The kind of oil you use in your food matters. This is true especially when it comes to bottles labeled extra-virgin olive oil, which can be anything from awful to something so sublime you want to sip it from a spoon. Picking a bottle at random from the supermarket shelf just because it has the lowest price won’t solve the problem. You need to be an informed consumer, especially since most governments aren’t doing a great job of weeding out the olive oil shams from the saints, the U.S. included.
In a $12 billion global business, the stakes are high, so producers go to great lengths to keep selling enormous volumes. “Most [sellers] are just traders who mix olive oil in Frankenstein quantities and call it extra-virgin olive oil,” says Tom Mueller, author of Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. “In most cases of crappy oil, it’s not from the place on the label. It is a jungle out there. Koroneiki [the most common Greek variety] is a perfect blending oil that gives generic oil oomph.” As for the problem of shipping oil transatlantic in hot containers, “only the best who care what oil is will ship in refrigerated containers,” adds Dan Flynn, executive director of the UC Davis Olive Center. “But most don’t even consider it.”
So how do you pick a good olive oil—and there are many made by impassioned, principled professionals—that you can trust and that’s right for you? Essentially by learning more about olive oil quality and grades, using your senses to taste and smell it, and listening to referrals to get the best stuff. Flynn asks that you keep one thing in mind: If you’ve had a bad OO experience; don’t turn away from it. There are plenty of great olive oils within reach. Our olive oil primer below will help you get started.
What is olive oil? First understand that olive oil is the juice of a fruit—the olive. This fruit juice, like wine, is alive in the bottle and continually changing with external conditions like high heat, which can oxidize and (rarely) hydrogenate it, and light such as UV, which oxidizes the oil and breaks down its chlorophyll. Several varieties of olive, each with its own characteristics, can produce oil. But the best olives oils are often made from one variety. Under optimal conditions, the oil contains up to 30 nutrients, among them beta-carotene, lutein, and vitamin E. It comprises mainly monounsaturated fat, which reduces LDL (bad) cholesterol and raises HDL (good) cholesterol in the bloodstream. The higher the oil quality, the more immune-strengthening antioxidants it has; antioxidants are bitter, so bitter olive oil is a good thing. Olive oil is also a natural anti-inflammatory, generating an ibuprofen-like effect. A cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet, olive oil protects the body from obesity and cancer, and it can reduce the risk of heart disease (with two tablespoons minimum a day) and diabetes type 2. It is a myth that its fats turn saturated or to trans fats when it’s used in cooking, even for high-heat frying, according to the International Olive Oil Council (IOC).