Considered a gift from the Goddess Athena, olive oil was known as ‘liquid gold’ in Ancient Greece. Even today, olive oil remains so versatile that it can not only be used for cooking, but also as a luxurious moisturizer. Even researchers and health professionals are recommend it for its extensive list of health benefits.
While delicious, healthy and useful, however, olive oil has only recently joined the echelon of luxury food items.
With the growing popularity of the ‘Mediterranean Diet’, consumption and production of olive oil has been on the rise. This diet, which advocates olive oil as a healthy and enjoyable source of fat, is a dietary staple in some of the world's longest living communities. But there is one secret of this versatile ingredient that is not so widely publicized, and which directly affects how beneficial it can be for your health: adding just any old olive oil to your diet will not suffice.
You Get What You Pay For
Finding high quality olive oil is not as simple as it might seem. Even the most expensive brands are not necessarily the highest quality, and frequently don't deliver all of the product's potential health benefits. In fact, the olive oil world is wrought with low end mislabeling scandals, which means that what you see on the bottle might not be what you are getting. That is why buying directly from well-known and respected producers is crucial if you want to gain all the benefits of high quality olive oil, and the exquisite taste and aromatics to match.
The International Olive Oil Council (IOOC) in Madrid tracks olive oil production and consumption around the world. According to their records, the market share of high quality extra virgin olive oils is on the rise as consumers are wising up to the health benefits and being exposed to its intoxicating culinary prowess. The IOOC actually has as a Charter from the United Nations to set criteria for olive oil quality and purity. Some producers in Europe and Australia are even pushing for higher standards, much like those of wine, to reflect the territory and climate.
High Quality Olive Oil vs. Average Olive Oil
High quality olive oil is profoundly different from what you will find in your local supermarket. The olives that are used to produce the highest quality oils, called cultivars, are picked almost ripe - which makes for a less acidic and fruitier oil. Lower end producers usually leave their olives in sacks before being pressed, leaving them open to air exposure, light and heat which can actually turn the olives rancid. The highest-quality olive oil is pressed, crushed and bottled immediately – tree to bottle if you will.
When it comes to olive oil, refinement is not a good thing. Refined olive oil products use olives that are not in the best condition, and are often blended with other kinds of oil and further chemically processed to try and neutralize the poor quality taste.
Unrefined olive oils can be called “virgin” or “extra-virgin”. The cost of making these oils is considerably higher because producers need to use olives that are in good condition, and need to provide a higher level of care throughout the process in order to avoid rancidity, mustiness, and other bad tastes. They are also not allowed to add other oils or chemically process the oil to mask any imperfections.
It's because of these stringent restrictions that, in the world of olive oil, extra virgin is king. The title of extra virgin is only given to those oils that meet strict flavor and chemical composition requirements. This is where higher quality correlates with higher levels of nutrients and, essentially, greater health benefits. This is why you need to buy the best.
This doesn’t mean that simply choosing extra virgin olive oil will do – in fact, in some US states there are no federal standards to guarantee olive oil is in fact extra virgin. Labeling can be deviously deceptive in this industry – “Pure Olive Oil” or bottles that simply say “Olive Oil” are low-quality, refined and often mixed oils. Claims like cold pressed, first press, light or lite, late harvest, stone milled, infused, and hand crafted are not regulated and are often obsolete terms in regards to modern olive production.
The Best Olive Oil in the World
If you are looking to get your hands on some of the best olive oil in the world, it's worth heading over to The New York International Olive Oil Competition (NYIOOC) where, every April, the most distinguished experts from around the world gather in New York City to give excellence awards to the world’s finest olive oil producers. The NYIOOC has also teamed up with The Olive Oil Times to launch the Best Olive Oils Marketplace which only offers the most exclusive and best olive oils in the world – that is, those that come right off the NYIOOC winners list. You won’t find any sub-par brands here. This marketplace gives savvy olive oil connoisseurs the opportunity to not only browse the award winners and view their accolades and tasting profiles, but also enables them to bring these luxury brands home.
Buying The Best Olive Oil Will Help You Live Longer
Researchers believe that the main reason why high quality extra virgin olive oil yields so many more health benefits than most other oils is because it is one of the few that can be consumed without chemical processing; letting the fruit keep its nutrient profile, meaning a higher density and quality of nutrients in the oil.
Besides lowering blood cholesterol and blood pressure, incorporating extra virgin olive oil into your diet also improves bone mineralization, calcification, and calcium absorption, helping to prevent the onset of osteoporosis. A diet that incorporates extra virgin olive oil is also recommended for those with diabetes, and in recent studies has also been correlated with preventing strokes and certain kinds of cancer.
The health benefits of olive oil are not limited to just helping to keep physical diseases and conditions at bay. Researchers have recently shown that a higher intake of olive oil and other polyunsaturated fats are associated with a lower risk of depression and another recently published study has shown that consuming olive oil may also help reduce the cognitive decline that comes with aging, including the potential to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
The olive oils with the greatest health benefits are going to be those with the highest antioxidant content - a quality which usually correlates with a more bitter flavor. When pairing food be aware that a very bitter olive oil may overpower your meal, so selection and pairing are key. Also keep in mind that heating these oils at high heat will destroy the health properties you are looking for, so reserve them for cooking on a low heat or drizzling, rather than frying. If you have scored yourself a winner of the Best Olive Oils list, the last thing you want to do is ruin the complexity and flavor profile (not to mention the health benefits) by not knowing how to cook with it.
Olive oil has been a staple ingredient among celebrated chefs and age-old communities for generations - and now, living in a time where we have access to a global market of luxury food items, we can all access ingredients that are world class not only for our palates, but for our health.