Myths about olive oil

Published August 13, 2013

| The Daily Meal

Many people know surprisingly little about olive oil, a commodity that so often makes the news — at times the subject of public esteem (as when a study is released about new health benefits), and at other times, scandal (as when more fraud is uncovered).

Part of the lack of general knowledge is a result of all the crazy marketing out there: Peruse the olive oils in the cooking oil aisle of a typical grocery store and you'll be greeted by all kinds of terminology. Some of it is confusing — like "pure" and "extra-virgin" — which is better? Other terms are just pointless — "cold-pressed" for example, doesn’t really mean much; basically, all extra-virgin olive oil is cold-pressed. And part of it is still a relative lack of popularity — according to Tom Mueller, author of Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, "The Greeks eat more [olive] oil than any other nationality, 21 liters per capita every year as compared with 13 liters in Italy and Spain, 1 liter in Britain, and a little less than a liter in the United States." Opa.

The point of all this marketing, of course, is to make olive oil less of a commodity in people's minds, and more of a product with different levels of quality, which is a step in the right direction, but as just pointed out, it's not always done well.

It's inevitable that something produced since antiquity and that is so legendary is going to accumulate some myths over time. Just how long has the olive oil trade been around? A very, very long time. There's a hill in Rome on the south side of the Tiber River that's half a mile in circumference, called Mount Testaccio, made out of the broken shards of 25 million amphorae, containers used by the Romans between the first and third centuries to transport olive oil. It's enough to hold 1.75 billion liters of oil, a testament to the importance of olive oil then. Its lucrative allure drove the unscrupulous to engage in all kinds of "interesting" business practices, some of which, like the adulteration of olive oil with cheaper oils, haunt us again today. "Crime has been part of the oil trade for at least 5,000 years," writes Mueller. "The earliest known documents to mention olive oil, cuneiform tablets written at Ebla in the 24th century BC, refer to teams of inspectors who checked olive growers and millers for fraudulent practices."

While there's no way to really know for sure what's in the bottle without opening it and tasting it, we can help uncover some of the mystery and confusion surrounding olive oil. 

Myth #1: If an extra-virgin olive oil "freezes" in the refrigerator, then it's the real thing.

With all the recent controversy over fraud in the olive oil market (and food fraud in general), it's natural to wonder if the extra money you're paying for olive oil is worth it, especially when it's difficult to be sure that what is in the bottle is the real thing. In an episode of Dr. Oz which aired Feb. 11, 2013, viewers were told that if an extra-virgin olive oil solidified in the refrigerator, then it was probably the real thing — not necessarily true, according to Eryn Balch, executive vice president of the North American Olive Oil Association.

Many oils, not just extra-virgin olive oil, turn solid when chilled, and whether or not a particular extra-virgin olive oil solidifies depends on its fatty acid profile — the mix of saturated and types of unsaturated fats unique to the type of olive or olives used to make the olive oil, their harvest date, and other factors.

Myth #2: When cooking with olive oil, always use extra-virgin olive oil.

How many recipes have you seen specify "extra-virgin olive oil" in the ingredient list? The abbreviation has even become an endearing (or eye-roll-inducing) mantra for home cooks, thanks to Rachael Ray —we're not going to say it because we're not allowed to say it (the word is on a wall of banned words called "The Island" in our office), and you already know how it goes anyway. (Take a shot, now.)

If it's a salad dressing recipe or even a baking recipe, that's fine — but if it asks you to sauté, grill, roast, or (gasp) fry, it's really bad advice — the smoke point of extra-virgin olive oil is about 375 to 405 degrees, and if you go past it, as you surely will when using one of these high-temperature cooking techniques, you'll produce all sorts of nasty chemicals that will end up in your food. Some common examples include peroxides, aldehydes, ketones, and hydroperoxides, all of which are toxic. But you don't just end up producing bad substances; you end up destroying the good ones, too. At 356 degrees, antioxidants start to say goodbye — tocopherols are the first to go.

Instead, when cooking at high temperatures, use a refined olive oil, which has a much higher smoke point. At stores, it is often marketed as "extra-light," "light tasting," or even just "olive oil." Save that beautiful extra-virgin olive oil for finishing a dish, not for cooking it.

Myth #3: You can't fry food with olive oil.

This, too, is a myth. Olive oil is a popular choice in Spain, Italy, Greece, and many other south European countries for frying. But the key is to pick the right type of olive oil. As mentioned in the previous slide, it's not such a good idea to fry with extra-virgin olive oil. But refined olive oil has a much higher smoke point than extra-virgin. At roughly 468 degrees, its smoke point is higher than or nearly as high as some other oils popular for frying, including peanut oil (450 degrees) and canola oil (470 degrees). Pure olive oil, a mixture of refined olive oil and extra-virgin olive oil, is also a good choice for light frying.

Myth #4: "Light" or "extra-light" olive oil is lower in calories than other olive oils.

A misleading marketing term. "Light" or "extra-light" is more accurately in reference to the taste of the oil, which after going through various processes including deodorization, is flavorless and odorless, rather than the caloric or fat content of the oil. "Light" and "extra-light" oils, like just about any other cooking oil, contain 120 calories and 14 grams of fat per tablespoon.

See more myths here.

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