All About Olive Oil

Olive oil has for years been sold as a healthier alternative to certain other vegetable oils. But where does it come from, and what does “extra virgin” mean?

Produced in the Mediterranean region since ancient times, olive oil was a dietary staple of the ancient Greeks, as well as the ancient Romans. Throughout that region, it was also a lucrative trade good.

Surprisingly, all of this is still true in modern times. Most of the world’s olive oil still comes from the Mediterranean region – and southern Europe in particular. In fact, countries of the European Union now produce around 75% of the world’s total production of olive oil. That’s more than two million tons.

Spain is now the world’s largest producer of the stuff, while Italian olive oil production generates 2 billion Euros annually.

A campaign funded by the European Union called Flavor Your Life claims that Italy has about 250 million olive trees in over 350 different varieties, and overall has the highest concentration of olive trees of any country in the world.

In the Med region, olive oil is also produced in Tunisia, Turkey, Morocco and Algeria, among other countries. But it’s also being produced outside the region: the EU campaign points out, (perhaps with a trace of worry) that Australia has now become a healthy producer of olive oil.

Wherever you source your olive oil, you should know a bit about the international system used to grade various types of olive oil used for human consumption:

The term “virgin” refers to olive oil that is produced without any chemical treatment. It is pressed from olives through mechanical means.

“Extra-Virgin” olive oil is virgin oil that has been judged to be of superior quality. This is the stuff you want on your salad.

However, the “lesser” grades of olive oil are not necessarily bad; they just lack the all-natural, lightly-processed purity of Extra Virgin.

“Refined” olive oil, for instance, is still based on virgin oil, but not virgin oil of the best quality. These oils (which are usually too acidic or impure to be very tasty without refining) are put through a charcoal or chemical filtering process. Once suitably refined, they are used in various recipes.

Finally, there’s “Olive Pomace Oil,” which has many of the health benefits of other olive oils, but isn’t as tasty as the Extra Virgin stuff. It consists of refined olive pomace oil, which is extracted from the pulp of the first press of olive oil, (often with the help of solvents). It is sometimes blended with virgin olive oil.

One other labeling term that people wonder about is “First Cold Pressed.” When you see that on the label, it means that the olives were only crushed one time, at a relatively cold temperature.

This temperature varies from region to region, but it is generally considered that the use of too much heat to “help” the pressing process can damage the flavor of the oil. Hence, “First Cold Pressed” is a good thing.

If all that is somewhat confusing, we’d advise that you simply look for the term “Extra Virgin” on your olive oil. This is the highest grade, and promises to be free of chemical processing. Buon appetito!

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