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Olive oil — it’s not just for Popeye anymore

Noticing more olive oils in the supermarket? Can't tell Virgin from Extra Virgin? "Today" food editor Phil Lempert has the 101…

We just love our olive oils! Many kitchen cupboards now contain two or three different varieties of olive oils - ranging from the supermarket brands costing under $5 a liter to those costing over $35 for half as much. Some oils are so fancy they are described in wine-tasting terms (“minerally,” “buttery,” etc.) and, indeed, are sold alongside fine vintages at upscale wine stores.

Increased choice is great, of course, but it can be accompanied by confusion. Many of our readers have sent in questions on the subject. "What's the difference between olive oils?" they ask and are also requesting help in selecting the right one for them.

Today, there are more than 150 brands, most of which are imported from Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Italy. For the most intense flavor (leafy green and grassy) I recommend Organic Extra Virgin that is “estate bottled,” which means that the olives were grown and pressed in the same location. Best quality is from Sicily, Tuscany or the southern regions of France. California also produces excellent, though sometimes overpriced olive oils; many are organic. Spanish olive oil, which tends to be lighter in color and slightly sweeter, provides excellent value for money.

Here’s what to look for
Many labels and bottles are designed to impress you with their authenticity by displaying “medals” or other awards. Don’t be fooled by beautiful packaging. A particular brand might have won an award in 1903, but keep in mind that the taste and quality of olives differ from season to season, just as a fine wine would.

Read the label carefully. For example, only a small percentage of olive oil labeled as “Italian” or “Imported from Italy” is actually produced in Italy from Italian olives; most of the olives are grown and processed in Greece and Spain and shipped to Italy just for packaging. Read the labels carefully — nomenclature like “packed in” or “bottled in” is a sign that olives themselves were grown elsewhere. Look for clear and precise language, for example, “grown and pressed in Lucca, Italy” or “made from Italian olives.”

Varieties of olive oils
The best way to judge olive oil is by tasting it, but there are also more objective methods. Chemical tests have been developed to test the acidity levels of olive oil. The lower the acidity the better the oil. The acidity itself cannot be tasted (as you can in lemons or vinegars) if an olive oil tastes “acid-y” (similar to a “soapy” taste) it is most likely rancid and should not be used.

  • This is the best grade, made from the first pressing of the olives and using no heat or other methods to extract the oil. It is the smoothest and has an acidity level not exceeding one per cent. The oil must also have "perfect" aromas, flavor and color. Extra Virgin olive oil is a delicate product and for the best flavor should be packaged in a light-safe bottle (dark green or amber) or in tin.

  • This also is a virgin oil, but its acidity level can be up to two per cent. It should also be smooth and have a good aroma, flavor and color.
  • This is a blend of refined and virgin olive oil. It must have an acidity level of not more than one and a half per cent. Olive oil with flavor or aromas that are less than perfect are refined to produce an odorless, colorless and tasteless olive oil. Virgin olive oil is added to this oil to give it some flavor and color. The resulting olive oils vary in the amount of virgin olive oil added to them and that in turn accounts for a varied concentration of their flavors and ultimately their price.
  • This is exactly the same product as Olive Oil and was developed for those people who want all the health benefits of olive oil, but want a milder flavor and lighter color. The oil is filtered for additional time, which does not have any effect on the nutritional benefits or diminish the calories of fat in the oil.

Health claims
While it is true that olive oil is one of the better fats (mono-unsaturated) — and has been proven to raise the HDL (good) cholesterol and lower the LDL (bad} cholesterol — remember that all oils are 100% fat. Each tablespoon contains 14 grams of fat and 110 calories per tablespoon.

Storage tips
Be sure to store olive oil in a cool, dark location with the cap tightly sealed to avoid premature rancidity or flavor loss. If you will not be using olive oil for a period of time, you can refrigerate it. It will solidify and then leave at room temperature to return to its natural state and be ready to use.

Food safety warning
Many people add fresh garlic or different herbs to their oils for flavor. Unlike commercially produced “infused” oils, these other ingredients may contain everyday bacteria, which can grow into botulism and cause serious illness. When preparing these be sure to only make enough for the one mealtime and never pack leftover oil in a sealed container.

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