The Scam Of Olive Oil, And Its Antidote

Mar 5 2014, 1:54pm CST | by

The Scam Of Olive Oil, And Its Antidote
Photo Credit: Forbes Apple

Here’s the hard truth: the olive oil in your pantry, the one you bought for its health benefits and for some sliver of the seductive Mediterranean lifestyle, is most likely a scam.

A scam, meaning it probably contains less actual olive oil than you’d ever imagine. A scam, meaning it’s likely been mixed with colorants and other less expensive oils like sunflower-seed oil. A scam, meaning you really have not been getting what you paid for.

The reality is that this kind of fraudulent activity has been going on for centuries, and it isn’t likely to change dramatically any time soon. Not in Italy, or Spain, or Greece, or even right here in the US. It’s ugly, and unfortunate. There are many (many) multi-national commercial forces at play, and almost as many hot-button issues that cross industry lines, such as truth in labeling (a topic that wine trade organizations like the Napa Valley Vintners have taken up in earnest), lax governmental oversight, and underfunded or corrupt food inspection agencies.

It’s an ongoing battle that each of us participates in, every time we stand in front of the olive oil section at our local grocery store. So that’s where I went to review the options; it wasn’t a scientific study, but it replicates the reality of what we see every time we shop.

What you’ll see on the shelves are oils in clear bottles and colored bottles; colored bottles protect the integrity of the oil better, especially if what’s inside the bottles is in fact 100% olive oil (though it probably isn’t). You’ll also see words and phrases like “light olive oil” and “cold pressed” that don’t actually mean anything; cold-pressed, for example, refers to the time when oil was made using hydraulic presses and there was a distinction between the first (cold) press and the second (hot) press but that process doesn’t happen anymore today. You’ll see various statements of geographic origins, such as Spain or Greece or Italy; that may be true, but more likely the oil was grown someplace with less expensive production costs then shipped to another country and bottled there. (It’s the bottling location that somehow legitimates the “origin” identification.)

It’s a system largely strangled with fraud, from the labels on the outside of the bottle to the oil that’s on the inside, and we’ve all been affected by it at one phase or another.

Here’s one step you can take to improve your chances of purchasing real olive oil that actually is what it says it is: turn the bottle around and read the back label. You’ll see an expiration date (usually two years after an oil was bottled) but what you’re looking for in particular is the harvest date; the further away the two-year date is, the fresher the oil is. Only one bottle — from California Olive Ranch – on the five shelves of olive oils in my supermarket indicated the harvest date, however.

Here’s the even better step you can take: seek out stores that sell authentic olive oil from drums, and taste the oil first. I live in Atlanta, Georgia and my source is the E. 48th Street Market in Dunwoody, owned by Charlie Augello who researches an item’s origin before bringing it into the store. The oil is supplied by Joan and Roger Arndt, locals and friends of Augello, from their small olive grove in Umbria.

The Arndt/Augello relationship is the kind of personal connection few of us are likely to have, but the benefits of those relationships are available to informed consumers. You may not have heard yet of Marco Oreggia’s Flos Olei guides to the extra virgin olive oils – it’s written in Italian and translated to English, the updated edition for 2014 is his fifth, and it reviews the olive growing sector in 47 countries including unexpected producers from New Zealand and Japan to South Africa, Nepal, and Brazil. The thick book isn’t just a “Who’s Who”; rather it’s a “This is serious, people.”

Oreggia – a journalist who’s been harassed physically for his work – began researching and writing about olive oil in 1995. In the last five years, he’s seeing more new, small, and often young oil producers who are going back to farming and “the rural world” to recover their parents’ or grandparents’ estate, while also trying to update production methods and achieve top quality. Despite the odds against them, Oreggia believes these newer small producers can succeed by identifying “faithful” distributors in export markets and by reaching informed consumers who recognize the value of a short production chain.

Informed consumers can buy oils like these from purveyors with a transparent, rigorous selection process that wins your confidence, since they essentially travel the world to taste and choose oils on your behalf. Zingerman’s Delicatessen in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for example, carries a range of well-considered oils. They’ve identified Marina Colonna’s Peranzana oil, from her estate in the Molise region of Italy, as their “house” oil. Colonna describes the Peranzana as an “always generous, always giving” kind of tree; its oil is powerful, rich and grassy, with an undertone of rosemary. A simple taste test between Peranzana and any supermarket brand will demonstrate immediately how different the two kinds of oil, and the two kinds of producers, can be.

You may have guessed by now that you’ll be paying more for olive oil that’s authentic and reputable. But the price goes toward keeping those producers authentic and reputable. Olive oil producers in this category belong to the “go small or go home” way of thinking, similar to micro- or nano-breweries and craft distilleries who draw consumers who have a strong aversion to mass-produced brands. The profit margins for these producers are smaller but the taste and appeal of their products, like Colonna’s Peranzana oil, is distinct.

About that taste? Prepare yourself. Real olive oil – the good stuff – will be powerful and peppery and it will catch in your throat. You may cough, your eyes may water. But these are in fact good indications that what you’re tasting – finally! – is authentic. It is also full of the reasons, especially flavor and health, that we were drawn to olive oil in the first place.

Follow me on Twitter @cathyhuyghe.

For further reading on this subject, see Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller, Italian Lessons by Joan L. Arndt, and Flos Olei 2014: A Guide to the World of Extra Virgin Olive Oil, by Marco Oreggia. Flos Olei is also available as an iPhone and iPad app.

Source: Forbes Apple

 
 

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