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What Does “Extra Virgin” Really Mean In Your Olive Oil?


Photo by Monica Arellano-Ongpin
CC BY

I use olive oil in almost everything I cook.  I drizzle it over veggies for roasting and to add flavor to my sautés.  It is an important ingredient in my salad dressings and even in some of my baked goods.

There are many reasons for using olive oil in your cooking, including the very important antioxidants and healthy fats it provides.  But there are so many options for a consumer to choose from in the grocery store, it can sometimes be overwhelming.

Here is a quick way to determine what the olive oil label means and how to choose the one (or two, or three) that is/are right for you!

Choosing Olive Oil 101

Olive-treeOlive oil is labeled according to the process that was used to produce it. The many
variables that go into growing the olives and making the oil determine its ultimate color, smell, and flavor.
Photo by Heather Cowper CC BY


Region

Most of the world’s supply of olive oil comes from Spain (45%), Italy (20%), and Greece (13%).  Smaller suppliers include France and California in the U.S.  The olives from each country, and even regions within a country, have their own distinctive characteristics.  For instance, Spanish olive oil is typically golden yellow with a fruity, nutty flavor; oils from Italy are often dark green with a grassy flavor.  Those from Greece have a strong flavor and aroma, and tend to be a vibrant green.  The oils from France and California are usually light in color and milder in flavor.

It is important to note that oils from many different sources can be blended together and sold under one brand.   The oil can come from different areas of a country, or from several different countries.  While these blends tend to be more economically priced, it is more difficult to determine their quality. 

The oils with the purest origins will be labeled “estate” olive oils, which indicates that they have been hand-picked, pressed and bottled at the farm where the olives were grown.  As you might expect, these oils have very distinctive flavors of high quality, but come with a higher price.  Interestingly, the September 2012 report from Consumer Reports rated the taste of 138 bottles of EVOO from 23 manufacturers and found Trader Joe’s California Estate to be one of its highest scoring brands. (McEvoy Ranch was also a top rated California EVOO.)


Harvesting Time

Olives can be picked for pressing when they are not quite ripe.  These “early harvest” oils Olives-on-branchtend to be green in color due to higher amounts of chlorophyll, and tend to be slightly peppery in taste.  Their strong, pungent flavors are good for pairing with strongly flavored foods that can stand up to them.  Foods such as soups and stews, strong cheeses, seafood, potatoes, sauces, spicy meals, are good for this.

Golden colored oils are produced from ripened olives that may have a bluish-purple to black color.  If you're looking to get the most health benefits from your olive oil, choose these because they may contain more of the antioxidants found in the ripe fruit.  These “late harvest” oils naturally have a milder, more buttery flavor and are perfect with more subtly flavored foods, such as fish, eggs, popcorn, and salads. 1
Photo by Dubravka Franz  CC BY
 

Harvesting Methods

The way the olive fruit is harvested can also affect the final product.  If the olives are shaken from the tree, they can be bruised when they fall to the ground.  As soon as the fruit is bruised, it begins to oxidize or spoil. Depending on the length of time until it is pressed into oil, it may begin to ferment.  Once this happens, the beneficial oils begin to degrade which will give the final oil a bitter or “off” flavor.   Some manufacturers will state that their olives have been “hand-picked” to indicate a higher quality oil. 

After the olives are picked and cleaned, they are pressed to release their juices and oils.  Traditionally this was done using stone grinding wheels, but today stainless steel rollers crush the olives and pits, grinding them into a paste.  After grinding, the paste is stirred slowly for another 20 to 30 minutes, causing the oil to clump together and concentrate.  The oil and water are then separated out from the solids by spinning at high speeds in a centrifuge.  At this point the oil can be easily separated from the water. 

The oil can then be further refined, bleached to remove color, or deodorized to remove its aroma, depending on its quality and final intended use.   How the oil is treated in this process determines the grade of olive oil we see on our store shelves.

Different Grades of Olive Oil

So finally, let’s talk about the different grades of olive oil.  The International Olive Oil Council (IOOC) grades olive oils based on the method of production, acidity levels, and taste.  There is also another rating system used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that is used exclusively for rating oils in the U.S. 

For both rating systems there are three basic grades of olive oil:  “extra-virgin” olive oil is the highest quality, followed by “virgin” olive oil.  The lowest grade is just “olive” oil.   


Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is the highest quality olive oil that comes from the first pressing of the olives.  It has a fresh fruity flavor, and is naturally very low in acidity.   In general, the lower the acidity of an olive oil, the better the quality. 

EVOO is extracted from the fruit without using high heat (82° F or less; also referred to as “cold pressed”) or any solvents that might degrade it.  This process ensures that the high antioxidant content and "good" monounsaturated fat naturally occurring in olives are retained.  These components of EVOO help support our immune system and promote heart health.

Exposure to air, heat and light, will cause virgin olive oils to degrade and lose their antioxidant fighting power over time.  They should therefore be stored in a dark glass bottle in a cool, preferably dark place.  I like to decant a small amount into a container for immediate use and keep the rest in the refrigerator until needed.  EVOO should be used within a year, although some companies, especially those from Europe, claim 2 years is fine.

There are two grades of EVOO.  Within the extra virgin grade, you can find “premium extra virgin” which has extremely low acidity and is best used in dishes where its flavor has center stage, such as dipping bread or as a finishing condiment drizzled over vegetables. 

“Extra virgin” is the next grade of EVOO.  It tends to have a fruity taste, and can be pale yellow to bright green in color. In general, a deeper color indicates a richer flavor.  It has a bit more acidity to it than the premium EVOO, but is also best used uncooked to appreciate its flavor.

It is interesting to note that it can be difficult to determine if an oil is truly extra virgin or not, even if it is labeled as such. There is no federal standard to guarantee that oil labeled as extra virgin is indeed extra virgin, but the USDA is working on new standards. In the meantime, there are some things you can look for.  Some of the best oils will indicate one country of origin and even a “harvested by” date on the bottle.  If you are interested in sourcing the best extra virgin olive oils from around the world, you can visit this website for a list.  


Virgin Olive Oil

Virgin oils are also made from the first pressing of the olives.   They retain the same healthy monounsaturated fat and antioxidants, but tend to be a bit more acidic than the extra virgin varieties.

“Fine virgin” olive oils must be judged to have a “good” taste by the IOOC standards.  They are close in flavor but less pricey than the more expensive EVOOs.  They can also be used with higher heat then the EVOOs, and are great to use when sautéing or stir-frying.  The flavors tend to be less strong than the EEVOs too, so they can be used with milder foods such as eggs or fish without imparting too strong a flavor.

“Virgin” olive oil must also have “good” taste, has a bit more acidity, and must not contain any refined oils (heated or chemically treated).  These are good for cooking but can also be enjoyed uncooked.

“Semifine” virgin olive oil, again has a slightly higher acidity, and is best used for cooking.

“Lampante Virgin Olive Oil” is the lowest grade of virgin olive oil and is usually shipped to refineries for processing in order to remove defects (see “Olive Oil,” below.)


Olive Oil

Unlike virgin olive oil, “olive oil” is refined after the first press and can no longer bear the title “virgin.”  These oils would not be fit for consumption without the benefit of heating, filtering, or chemical treatment, due to their poor flavor, high acidity levels, or unpleasant odors. This results in oils that are clear, odorless and flavorless with a very low acidity level.  They still have the same monounsaturated fats as Virgin Olive Oil, but lack the antioxidants that are lost when heated in the refining process.  They have a longer shelf life than the virgin varieties.  They can be found blended with other virgin oils to give them flavor and used for cooking, or found in products labeled “packed in olive oil.”

“Olive oil” (also known as “pure olive oil”) is usually a blend of 85% refined olive oil and 15% virgin olive oil.  It has a light olive oil flavor but can withstand heat well for cooking. 

“Olive pomace oil” or “refined oil” is made from the olive paste that is left after the first press oil is extracted.  This paste is treated with heat and chemicals to obtain additional oil.  Refined oil is edible but cannot be labeled as “olive oil.”  It is usually used commercially and you don’t tend to see it on the grocery shelves.

You may also see oils listed as “lite”, “light” or “mild.”  These labels refer to their flavor not the amount of calories they contain.  Light olive oil is a refined oil that has a neutral taste (i.e. no olive flavor) and a higher smoke point.  It is perfect for baking sweets and breads where the classic olive oil flavor might be undesirable. Extra Light Olive Oil is also an excellent choice for baking, sautéing, grilling, and frying.

In Summary

You can see that olive oils come in a range of colors, flavors and acidity.  I tend to use EVOO for most of my cooking needs.  I have a premium extra virgin variety that I use uncooked to add as a finishing touch to dishes, and a “workhorse” EVOO that I use for cooking, sautéing, and roasting.  I tend to use coconut oil in my baking but have been known to add olive oil to an occasional recipe (EVOO because that is what I have). 

Here is a general chart to guide you if you are out shopping for a new bottle!

 
If you are looking for: Use this type of oil: In these dishes:
  Lots of flavor   Extra Virgin Oil (EVOO)  Salads
 Drizzled over streamed veggies or  meats
 Sautéing
 Dipping bread or veggies
  A little bit of flavor    Virgin or Pure Olive Oil  Salad Dressings
 Marinades
  No olive flavor   Lite or Light Olive Oil  Substitute for butter in baking recipes
 Making breads or crusts
 Frying at higher temperatures
 Greasing cooking utensil
 Home-made mayonnaise


How do you use your olive oil?  I would love to hear from you!

Yours in Health,

Evey

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