If an Extra Virgin Olive Oil falls in the woods, does it make a sound?

Posted by Zach Thorp on 11th Jun 2019

If an Extra Virgin Olive Oil falls in the woods, does it make a sound?

Let's cut to the chase, there is a lot of fraud in food. By the time food gets to grocery store shelves, it's often been worked over by a marketing and design group to make it "pop" on the shelf more than its competitors. The unfortunate reality is that often times a bad product can be covered up by an appealing label or marketing campaign. For example, if you have ever seen "Lite Olive Oil" an easy assumption would be that this oil is in someway lighter in calories or maybe in taste but if you look closely at the back of the bottle and compare it to its non-lite counterparts, it's the same. The same calories, the same amount of fat, it's the same. If you look further you will find that it's often labeled as "made from refined olives" which in essence means that the olive oil was heated, so I suppose the question becomes why would an olive oil need to be heated, we will get back to that.

A high quality olive oil requires 2 people to make a really great product; a great farmer and a great miller. Farmers work really hard all year long to produce great fruit. They watch the blooms, the wind, the heat, the water and the pests all to be able to produce a really great piece of fruit.  Farmers typically harvest at night when the fruit has less tendency for stress and exposure to hot temperatures and they try to get it to the mill as quickly as possible. 

The cut-off time is 24 hours. After 24 hours off the tree, the picked olives are highly susceptible to a number of aspects that begin to degrade the olive in a way that produces defects in the olive oil. Letting olives sit in the rain, leaving them on the tree too late in the year to expose them to frost, failure to control pests are all things that lead to defective fruit which leads to defective olive oil. But if you have great fruit, then a great miller is needed.  

A farmer can do great work all year and if the miller does not do their job right, they can produce a defective olive oil in the mill. Too much oxygen exposure, running the olives through improperly cleaned mill, letting the temperature rise too high are all things that produce defects in an olive oil. Though there are a number of defects that can exist in olive oil, and believe me they are all bad (think about the taste of a pig farm in your mouth!), the most common defect is rancidity which does happen naturally over time but can also happen straight out of the mill.  

So what makes an olive oil Extra Virgin?  When I ask this question I often get the reply, "it has to be first cold pressed" which is true, sort of.  Years ago, when olives were pressed on a mill with a donkey pulling a large stone wheel to grind the olives, these were farmers who made homemade olive oil. They used every part of the olive and after they would press the olives for oil the first time they would put the olive paste back up on the mill a second time and try to get as much out of the olives as possible, most of the time using the 2nd press for lamp oil or animal feed. Today, with modern mills, we don't re-use the fruit for a second press. We can extract a majority of the oil out of the olives the first time through the mill.

This is where advertising comes in. Somewhere along the line, a smart marketing executive began calling their olive oil "first pressed" - the truth is everyone first presses. In addition to multiple presses, farmers used to use heat with their olives when they milled them. This would encourage oil out of the fruit thus allowing them a bigger yield of oil. The taste, however, was terrible because high heat during the milling process produces a rancid taste in the olive oil.  So modern producers have learned that in order to keep rancidity out of the olive oil during milling, the temperature must be below 86 degrees, this has become standard practice.  

Today everyone making great Extra Virgin Olive Oil has adopted these standard practices to eliminate defects in their olive oil.  Milling below 86 degrees and only milling the fruit once are common practices, thus "first cold pressed" is an outdated term.  It's like saying "this bottled water is the best because it's really wet".  In today's world, a simplistic way to define Extra Virgin Olive Oil is this, "olive oil that does not contain defects and has nothing added to it."  This means a garlic olive oil is not an extra virgin olive oil because it has something added to it.  

Flavored olive oil can be great, they can add nuance to food, but they can also hide defects.  Which brings me back to the "Lite Olive Oil".  Olive oil can be heated to such a high temperature that it burns off all the flavor, health benefits and color, it becomes refined.  This flavorless oil is put back in the bottle and sold as "lite" but in truth it was probably olive oil that was so defective that it couldn't be sold. So it was refined to take away the defective taste and put back in the bottle for sale. 

But don't lose heart, there are a lot of people who are trying to make great food. You can find it if you look. And I just happen to know a place where you can get great extra virgin olive oil!