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If you want extra virgin olive oil, consider getting a second job.

Byline: Lewis Taylor The Register-Guard

Food Dude has always loved the term extra virgin olive oil. It's like somebody wanted to prove that their olive oil was really, really pure. It's sort of like saying these apples are super-organic or this beef is 200 percent steroid free.

The funny thing is, extra virgin olive oil is one of the most abused purity standards there is. Sometimes, it seems like the more manufacturers go out of their way to advertise purity, the less true it is. It makes me wonder just how fair that fair-trade coffee is or whether that bottled glacier water didn't just come from some guy's garden hose.

Some of these questions we'll never be able to answer, so we'll just stick to the ones we can. If you've got a question about purity, or just want to rant about a bad restaurant experience you had, write to the address at the end of the column.

Dear Food Dude: Everyone says I should buy extra virgin olive oil, but there are so many different kinds to choose from. Should I buy the el cheapo brand for $4 or drop $30 on some imported brand? Can I use virgin olive oil for cooking?

- Confused

Dear Confused: If you're looking for true extra virgin olive oil, the short answer is, you should be prepared to break out your wallet. Extra virgin olive oil will cost at least $12 a half-liter, so if you see a big bottle selling for $4, you should be suspicious. And, if you don't know how to taste the difference, you're better off buying a certified California varietal over a fancy import, say the makers of Apollo Olive Oil, a California brand carried by Sundance Wine Cellars, Market of Choice, Newman's Fish Company, King Estate and other local retailers.

Impure extra virgin olive oil is an international problem, but it's worse in this country because there is no legal definition for extra virgin (meaning fresh olive oil with a low acidity rating made from the first pressing of olives), says Apollo's Gianni Stefanini. The fact that 99 percent of the olive oil used in the United States is imported means importers (many of whom face stricter regulation at home), can easily take advantage of the lack of U.S. regulation by dumping substandard oils and labeling them "extra virgin." Stefanini says importers have been known to sell old oil, oil that's been "rectified" (distilled or charcoal filtered) or oil that's been diluted with other substances such as hazelnut oil, which is chemically similar to olive oil.

Stefanini says that `99.9 percent of the (extra virgin olive) oil that is on shelves is not extra virgin olive oil."

Stefanini, whose oil sells for a significantly higher price than many oils on the market (about $25 a half-liter), is an admittedly biased source when it comes to olive oil, but he's not the only one who says there's a problem. In February, federal agents in New Jersey seized 22,700 gallons of Hermes and San Giovanni oil made from soybeans and vegetables that was labeled as extra virgin olive oil. A New York TV station recently did an expose on companies selling vegetable oils labeled as olive oils, and, over the past several years, there have been dozens of raids on companies selling blended oils as pure olive oil.

Blended oils or olive oils that aren't truly extra virgin won't hurt you and are still better for you than seed oils, but they do not offer the same health benefits that come from extra virgin olive oils, experts say. Pure extra virgin olive oil is higher in polyphenols (antioxidants) and omega-3 fatty acids and lower in saturated fats and omega-6 fatty acids.

What you should be looking for, says Stefanini's partner Pablo Voitzuk, is oil with an acidity rating of 0.8 percent or less made from the first pressing of the olives. Ideally, an extra virgin olive oil should be no more than a year old. More reputable brands will include the acidity rating and the year of the oil's harvest on the label. Some brands include a "sell by" date, but since the shelf life is usually extended to two years, you can subtract a year, Voitzuk says.

In California, where most of the country's olive oil is produced, the California Olive Oil Council has taken the lead in certifying olive oils as extra virgin. The agency, which has no enforcement powers, is urging the federal government to set precise standards on the amount of impurities and acid allowed in olive oil labeled as extra virgin. The USDA plans to propose new rules by early summer.

If you're buying California olive oil, look for the COOC certification seal on bottles. Some seals to look for on imported oils include the HEPO mark on Greek oils, the DO (Denominacion de Origen) sticker on Spanish oils, the DOP (Denominazone Di Origine Protetta) seal on Italian oils and the black rooster label on oils produced in the Chianti region of Tuscany.

Ultimately though, not even regulation is foolproof - the California certifying agency recently lost its certification from the International Olive Oil Council after failing an annual taste test - and if you're at all serious about olive oil, you should learn to develop a taste for pure extra virgin oil, say Stefanini and Voitzuk.

Some general rules for tasting olive oil include avoiding bread and tasting the oil by itself since good or bad bread can influence the taste of the oil. Also, color has no bearing on taste. For this reason, Voitzuk and Stefanini sip olive oil from tinted glasses, which they keep covered to prevent the oil from losing its scent.

A good olive oil will have a fresh, "green" flavor and may have a bitterness, which can take some getting used to. Voitzuk and Stefanini look for pungency and say a quality oil will taste alive. Since olive oil is sensitive to heat and light, they recommend keeping it in a kitchen cabinet.

As to the question of whether to use virgin olive oil for cooking, it's up to you and your olive oil budget. Voitzuk and Stefanini, both olive oil fanatics who cook with extra virgin olive oil and drizzle it on most everything they eat, see little use for more impure oils, but they've also got a vast supply of high-quality olive oil at their disposal.

Still, they argue that spending a little money on a high-quality oil that will last for weeks in your kitchen is nothing when compared to the money you spend on wine and other one-use purchases.

Send your questions about food via e-mail to Or, send mail to Food Dude, The Register Guard, P.O. Box 10188, Eugene, OR 97440-2168.
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Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 10, 2006
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