Sunday, May 24, 2009

"Extra Virgin?" "Cold Pressed?"

During the course of conducting olive oil tastings the past ten years, I'm frequently asked, "Are these oils extra virgin?" "Are these oils cold pressed?"  Those questions are somewhat equivalent to asking if wine has alcohol.   The terms offer consumers little or no information in selecting a quality olive oil.  Unlike seed oils, heat is not used in the production of extra virgin olive oil. Therefore, it's all cold pressed.  Plus, the term gives no hint of the processing system used in producing the oil. 

The International Olive Oil Council (IOOC) requires the acidity level to be less than .8 of one percent for an oil to be "Extra Virgin."  Unfortunately, the FDA has not promulgated standards for olive oil.  As for this much misunderstood term, "extra virgin," there is wrongful assumption by consumers that all extra virgin olive oils (EVOO) are the same.  At a recent advanced sensory evaluation of olive oil course on Australian and New Zealand olive oil, sponsored by the University of California-Davis, Richard Gawel, an expert in every detail about Australian olive oil, shared startling consumer research findings on olive oil from the down under.  It seems that 45% of consumers believe that health benefits are the same in all extra virgin olive oils. WOW!  We have our educational work cut out for us.  There is a vast disparity of health benefits and flavor among the extra virgin olive oils sold in the U.S. 

How can a consumer determine the quality of a olive oil?  We will address these issues in future posts. Please be assured, you will become a better buyer of extra virgin olive oil.

Here's one tip for today.  Our olive oil producing friends in California have taken this issue into their own hands.  A producer is required to submit its olive oil to a panel of expert olive oil tasters who judge the oil on a host of characteristics including flavor, absence of defects and aroma.  If the olive oil passes the panel's judgment, the producer is permitted to attach a gold seal on the label stating, "Certified California Extra Virgin."  Considerable work has gone into creating this panel and the process has integrity and provides consumers with a high degree of confidence.   Of course, there are issues about how the oil is cared for after it leaves the producer's hands, but more on that later.  

I encourage you to explore EVOO produced in California.  The quality of many oils rival those coming from the Mediterranean.  Buying an oil that is a "product" or "imported" from Italy is certainly no guarantee of quality.  In fact, there is an abundance of poor, defective olive imported into the U.S. every year.   There will be more on this in future posts. 


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