Olive oil always occupied a special place in my grandmother’s home. Before she married and came to America, my grandmother had been a cook in the household of a family of Italian nobles in her native Sicily. She kept most everything near at hand, except for the olive oil and wine. I often wondered why the giant cans of olive oil were kept apart from the host of other cooking condiments and products she used in her household.
Both these items were stored in the cellar until she could use them. When it was time to bring them to the kitchen, she placed the olive oil at the bottom of a cupboard in the pantry where it was cool and dark. There was only one grade of olive oil. Most olive oil had the same wonderful taste whether you used it to fry an egg with garlic or to sauté a wide array of herbs, vegetables, and meats. Both my grandparents would take weekly shopping trips by train to New York City’s Little Italy to buy products they could not obtain in their hometown markets.
Olive oil produced in the U.S. does not have to comply with the international standards of the IOOC (International Olive Oil Council). The IOOC sets quality standards for about ninety-five percent of the olive oil produced in the world. Instead, the U.S. subscribes to the quality standards set by the U.S Department of Agriculture.
So what’s the poor consumer to do? Being informed of olive oil production quality is a good idea. The following terms mean pretty much what they say if the olive oil was made in Italy, Greece, Spain or any of the other countries which must meet IOOC standards.
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil – has the best taste and is also the most expensive. It comes from the first pressing of the olives and has acidity limited to 0.8 percent or less. The oil has not be ‘refined’ which means chemically treated to neutralize certain tastes.
Olive Oil – Described in this way can be a combination of virgin and refined oils. It has low acid content, but is lacking the more compelling taste of extra-virgin olive oil.
Imported from Italy – doesn’t necessarily mean that it was grown there. The olives could have come from Greece, Spain, Turkey or elsewhere. Simply put, it was merely bottled in Italy.
These foregoing designations are the most important for the consumer to understand but there are some additional things you should know about labeling for oils produced in the United States. Olive Oil produced in the United States is graded according to USDA standards.
Light Olive Oil – This is a popular label for U.S olive oil producers. Many people believe that this refers to lower caloric content. Nothing could be further from the truth. Olive oil is a fat. Any kind of olive oil has a caloric content of about 120 calories per tablespoonful. The designation ‘light’ refers to the lighter color of this oil.
One Hundred percent Olive Oil is a description not to be entirely trusted. It’s often of lower quality. Pick the virgin olive oil unless you’re going to use it for basic frying, According to rules established by the USDA in 1948, olive oil grades are: Fancy, Choice, Standard, and Substandard. Tells you a lot, doesn’t it? Tells you to go for the foreign brand or join the chorus of voices calling for the US to meet the higher IOOC standards.
Medical researchers tell us that olive oil is full of healthy monounsaturated fats which lower ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and raise ‘good’ HLD cholesterol. Olive oil is also known for its antioxidant properties. You might as well spend the extra money for better taste, better health, and the most bang for your buck. After you’ve bought the right olive oil product, keep it in a cool dark place away from heat. Penetrating sunlight can cause the olive oil to break down. It can be stored in a refrigerator but this causes the liquid to cloud up. Don’t worry, it soon returns to its clear state when brought to your countertop.