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Olive oil is touted for its health benefits in many diet books and recipes. But is it really the nectar of the gods that it’s made out to be — and is the olive oil in your pantry as healthy as you think it is?
In his book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, author Tom Mueller claims that much of the olive oil sold in the U.S. as "extra-virgin" is really adulterated in some way and lacks the health and the taste benefits of real “extra virgin” olive oil.
Does this ever happen to you?: You're interested in trying a new recipe, but then you notice that it calls for a long list of 15 or more ingredients. And suddenly, you’re just not that into it anymore. For everyday cooking, most of us (even those who like to cook) have an unspoken limit on the number of ingredients we're willing to hunt down for a recipe. Five seems to be the magic number for many people. So I've come up with a few 5-ingredient recipes, plus some tips on how to keep your recipes…
So what can you believe, and what's hype? Here are answers.
Olive oils are graded based on their extraction process and on the acidity of the pressed oil, says Timothy Harlan, MD, assistant professor of clinical medicine at Tulane University and the author of Just Tell Me What To Eat! A former restaurateur, Harlan runs the web site DrGourmet.com.
True extra virgin olive oil — or "EVOO" as TV's Rachael Ray calls it — is extracted from olives using only pressure, a process known as cold pressing. "Extra virgin olive oil has just 1% acid. It is the oil that comes from the first pressing of the olives, and is considered the finest, having the freshest, fruitiest flavor," Harlan says. "Virgin olive oil also comes from the first pressing, and has about 3% acid."
Olive oil labels sport many other designations as well.
Unfortunately, you can’t always rely on those labels. The U.S. government doesn’t regulate the labeling of extra virgin olive oil, says Ruth Mercurio, a board member of the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) and managing partner of We Olive, LLC, a specialty retailer offering only true extra-virgin oils from about 200 California growers.
"With no regulation in the U.S. regarding the labeling of extra virgin olive oil, many imported — as well as domestic — olive oils claim to be virgin olive oils, 'extra extra' virgin olive oil, or light extra virgin olive oil, but they don't in fact meet the standards of a true extra virgin olive oil," Mercurio tells WebMD in an email.
There are other pitfalls as well, Mercurio adds:
How can you tell if the olive oil on your shelf is really extra virgin?
The North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA), a trade group promoting olive oil, advises consumers to look for their label on the bottle
"A stipulation of membership in the NAOOA is to abide by strict quality control standards," NAOOA president Bob Bauer says in a statement emailed to WebMD. "To enforce the standards, the NAOOA purchases olive oils from the same stores where American consumers buy olive oil for home use. Then, those bottles are sent to labs in Europe run by the International Olive Council for chemical testing and analysis. The tests determine if the olive oils are what the labels say they are — and not adulterated or a mislabeled product." (The International Olive Council [IOC] is the worldwide body that sets quality standards for the olive oil industry.)
But chefs and culinary experts suggest the best bet is to do a little testing of your own.
"My rule of thumb for at-home testing is to pour a few tablespoons of olive oil on a white dish. Look for consistencies that are smooth, although far thicker than corn or vegetable oil. Your olive oil should also smell like olives," Stella Metsovas, a Los Angeles nutritionist, tells WebMD in an email. "When the oil hits your palette, look for a smooth finish on the tongue; when the oil hits the back of your throat, look for a slight burn. The burn is actually the polyphenols found in fresh oils." Polyphenols are a type of antioxidant.
Harlan has some preferences of his own. "I prefer Spanish oils because they will have a grassy and sharper flavor (they are often slightly more acidic). They are often the more reasonably priced choice," he says. "Greek and Italian oils are great. I look for extra virgin oils that are labeled 'cold pressed' with labels that indicate the origin — usually a family company or farm."
Olive oil isn't your only option. Harlan recommends the following choices, depending on what you’re cooking:
Even if you're using the best-quality oils, you can get too much of a good thing. Olive oil may be one of the more healthful oils out there, but it's still a fat and should still be used in moderation.
"All oils and fats contain calories and about the same amount. A teaspoon has about 45 to 50 calories — whether that is butter, lard, olive oil, or margarine," Harlan says. "The idea of celebrity chefs sloshing oil in the pan with abandon does two things: adds too, too many calories and just makes the dish greasy."