As an Italian living in Southern California, I’m a big fan of mixing the goodness of the Mediterranean diet with a healthy lifestyle and outdoor activities.
What I love about the Mediterranean diet is the apparent paradox of its delicious richness of flavors and the use of very simple ingredients. The fact that it also helps people live long, healthy lives is an added bonus. My father, at 86, walks to the grocery store and back, goes up and down stairs, goes for leisure walks, and even enjoys swimming in the sea in the summer. Most of my other Italian relatives are also healthy and active in their old age.
All this while eating delicious food. Who wouldn’t want that?
One of the central ingredients of the Mediterranean diet is olive oil; we use abundantly on pasta, salads, even on simple bruschette, a simple appetizer made with toasted bread, chopped tomatoes, oregano, salt, and, you guessed it, liberal use of olive oil.
Olive oil is not only delicious, it is also healthy since it’s loaded with antioxidants, bolsters the immune system, and is good to your heart, as its monounsaturated fatty acids help improve blood cholesterol levels.
So buy it and use it. Problem is, most of the extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) you buy at the store is not virgin and is probably not (all) olive oil.
A famous 2010 study at UC Davis tested 14 major brands of extra-virgin olive oil. The result? 69 percent of imported olive oil samples were blended with cheaper oils like seed, canola, or nut oils. You might have better luck with California olive oil since ony 10 percent of them flunked the test.
Lest you think this test was a fluke, you should know that, a year later, the same researchers at UC Davis tested 134 samples that also failed taste and smell standards.
There are also well-documented international olive oil scandals, such as the famous one in 2008, when Italian police shut down almost 100 farms and olive oil processing plants for fraud. The situation is not better in Spain or Greece, two other countries that export supposedly EVOO.
But you are fine because you select EVOO based on label certifications like PDO (protected designation of origin) or PGI (protected geographical indication), right? Not so fast. Such certifications are no guarantee your EVOO is pure.
Tom Mueller, the author of Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, confirms that up to 70 percent of the extra virgin olive oil sold worldwide is watered down with cheaper oils like canola, sunflower, and other seed oils.
So, how do you make sure you are actually buying real olive oil? You can’t really go by the color, as real EVOO can vary in color from gold to green. It’s also difficult to go by taste since most people have not tasted the real thing anyway, and the fraudulent ones have enough real olive oil to taste almost like olive oil.
One way to make sure you are getting EVOO is to know the farmer; go by word of mouth. Shake the hand of the person that feeds you, as Michael Pollan mentions in his excellent book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.
You can also test it yourself by placing the olive oil bottle in your refrigerator. Olive oil solidifies when it’s cold. If the refrigerated oil thickens and becomes cloudy when refrigerated for a few hours, then it is (at least in part) olive oil.
Another way is to purchase from the manufacturers that passed the UC Davis test; brands like California Olive Ranch, Lucero (Ascolano), McEvoy Ranch Organic, Corto Olive, and Kirkland Organic.
Finally, you can also use healthy alternatives to EVOO for specialized recipes. We use extra-virgin coconut oil, for exemple, when baking pastries, as it adds a delicious flavor to cookies and pies. But you can also select sesame seed oil, avocado oil, and fermented cod liver oil.