Olive oil is coming of age in America. Much like wine in the 1970’s and craft beer in the 1990’s.
Let’s take a deeper dive into a comparison with wine…..In 1970, Americans drank 1.31 gallons of wine per capita and just last year we consumed 2.83 gallons. That’s over a 100% increase. Prior to the 1970’s, you could argue that few Americans knew much about wine…. most people ordered it as ‘red’ or ‘white’ or ‘pink’ or ‘dry’ or ‘sweet’. Most probably couldn’t recognize a quality wine if they tasted one and terms like “Chardonnay” and “Cabernet” were intimidating and foreign. In fact, many people preferred “grapey” tasting sweeter poor quality wine! It was in the mid-1970’s when Californian wine makers started to meet or exceed performance of European wine in international competitions. Fast forward to today’s America: wine tasting parties and festivals are all the rage and average people throw around terms such as “mineral” and “jammy” when talking about wine.
The same revolution is going on with olive oil today and I’m hopefully going to give you the some information to change your relationship and increase your appreciation of olive oil. I think up until now, most people used olive oil because it’s a healthy cooking oil. But not many people really taste and appreciate cooking oil. It’s just something you throw in the pan to cook with. I’m going to give you some information today so you can be on the cutting edge of the olive oil revolution.
So, how much olive oil do Americans consume? The average American consumes about 1 liter a year. Our friends in Greece, Spain and Italy consume over 10 times this amount. In fact, the average Greek consumed 17.9 liters of olive oil last year!!!! And by the way, a liter is similar to the English measurement of a quart (roughly 4 cups). But this number is projected to increase – – big time!
And it’s not surprising that Spain, Italy, and Greece are the world’s biggest producers of olive oil. In fact, the US currently produces less than 1% of the olive oil in the world. But this is also changing – and just like the wine industry took off in the California in the 1970’s, the same is happening right now for olive oil.
Up until now, European olive oil makers have traditionally sold their dregs to unsophisticated Americans, like those jug wines popular in the 1970’s. I guess that they are catering to our palette. A study from the University of California, Davis had found that 44% of consumers in the U.S. liked defects such as rancidity, fustiness (a technical term for something that smells like dirty gym socks), mustiness, and winey flavor in their olive oil. The study authors indicate this may be due to the large amount of defective olive oil labeled as extra virgin available to consumers. In other words, because there is such a large amount of defective oil in the market and people are used consuming it, they think that this is what all olive oil is supposed to taste like. And to make matters worse, a similar study found that there is also some fraud involved in that more than 69% of extra virgin olive oil imported to the US does not meet international standards.
“EVOO is extra-virgin olive oil. I first coined ‘EVOO’ on my cooking show because saying ‘extra virgin olive oil’ over and over was wordy, and I’m an impatient girl – that’s why I make 30-minute meals! – Rachael Ray”
In case you are wondering what the standard is for extra virgin olive oil:
EVOO implies that it comes from the first press of the olive and that it is unrefined – – this the high heat process that most vegetable oils go through. It should contain no more than 0.8% free acidity, and is judged to have a superior taste, some fruitiness, and no defined sensory defects. Unfortunately, the study from UC Davis revealed that this is not often the case for the olive oil on our shelves here in America. You can read more about this in a really interesting book called “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil“, by Tom Mueller.
So, what exactly is superior taste? Most of us in America really have no idea what to look for in an olive oil. And “free acidity” is one of those nerdy and scary food science terms. “Free acidity” in olive oil is the result of the degree of breakdown of the triacylglycerols, due to a chemical reaction called hydrolysis or lipolysis, in which free fatty acids are formed. OK – – this still sounds like technical food science jargon so let me break it down some more for you. Let’s focus on the word “tri-acyl-glycerol’. The word tri means “3”. The “acyl” part are the fatty acids and the “glycerol” is the thing that hold them all together. Imagine a lego set. Let’s say you have 100 large legos, let’s call these the glycerols. Then you have 300 smaller legos, let’s call these the fatty acids. Now, attach 3 of the smaller fatty acid legos to each of the larger glycerol legos. Now you have 100 triacylglycerols molecules made out of legos. Now imagine putting all of these legos in a bag and shaking them up. Some of the smaller legos would become detached from the larger legos. Tthese floater legos are just like the free fatty acids in olive oil. And in this case, if just 3 or more small legos fall off we’d be out of standard for EVOO. It’s a pretty big hurdle.
When oil has a lot of free fatty acid floating around, it is said to be rancid. Oil that’s just a little bit rancid will have a cardboard or putty flavor. Oil that’s moderately rancid will be reminiscent of house paint, and oil that’s severely rancid will take on a fishy flavor. Yummy! Now, you probably are NOT going to notice much rancid flavors with only 1% or less free fatty acids but that is just how strict the standard is for EVOO!
Now, when you do not refine an oil, it can go rancid more quickly. EVOO, which is unrefined, only has an 18-24 month shelf life. And once you open your oil, you’ll want to use it sooner than later. It is recommended to use up the oil within 30 to 60 days upon opening. Olive oil is highly perishable, but is generally said to be ‘good’ for two years from the date it was bottled (this will usually be the ‘Best By’ date). However, a better indicator of freshness is to go by its harvest date, which will tell you when the oil was actually made. Only select oils that have this information on the bottle.
So, one way around meeting the low free fatty acid standard of 1% or less is to refine the oil. And this process also removes much of the flavor in the oil. This is why most vegetable type oils have little to no flavor. So, if you get an EVOO that has a very mild flavor, it may have been refined or even adulterated with a lower cost refined oil such a canola or vegetable. So, now you have an ‘olive oil’ that might pass the free fatty acid hurdle but still would not meet the taste requirements – which definitely takes more knowledge and training and can be a bit more subjective.
So, what does real EVOO taste like? If you are home, pause this podcast and go to your cupboard and pour a little EVOO into a cup and try it straight up. I’m hoping you have some around. Funny thing is, most Americans might not appreciate the taste and let me tell you why….good olive oil is BITTER! That’s right, you heard me clearly….it’s bitter! Most people don’t like bitter tastes but bitter is a good thing coupled with the right amount of other flavors and mouthfeels. Good EVOO will also make you cough and perhaps gag! What! That doesn’t sound good. This is called “pungency” and is the peppery tingle you feel at the back of your throat. This pungency is due to the presence of healthy antioxidants. Dr. Gary Beauchamp from the Monell Chemical Senses Center published an article in Nature that found oleocanthal as one of the compounds responsible for this pungent sensation. Oleocanthal has similar properties to anti-inflammatory compounds such as ibuprofen. Talk about food as medicine! And lastly, good olive oil is fruity. Let’s not forget that olives are fruit so a good olive oil needs to have some degree of fruitiness.
“So the perfect trifecta for a good olive oil is “Bitter Taste + Pungency in Throat + Fruity Flavor”
The unique and sometimes robust flavor of high quality extra virgin olive oil is related to the presence of a large number of aromatic chemical compounds such as aldehydes, alcohols, esters, hydrocarbons, ketones, and furans. Over one hundred types of compounds have been identified which contribute to the distinctive sensory characteristics that make extra virgin olive oil so unique. Some specific examples are hexanal (green, grassy) and trans-2-hexenal (green, bitter). Many of these flavor compounds decompose if temperatures during milling are too high or if the oil is refined. And many of these compounds are health promoting so the less processed the olive oil, the more health benefits incurred.
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