price points. The ﬁrst is one is a more expensive extra-virgin olive oil, produced from only one variety of olive (monocultivar), with a high level of polyphenols (micronutrients providing health beneﬁts). Fausto says this oil smells and tastes so good. He and his wife Mar use this olive oil for salads, for dressing ﬁsh, and other dishes that don’t involve heating the oil. For cooking they use another extra-virgin olive oil that is a blend of diﬀerent varieties of olives. Finally, for frying, he uses an olive oil that is a reﬁned olive oil blended with some extra-virgin olive oil. Fausto says this is important because he doesn’t want to have a strong taste of oil when frying. Once or twice a week he prepares frittura de pesce—small ﬁsh that are fried.
Try new olive oils to discover what you like—Giuseppe Taibi of Olio Taibi
Giuseppe Taibi is a Sicilian-born olive oil producer and a Boston-based expert in artiﬁcial intelligence. His family’s Olio Taibi is produced in Sicily, near Agrigento, the site of the ancient Greek city that is a UNESCO Heritage site. His organic Olio Taibi recently won a Gold Medal at the International Olive Oil Contest.
Giuseppe likens choosing olive oil to choosing wine. Trying diﬀerent olive oils helps people understand what they like—just like wine. The more oils or wines people try, the more likely they are to move toward more distinctive tastes.
Giuseppe’s general guidelines are to buy extra-virgin olive oil at whatever price point you can aﬀord for cooking. Then, look for the freshest, perhaps organic, extra-virgin olive oil for using “raw” on salads or for dipping bread, or for a Caprese salad. Make sure it is extra-virgin—if it’s not, it is chemically processed.
He also says that in Sicily, things are diﬀerent. All of his ancestors buy oil right from the press, they store it and use it throughout the year. On average, Italians use 16 liters per capita per year, as compared to 1 liter per capita in the US.
We hope you ﬁnd all of this helpful. For more information, visit the Oldways resources page. Finally, be sure to buy extra-virgin. To put your extra-virgin olive oil to use, try some of the many recipes on Oldways website.
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