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Response to Vancouver Sun Article – Olive Oil 101

This week in the Vancouver Sun, food writer Mia Stainsby wrote an article featuring The Olive Oil Merchant and Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil. A reader and owner of a Greek Grocery Store in Vancouver took issue with the piece and wrote a letter which she published on her blog here. Here is my response:

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to respond to the letter from Mr. Katsanikakis. I believe that discussion and debate on this topic is incredibly worthwhile and informative.

Mr. Katsanikakis and I agree that fresh olive oil tastes better but I would have to take issue with his definition of “long time”. How is a consumer to know how well an oil has been stored, how it has been transported and how old it really is? The only way for consumers to protect themselves and ensure they are getting what they are paying for is to look for a harvest date. Because olive oil can be sold in Canada without a harvest date or a “best before” date, it could literally be several years old. All olive oil, regardless of the quality will go rancid in time.

Regardless of when Bertolli, Carapelli and the like were sold to Spanish conglomerates, I was never a proponent of these brands for the reasons outlined in the article. When looking for the health benefits in olive oil, I whole-heartedly endorse ARTISAN produced extra virgin olive oil.

Mr. Katsanikakis is absolutely correct that companies in Italy import oils from other countries in the Mediterranean, blend them, package them and export them to North America. The sad fact is that Italy imports more oil than it produces. It is absolutely this type of activity that I am trying to inform the Canadian public of. These oils, farmed using super intensive methods,  have no health benefits, do nothing to support artisan farming and actually taste terrible. You may remember Mia that we had two examples of these oils during our tasting and they taste like fuel.

And yes, there are excellent artisan oils from many countries in both the old and new world. I, like Mr. Katsanikakis, support and work with the farmers from my home country. Every country claims to produce the best oil in the world without being able to back up their beliefs with facts. The truth is that, Italy has more cultivars (olive types) than any other country and as a result has a greater variety and range of styles. As we discussed in our tasting, one cannot live with just one kind of oil, just as you couldn’t live with just one kind of wine. Different foods call for different oils.

Superior olive oil, or Extra Virgin, is obtained by hand-picking the olives and is quite a labour intensive process. Experts agree, including Tom Mueller, author of Extra Virginity, that if an olive oil costs less than $10/liter it has very likely been adulterated and is not Extra Virgin.

While I wouldn’t consider myself a guru (a diva maybe), I disagree with Mr. Katsanikakis’ last statement. Stone-grinding olives does nothing to maintain the nutrients in the olive oil, in fact it does quite the opposite. Olives that are stone ground are exposed to air during the grinding process and that means oxidation. Oxidation means a loss in polyphenols/antioxidants. New technology allows for the grinding process to take place in an air tight environment maintaining and protecting the oil’s antioxidants. With regards to the choice of filtered vs. unfiltered, there is no evidence that unfiltered oil is better for you. Unfiltered oil simply means that there are cells and olive particles retained in the oil which actually speed up the rate of degeneration of the oil – it doesn’t last as long. Many people enjoy the taste of unfiltered oil, myself included, but it is not a factor in determining quality.

Saluti!

Teresa Kuhn
teresa@oliveoilmerchant.com
The Olive Oil Merchant
http://www.oliveoilmerchant.com

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hi Teresa,

    Your comments about harvest date are spot on. This is something that we North American consumers should insist upon! Thanks for your post.

    I’m concerned that your reader might confuse your words regarding the source of “superior” extra virgin olive oil so would like to offer the following to clear up any possible confusion:

    (a) modern orchard management, harvesting and milling techniques using green to veraison fruit and immediate processing to extract up to 200 micronutrients is referred to as super intensivo, super high density or high density. These producers grow and mill a clean and fresh product using over a dozen varieties of olives. A closed system of milling and storage by lot allows millers to blend various lots to achieve exciting new blends (coupage/meritage if you will), as well as harmonize/optimize an oils attributes. The 2011 LA International Best In Show “Medium” and Best in Show “Robust” EVOOs were both produced using this method.

    (b) industrial producers who collect black and rotting fruit from the ground along with soil and rocks and are forced to refine the hot mess to remove all foul aromas, flavors and any remaining nutrients. These industrial producers may indeed deliver an oil that tastes like fuel, but the olives are not obtained from super high density planting, rather, from many small labor intensive hand picked farms where there is not enough manual labor to collect the fruit and get it to the mill to assure quality.

    To be sure, selectively hand harvested and immediately milled olives can produce exquisite extra virgin olive oil, but it is not scaleable to the modern world in terms of sheer volume and in terms of cost. I work with award winning producers in nine countries who use both conventional planting/hand harvesting as well as high density/machine harvested methods; both can and do offer superior extra virgin olive oil.

    I would be happy to send you some information on SHD planting under separate cover should you desire it.

    Regards,
    Liz

    January 28, 2012
  2. g&t #

    Hi Liz,

    Thank you for your comment. I would love to see your information on SHD planting, feel free to send it to me at teresa [at] oliveoilmerchant [dot] com.

    While I can’t speak to the producers that you work with, I am very familiar with the defects that are commonly found in oils on supermarket shelves throughout North America and Europe.

    In the tasting that I conducted for the writier of the article in mention, we sampled two oils produced using SHD farming, both of which had the defect that is called Fusty (Riscaldo in Italian). This defect is a result of olives, piled in mountainous heaps outside the mill, that have not been immediately processed and have begun to ferment.

    Your second example of oils created from fallen and rotting fruit, creates a fault that is called Musty or sometimes Earthy. You are correct that this defect is not the result of SHD farming but is generally found in smaller operations.

    In both cases, these oils cannot be considered Extra Virgin.

    Best,

    Teresa

    January 28, 2012
  3. Phyllis Heard #

    Dear Teresa, I am an olive farmer growing 7,ooo trees of mixed varieties in the wine country of Marlborough New Zealand.A “superior” oil is not always produced by hand harvesting fruit.While harvesting methods may slightly influence the quality and flavour of the oil the growing conditions over a whole season are far more important. The quality of the fruit on the tree,is determined by climate,the health of the soil and the quality of water used for irrigation. Other factors all good olive farmers consider, are the extent of the damage caused by olive fruitfly and other insects,also bird peck and fungal disease. These all need to be assessed throughout the growing season as they all influence the flavour and the shelf life of the oil.
    The length of the olive ripening season is also very important.The health giving properties of an olive oil lie in the polyphenols and antioxidants. These are water soluble. Too much rain and the oil is low in polyphenols/anti-oxidants. Too much heat destroys polyphenols and ripens the fruit too quickly and the fruit drops whether it is in a super intense system or not, as you point out, fallen fruit creates fungal and oxidation problems no matter what size the grove is.
    Research from around the world clearly shows the optimum conditions for growing sustainable insecticide free high health extra virgin olive fruit are minimal rain,very cool autumn/early winter nights without frosts on the trees and very high sunshine hours during the day.It is also desirable to have a dry harvest as rain or high humidity cause fungal disease which also affects the taste of the oil.
    These favourable climatic conditions determine the levels of antioxidants/polyphenols.To avoid high temperatures lowering polyphenols some SHD growers are tempted to harvest green fruit early. This lowers oil percentages but also affects the levels of vitamin e in the oil and results in an oil that is unbalanced affecting taste and oil shelf life.
    Getting the fruit to the processing facility as quickly as possible has some bearing on quality particularly if the fruit is low in polyphenols but if the fruit is in poor condition to start with or over ripe from intense high temperatures or too wet you strike trouble. In the case of olive fruit it is impossible to make a silk purse out of a sows ear no matter what type of olive mill or processing method is used.
    The higher the polyphenols/antioxidants in an oil the longer its shelf life. A good extra virgin olive oil should tickle your throat. If the oil tastes too smooth with no healthy pepper it isn’t going to last long in the bottle even when stored in dark glass in cool conditions etc.Oxidising or rancid oil of any kind is not good for your health.While this mild style of oil may be preferred by some you should not pay a premium for it as the health attributes will be diminished or gone.
    The amount of olive fly infestation and whether the fruit has been sprayed with pesticides or fungicides close to harvest whether veraison has ocurred or not impacts the quality and health of the oil too.SHD olive groves face the same problems as all Superhigh density monoculture growing systems anywhere in the world.The lack of biodiversity and grove management techniques that favour the “scorched earth” approach under trees creates the need for high agrochemical inputs.
    The bottling date under Ms Tagami’s assessment of the efficiency of a closed system of milling and storage will be deemed far more important if the “closed” systems are as efficient as Ms Tagami states. One thing Ms Tagami has overlooked even superintensivo “closed” oxidation olive oils need to come out of storage and into bottles and on to tables at some point.Producing high volume low polyphenol oils that require such high input storage is not only environmentally expensive it is surely not sustainable in the long term. As every olive farmer involved in the day to day running of a grove knows, time is of the essence in this game.
    It is a good idea when consumers are paying more than average prices for an oil to check the certified pressing date of an oil which can be quite different from a harvest date in some countries it seems.This is usually a Government food safety requirement in an audited olive mill.An honest extra virgin olive oil producer will also have insisted on clearly stating on the labels of their oils the certified polyphenol levels to verify the health, shelf life and “style” of the oil,a certified pesticide residue clearance test and a Government certified country of origin.It is also the responsibility of the importing country like Canada to test the integrity of all cold pressed edible oils and all other processed vegetable oils making health claims as a very important part of Public health and food safety requirements.

    January 30, 2012
    • g&t #

      Thank you for your comment Phyllis. I couldn’t agree with you more.

      Teresa

      January 30, 2012

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