Take advantage of one of nature’s healthiest fats with this guide to olive oil varieties and health benefits.
In ancient Greek mythology, the goddess Athena planted an olive tree on the rocky hill now known as the Acropolis—tour guides claim the tree standing there today comes from the same roots. Most historians agree that the island of Crete was the site of the first olive cultivation, with the earliest olive oil press dating to around 5000 B.C. The first recording of olive oil extraction is found in the Hebrew Bible—the hand-squeezing of the fruit during the Exodus from Egypt.
Web Extra: For instructions on how to substitute olive oil for butter in baked goods and make a pecan pie with olive oil, read the article Baking with Olive Oil.
My first experience with olive oil came at the ripe age of 8, watching my favorite aunt Lou fry eggplant to layer in her famous moussaka. I asked her why her eggplant tasted so good and my mom’s didn’t (sorry, Mom!). She reached up and pulled a Wonder Bread hamburger bun out of a bag—it was 1968, the height of processed-food popularity. She poured some olive oil from a large tin with Greek letters on it into a little cup, handed me the bun, and said, “Here, dip the bread in this.” My mouth immediately welcomed the buttery, fresh, flowery fruitiness of kalamata extra virgin olive oil. She then poured some Crisco oil into another bowl and said, “Now taste this!” I made a terrible face. She laughed and said, “That’s what your mom uses!”
In 2011, I celebrated my 10th anniversary bottling Global Gardens Extra Virgin Olive Oil. At Global Gardens, I insist we be varietal-specific. As with wine grapes, the nuances of the olive fruits themselves, times and styles of harvests, and milling options make a huge difference in the taste of an oil. Every palate is different, so I encourage you to find your own taste bud tantalizers (read “Flavor Profiles of Various Oils” further in this article for tips on identifying olive oil flavors).
Extra virgin olive oil should be defined as containing no more than 0.8 percent acidity—it has a superior taste, color and smell. I say “should be” defined because, sadly, many of the olive oils found on our grocery store shelves do not test as extra virgin. In an analysis of many popular brands of “extra virgin” olive oil, researchers found 69 percent of imported and 10 percent of California extra virgin olive oils were, in actuality, not, according to a study published by the University of California, Davis Olive Center. For more information about the massive fraud occurring in the olive oil industry, read The New Yorker’s Slippery Business.
The truth is found in the flavor. Many folks come into my store in Los Olivos, California, with the perception that olive oil should have no taste at all. Educating customers on the contrary is our greatest joy. Varietal bottling captures the distinctive terroir of its grove of origin, very similar to wine grapes. A pinot noir from Washington State tastes completely different from a pinot from Santa Barbara County. A real extra virgin olive oil will represent diverse fruitiness and peppery finishes ranging from mild to robust—again, dependent on the varietal and geographical location and microclimate (we have four different temperature zones on one 50-acre olive ranch).
The flavor of olive oil is also determined by how it is processed. Always seek cold-pressed olive oil. Although adding heat increases yield—warmer oil is thinner and will generously increase harvest results—adding heat creates a bitter flavor. Stone-milled oils are typically less bitter than those pressed in a stainless steel hammer mill press. Stainless steel tends to slice sharply into the fruit, running hotter (because it’s metal) than a stone mill, with the heat contributing to bitterness. Bitterness can also come from the varietal (usually, the darker the olive, the less bitter the flavor)—but a great extra virgin olive oil should not be extremely bitter, no matter where it is from.
Maintaining the quality of olive oil is another factor. Always store oil in a cool, dry pantry—never in sunlight, above the kitchen stove or in the refrigerator. I go through a bottle of olive oil frequently, so I put capped bottle pours on their tops and place them on my counter for convenience. If you’re a frequent user like I am, the oil won’t go bad in the two weeks it takes to devour it. Refrigerating olive oil makes it coagulate, changes the flavor and requires bringing it back to room temperature for use. One customer proudly told me she brought her coagulated olive oil back to life by heating it in the microwave. Yikes!
Ever wonder how you can exercise and restrict your diet to vegetables and water-packed tuna fish but never lose weight—or if you do, gain it right back? The solution lies in the fact that our bodies require healthy and essential fats for us to lose weight and keep it off.
Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat, which offers phenomenal health attributes—don’t look at the calories and shove the bottle back in the cupboard! When we use extra virgin olive oil on pasta, bread or other carbohydrates, the chemistry in our body slows down the absorption rate of the carb during the digestive process, allowing the carbohydrate to maintain its healthy properties instead of quickly turning into sugar, which is what happens to most carbs. Research shows that Type 2 diabetes patients can achieve better blood sugar control and insulin levels by consuming moderate amounts of olive oil.
Extra virgin olive oil also contains a high amount of polyphenols that are natural antioxidants. Countless health studies point to a reduction in risk of coronary disease, and lower blood pressure and cholesterol counts when our bodies absorb healthy amounts of phenolic compounds. Studies indicate these compounds can reduce the inflammation that causes coronary heart disease.
The health benefits of olive oil don’t stop there. Ongoing studies note that compounds from the olive fruit were found to be antimicrobial against various undesirable bacteria. The consumption of extra virgin olive oil has been known to improve the sensitivity of cells to insulin, which helps decrease the risk in many patients of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and Alzheimer’s disease. Surprising to many, one tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil contains 8 percent of our Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of vitamin E. Olive oil is also the second-best source of vitamin K, after nutrient-dense green vegetables such as kale and broccoli.
The koroneiki olive varietal has been found to contain the highest level of polyphenols. Global Gardens sells an imported koroneiki from the island of Crete that is fruity and buttery. We also harvest koroneiki from our own certified organic groves, producing a limited amount each year, highly prized for its strong, healthy attributes.
Always purchase cold-pressed extra virgin olive oils, ideally processed in stone mills. This simple chart lists some common flavors associated with extra virgin oils. On the left are flavors you want to taste; on the right, flavors that indicate a rancid or adulterated oil. You might want to use the fruity oils in baking, the herbaceous on pastas, and the woodsy, more robust profiles with stronger dishes such as salmon. Have fun identifying these flavor notes. Pull the olive oil(s) out of your cupboard and put 1/4 teaspoon onto the middle of your tongue. Swallow. See what kind of sensations you get. If you get a tingly, peppery feeling in the back of your throat along with any of the flavors from the Good Flavors list, it’s likely your olive oil is extra virgin. If not, dump it and find one that is—you deserve it!
Apples, Artichokes, Bananas, Butter, Butterscotch, Cinnamon, Fresh almonds, Fruity, Grassy, Herbaceous (especially rosemary), Mangoes, Melons, Pears, Peppercorns (green, white, pink, black), Spicy, Tomatoes, Tropical, Woodsy
Bland, Blue cheese, Briny, Burnt, Flat, Fusty, Frozen, Greasy, Heavy, Metallic, Resin, Vinegary, Smoky, Stale nuts, Tonic, Mushrooms, Musty, Yeasty
Adapted from Olive Oil and Vinegar For Life by Theo Stephan, founder of specialty olive oil company Global Gardens. Global Gardens extra virgin olive oils have won 15 medals from the Los Angeles County Fair, which hosts a prestigious olive oil competition.