A misconception that abounds amongst consumers is that they believe that ‘olive oil is olive oil’. This is tantamount to saying that ‘wine is wine’, and we all know how wrong that is.
With its wonderful flavour-enhancing properties, a good olive oil (and extra virgin is the best) will bring out the best of whatever food it is used with. In contrast, a defective oil will taint the food. How often have you sat in a restaurant and been served a gorgeous plate of food that cried out for some delicious olive oil, only to discover that the oil offered was rancid and unpalatable? Smells reminiscent of castor oil, for example, indicate rancidity. It is recommended to always check the oil before splashing it on your food. (Note – splashing is much better than drizzling!) And then let the restaurateur know if you are not satisfied. It is with amazed delight that one discovers an eating facility where quality olive oil is served – equally important then to let the management know how much you enjoyed it.
Price is a critical factor when choosing an olive oil for your kitchen, and, like wine, what you pay for is what you get. Few local consumers appreciate that if we were able to purchase oils from Italy or Spain of the same quality as our locally produced oils, they would cost as least 5 times the price of the local oils. So, when comparing price, it is so important to compare good olive oil with good olive oil!
It is extremely daunting to be faced with a supermarket shelf loaded with olive oils, and have no idea which to buy. The South African Olive Industry Association (SA Olive) has a Commitment to Compliance (CTC) seal which SA Olive members can apply for. This seal affords the consumer the ability to make a more informed choice, as the seal may only be displayed on local oils that have been tested and tasted. In addition, the producer undertakes to adhere to the Codes of Practice set out by SA Olive. Therefore, a bottle of extra virgin olive oil bearing the seal will, in fact, be extra virgin olive oil. The seal also indicates when the oil was extracted, in other words, the harvest date. It is always best to enjoy EVOO as fresh as possible. Olives are harvested and pressed once a year in Autumn, and therefore I try to avoid any oil that is older than 18 months. In South Africa, producers use a Best Before date of 2 years after harvest. With the SA Olive CTC seal, you can choose how fresh you would like your oil.
Another misconception that abounds, is that one should not heat extra virgin olive oil. In fact, olive oil is more resistant to heat breakdown than most other vegetable oils, mainly due to its high concentration of monounsaturated fatty acids, as well as the natural antioxidants. Recent studies have demonstrated that, in addition to their well-known health benefits, the antioxidants in natural extra virgin olive oil actually prevent the formation of acrylamide. Acrylamide is produced when carbohydrate-rich foods are overheated/overcooked. The highest intake of acrylamide by children results from their consumption of French fries. Potatoes fried in extra virgin olive oil contain far less acrylamide than potatoes fried in any other oil.
Once olive oil has been refined, it is stripped of all the natural antioxidants (amongst other things), therefore it is paramount to use extra virgin olive oil for this added health benefit.
Virgin olive oil – the name indicates that the oil is unadulterated, which means that it is completely natural, that no substances have been added to it and that no manipulation of the oil has taken place. Extra virgin classification is given to virgin oils which are fruity, and display no defects on the nose or palate. There are certain chemical conditions that also have to be met – eg the free fatty acid concentration has to be < (less than) 0.8% and the peroxide value must be < (less than) 15. This data should be displayed on the back label of any bottle of extra virgin olive oil.