Is extra virgin olive oil extra special?
So maybe you were gifted a beautiful olive oil spout, or perhaps you were idly browsing online when you fell in love with an absolutely divine olive oil pourer, and now you’re wondering how to put it to legitimate use. Do you fill it with oil? Do you fill it with olive oil? Dagnabbit, do you fill it with extra virgin oil?
Only a few years ago, a few people had even heard of extra virgin olive oil. To confess, the first time I heard the expression, I embarrassed myself completely by imagining (out loud!) it meant some kind of ancient sleazy application of olive oil as used by depraved individuals during Roman orgies–scout’s honor.
However, in the intervening years, it’s gone from near-total obscurity and alarming schoolboy misconception about imagination-defying “unimaginable orgies” to mainstream health benefit extraordinaire. Going by expense alone, you would be forgiven for thinking that extra virgin olive oil was the main ingredient in the Elixir of Eternal Youth. Is its reputation deserved though?
The difference between olive oil and extra virgin olive oil
If you were to stack up a bunch of olive oil bottles next to another bunch of extra virgin olive oil bottles, you’d soon notice that, in general, the oil in the extra virgin bottles is always darker than the oil in the other bottles. You might conclude that the difference between the two kinds of olive oil is therefore reflected in their color, and you might start pumping for darker shades of olive oil in the hope of scoring extra virgin oil on the cheap. Well, you’d be wrong.
Producers grade olive oil by the amount of free oleic acid contained in the oil. Now, you might not know what that means, but as a layperson, you can take it to mean that producers grade olive oil by its acidity.
To appreciate why acidity matters in olive oil, understand that its fatty acids break down into oleic acids. Thus, the less oily, fatty goodness it has, the more acidic it will be.
Refined and unrefined olive oil compared
The word “refined” in “refined oil” doesn’t imply “better”, although I believe that unscrupulous marketers have piggybacked on that common understanding of the word. As used in “refined oil”, the word means processed or treated. If you translate that in your head to “artificial”, I’d not argue with you.
Producers refine olive oil to remove impurities, and they bleach it to improve its color to make it more “olive oily” and match the color the boys and girls in marketing tell them their research says it ought to be.
By the time they’re done, olive oil producers have removed the color, flavor, aroma, and many of the health benefits occurring in pure olive oil, and that “pure olive oil”, that unrefined product? Yep, natural, unprocessed olive oil is what we know as extra virgin oil.
Yes, extra virgin olive oil really is extra special
Actually, extra virgin olive oil really does uphold its end of the bargain in delivering health benefits. Here are just a few:
It has numerous antioxidants that help fight cancers and stroke and has excellent anti-aging properties
Contains a high number of important anti-inflammatories that help fight Type-2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s
Packed full of monounsaturated fat (that helps fight heart disease)
It has several essential vitamins and minerals, such as Vitamin K (anti-blood clotting), Vitamin E (an antioxidant), and Omegas 3-and-6 (anti-anxiety and brain food properties).
As you can see, extra virgin oil touts some serious health credentials, and the fact is, regularly using extra virgin olive oil can deliver on these promises. It’s not just a clever marketing ploy dreamt up by cynical, mendacious marketing execs.
If extra virgin olive oil is “all that,” why don’t we all buy it?
In a single word? Expense.
Extra virgin olive oil isn’t cheap, and it isn’t going to get cheaper. For once, there really is a cost-benefit relationship that wasn’t just dreamt up in some brightly lit hellhole corner office in an advertising agency.
This is the real deal, and it is a testament to the peculiarities of human society that pure, unrefined stuff is more expensive than its treated, processed, refined relative. (Have you ever wondered why soda is often cheaper than bottled water?)
Should I buy extra virgin olive oil?
Unfortunately, more than one producer appears to have played fast and loose with their “extra virgin olive oil” product, cutting it with refined oils, some of which didn’t even come from olives but from soy and other vegetables!
If you can afford it, the answer to the question “Should I buy extra virgin olive oil?” is a resounding “Yes!” Not only does it have an actual taste, but as explained earlier, its health benefits are truly outstanding. However, much of what is being sold as extra virgin oil simply isn’t, and these intense flavors can interfere with your cooking. Using genuine extra virgin oil is therefore a compromise on many levels, and each individual has to decide whether to buy it for themselves, given their particular circumstances.