This staple of the Mediterranean Diet, named the 2023 best overall diet in the world by US News & World Report, delivers both delicious flavor and numerous health benefits. Here’s what you should know to recognize and appreciate its purity and superiority.
by Jenifer Vogt
One product that never runs low in the Toscana Divino kitchen, and one that you’ll always find in Italian households, is extra virgin olive oil. It’s such an integral ingredient in Italian cuisine that many chefs and fine food enthusiasts aspire to be “sommeliers” and then study and consume it with the same passion as wine.
Olive oil is serious business in Italy, both in terms of the jobs and revenue created through its production and exportation and as a household stalwart for cooking, baking, and even beauty treatments. Italy is the second largest global producer of olive oil after Spain. The USDA Foreign Agricultural Service has estimated that 82% of Italian olive oil is made in the Southern Italian regions of Puglia and Calabria. The rest is made in Sicily, Campania, Abruzzo, Lazio, Toscana and Umbria. Recently, significant initiatives have been presented to push for the adoption of a sustainable, circular model in relation to the olive oil supply chain.
The trade association, Italia Olivicola, with over 250, 000 members, fervently upholds strict olive oil quality control and production standards and safeguards the Made in Italy designation from counterfeit products. Italy was also among the founding members of the International Olive Council. Like with all food products originating in Italy, great pride, care, and tradition go into every bottle.
Small- and medium-sized artisanal producers, with concerns more specific to those who produce lower-volume craft products, also banded together, in 2021, to form the Italian Federation of Independent Olive Growers (FIOI). Their mission is to protect micro-production and preserve the purity of historic Italian olives. They’ve declared, ““We respect foreign olive oil cultures but reject the import of agronomic and technological models or varieties and hybrids that could pervert our national identity.”
Another organization, FEDERPOP, which is based in Rome, unifies and protects the interests of national producers, specifically, of IGP and DOP extra virgin olive oil. Those designations indicate that an EVOO product that has one of those stamps has been made according to the same quality standards, with DOP being a higher quality than IGP. These designations are the same as what’s used for Italian food and wine and those stamps appear on Italian products exported globally to assure consumers of the superior quality of Made in Italy.
Extra virgin olive oil enjoys cult-like status in Italy and the US because what elevates it above other ingredients found in Italian cuisine is its status as a superfood rich with heart-healthy fats and antioxidants. Before delving into those and the many other health benefits this liquid gold offers, it’s helpful to understand the fundamentals of how extra virgin olive oil is produced so you can identify a high-quality brand.
Due to Production Method, Qualities of Extra Virgin Transcend Those Found in Regular Olive Oil
The difference between “extra virgin” and regular olive oil is that regular olive oil is refined to minimize or eliminate defects in taste, aroma or acidity. Though less harsh than what’s done with other types of oils, there are a few different processes used to refine regular olive oil, such as bleaching and deodorization, that rely on heat for purification. Regular olive oil is also actually a blend of olive oil and extra virgin olive oil, but the processing makes the quality inferior to pure extra virgin.
The word, “virgin” in extra virgin olive oil signifies a more natural process with less touch points and no heat or refinement. While both are healthy, no processing means the extra virgin kind retains more antioxidants, and that makes it healthier.
Just like for the grapes that make wine, there’s a process to extract the liquid oil from olives in order to make extra virgin olive oil, which you’ll often see abbreviated as EVOO. The olives are always pressed cold, either by hand or mechanically, at no more than 27°C/ 80.6°F. In fact, the words, “cold pressed” on a label for extra virgin olive oil are unnecessary. All EVOOs are cold-pressed.
The olive harvest in Italy takes place in Autumn, in late October/early November, a few months after the vendemmia, grape harvest, begins in August. Olives contain about 50% water and up to 20% oil with the rest being solid pulp and those three elements are separated during the cold pressing when the olives are ground with stone or steel into a paste. The paste is pressed between large disks to release the oil droplets and then placed in a centrifuge to separate the oil from the water. Some producers filter the oil so it’s clear. Others don’t, but cloudy oil isn’t bad. It just means it’s fresh-pressed. It clarifies over time as the solid particles settle.
Olives are considered a fruit and grow on trees. It’s thought those trees originated over 6000 years ago in what is now Turkey but was then the Asia Minor region. They were popular with the Ancient Greeks and Romans and their popularity has never dimmed. They will forever remain a much-loved ingredient in many Italian dishes but are particularly omnipresent in antipasto.
As with grapes, there are different varieties of olives, and these are called cultivars. There are over 400 cultivars in Italy! All olives start green and turn black as they fully mature. Either black or green olives, or a combination, can be used to make extra virgin olive oil, but many think green olives have a heartier and nuttier flavor and that black olives taste mellower.
Evidence Points Towards a Link Between EVOO and Longevity
In 2022, Harvard released a study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology that suggest that consumption of either type of olive oil leads to longevity. Researchers reported that, “…people who consumed the most olive oil — a little more than half a tablespoon per day — had a 19% lower risk of death from any cause over a 28-year period, compared with those who rarely or never consumed olive oil.”
What makes this possible link more interesting is that olive trees have a remarkably long lifespan of, on average, about 500 years. In some places in Italy, like in Sardinia, which is recognized as a Blue Zone because there are twice as many centenarians there, they’ve found olive trees that are over 1000 years old. The oldest olive tree on record was 2000 years old!
So, these trees, which also happen to be quite beautiful, inspire an awe and reverence that other trees don’t. They can grow to between 10 and 14 feet tall and have protected status in many countries, including Greece and Italy where it’s illegal to cut them down or damage them. These gorgeous trees have provided inspiration for many artists, too. In 1873, the American landscape painter George Innes created the dreamlike watercolor, “Olive Trees at Tivoli.”
In Greek mythology, they’re even deemed sacred. Legend has it that the very first olive tree was planted atop the Acropolis by the goddess Athena who was in a competition with Poseidon for the favor of the people of Athens. They wisely chose her and her gift of an olive tree, which symbolized peace and yielded a perpetual bounty.
Health-Conscious People Regularly Consume Extra Virgin Olive Oil
It seems fitting that the olive tree would be such an important symbol for the Greeks who also created the Olympic Games — that test the endurance and strength of the competing athletes — because extra virgin olive oil is a foundational food for good health and vitality. Numerous studies have proven this and more come out regularly.
Here’s what the research from top-tier healthcare organizations has concluded about the health benefits of EVOO.
- Consuming extra virgin olive oil, according to the Cleveland Clinic, can increase brain health, reduce chronic inflammation and kill cancer cells.
- Harvard Medical School has also reported that, when substituted for saturated fat, even modest consumption of extra virgin olive oil can help lower bad LDL cholesterol.
- The Seven Countries Study concluded that extra virgin olive oil, “…is a promising tool for mitigating the effects of adverse vascular factors and may be utilized for potential prevention of late-onset Alzheimer disease.”
- The Third International Conference on Virgin Olive Oil and Health posited that, “…substantial evidence is accruing to support the widespread opinion that extra virgin olive oil should, indeed, be the fat of choice when it comes to human health and sustainable agronomy.”
- The American Heart Association advises that people who eat more than a half-teaspoon of olive oil every day have a 15% lower risk of having any kind of cardiovascular disease and a 21% lower risk of coronary heart disease.
If all the sshealth data isn’t enough to convince you to consume EVOO daily, then just look at the glowing skin and hair of those who do. Even Jennifer Lopez claims it’s a key ingredient in her skin care line.
How to Include More EVOO in Your Diet
The simplest way to add more extra virgin olive oil into your diet is to replace it for saturated fat, such as butter. It’s remarkably versatile and can even be substituted in baked goods. The rule of thumb is to replace 6 tablespoons of EVOO for one stick of butter.
If a recipe calls for another type of oil, EVOO can be substituted in the same amount and works great in many types of cakes, such as carrot cake, or in this delicious lemony cake recipe from the New York Times. The EVOO will keep cakes moist for longer than regular oil, too.
Gourmands know that authentic Italian restaurants serve it alongside bread, rather than butter. To enhance the experience when serving it this way at home, add dried herbs, such as Rosemary or Basil, to EVOO and leave it at room temperature for at least one day so the oil absorbs their flavor. Adding red pepper flakes will give it an extra kick.
Slow roast red peppers, eggplant and garlic in EVOO and then add that to an antipasto platter. It can be enjoyed alone, or spread on crostini, which can be made by slicing a large loaf of Italian bread, brushing the tops of the slices with EVOO and toasting or grilling them. Place imported green and black olives in a small dish with olive oil for your platter and add garlic and oregano to pique the flavor. There’s some controversy and confusion about whether it’s OK to cook with extra virgin olive oil and yes, not only is it OK, but it’s desirable. High-quality EVOO has a smoke point of 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
EVOO is the most stable cooking oil according to Australian study published by Modern Olives Laboratory Services in the ACTA Scientific Nutritional Health Journal. It is one of the healthiest oils for roasting, baking, pan frying and sautéing. It adds a hearty richness to soup. Frying chopped onion in EVOO prior to adding stock when making soup will intensify the flavor and aroma.
Selecting High-Quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Many of the world’s best extra virgin olive oils come from Italy, but even narrowing it down to just that one country is daunting in terms of how many producers and types to choose from. If you want to be certain you’re choosing an oil that’s authentic, make sure the label shows that the olives are 100% grown in Italy. This won’t necessarily guarantee quality, but it’s a start since it guarantees origin.
An extra virgin olive oil that is high quality will taste like the olives it’s made from. Remember that the cold press process leaves the flavor of the olives intact. What may differentiate it from tasting like just one cultivar is if the producer blends a variety of olives, which is common and can create an enhanced experience. Like how a Master Distiller blends whisky, blending olive oil is an art form unique to each producer.
You can taste flights of olive oil, just like with wine, if you visit a producer in Italy. They’ll provide samples and will explain the nuances of their brand and they’ll also make food pairing recommendations for how best to enjoy it. High-quality EVOO delivers a smoothness that is realized when the sweet and bitter characteristics are balanced and, generally, prices for a good bottle will start at $20 (USD).
Quality EVOO has a darker, greener color and many chefs insist on not buying oil that is more than one year old. The younger the better seems to be the consensus. Two purveyors of authentic Italian extra virgin olive oil that have built solid trust with consumers are www.eataly.com and www.gustiamo.com. You can be certain that if you buy your EVOO on either of these sites, the quality will be good and, if it says Made in Italy, it will certainly be true. DOP and IGP stamps indicate it adheres to the lofty standards for those designations.
If you have questions about EVOO, including the favored brands at Toscana Divino and how it’s used in the dishes they serve, just ask because anyone on the team will be happy to talk about this topic with you and make recommendations. Like with everything relating to Italian cuisine at Toscana Divino, Italian restaurant in Miami, they’re quite passionate about the topic. So, be prepared for a lively and, possibly, lengthy conversation.