Olive oil has been with us for almost as long as the olive, which is at least 6,000 years. It is mentioned numerous times in the Christian Bible, singled out as holy by Mohammed the Prophet of Islam, and celebrated by the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Considered the best of all oils, it is the traditional oil for anointing kings, bishops, and temples in western culture.
Olive oil is easy to digest and helps our bodies assimilate vitamins and minerals. It aids the digestive system by stimulating the gall bladder. Olive oil is cholesterol free and is made up of 70% monounsaturated fatty acids, which reduce bad cholesterol (LDL). It contains chlorophyll which aids the metabolism, stimulating cellular growth and speeding the healing process. And it contains no trans fats.
The olive tree flourishes in Mediterranean-type climates with hot, dry summers and cool winters. Spain, with over 300 million olive trees, is the number one producer of olive oil with 44% of the world market. Much of Spanish olive oil production is shipped to Italy, both for consumption and to be repackaged for sale abroad as Italian olive oil. The region of Andalucía accounts for 75% of Spanish olive oil production.
Selecting the right olive oil can be extra virgin olive oil a daunting task – the terminology used on labels is sometimes confusing and often misleading, and the differences between oils are usually not made clear. Here is everything you need to know to choose the right olive oil for your table or kitchen:
Grades – Olive oils that come from countries that are members of the International Olive Oil Council (of which Spain is, of course, one) adhere to strict regulations regarding labeling and packaging. The grades defined by the IOOC are as follows:
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil comes from the first pressing of the olives, has an acidity of no more than 0.8%, and has been judged to have superior taste. Extra virgin olive oil can contain no refined oil.
- Virgin Olive Oil has an acidity of less than 2% and has been judged to have good taste. Virgin olive oil can contain no refined oil.
- Pure Olive Oil is a blend of virgin olive oil and refined olive oil, and has an acidity of no more than 1%.
- Ordinary Olive Oil is also a blend of virgin and refined olive oils, and has an acidity of no more than 3.3%.
- Olive-Pomace Oil is very rarely found in markets, but is sometimes used in restaurant cooking. Made from the residue of the production of higher grade olive oils, olive-pomace oil is fit for consumption but not very tasty.
It is important to note that these grade definitions apply only to olive oils manufactured in countries that are members of the IOOC, which means that American olive oils may or may not meet these criteria. The USDA doesn’t recognize any of the above terms, instead using terms like “fancy” and “choice” as they have been since 1948, so you could put the words extra virgin olive oil on a tub of strawberry pudding and still be legal in the US as long as the ingredients list is correct.
Notice that taste is only a consideration for classifying extra virgin and virgin olive oil. These are the only two grades you would want to use when the flavor of the oil is important to the outcome of the dish.