A beautiful myth
The history of the olive tree involves a beautiful myth from ancient Greece. The Goddess Athena, the namesake of Athens, is said to have brought the olive to the Greeks as gift. Zeus had promised the region, Attica, to the god or goddess who provided the most useful tool. Athena’s gift – the olive, which provides food, light, heat, medicine and perfume, as well as a refuge from the sun, was deemed to be superior to the horse, which Poseidon provided. After all, the horse, although powerful, was an instrument of war. Athena is said to have planted the original olive tree on the rocky hill that is known today as the Acropolis. Rumour has it that the ancient olive tree that is found there today is from the roots of Athena’s original tree.
When the Roman Empire fell in the 5th century, the cultivation of the olive declined for a thousand years, but regained its important role in the Middle Ages, when the Roman Catholic church started using it in rituals and ceremonies, to anoint (rub into the forehead) of priests and those being baptised. Actually, the name Christ comes form the Greek word Kristos, which means the anointed one. It was also used to anoint the early Greek and Jewish kings. Unsurprisingly, the most famous olive trees are those on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, reportedly over 2 000 years old.
Olive trees and their fabulous fruit made their way to the rest of the world with the help of Spanish explorers and missionaries, who introduced the olive to the New World in the 16th century. By planting trees in Argentina, California, and Mexico, it ensured the obsession with this fruit would continue.
The history of this oil-bearing tree
Olive trees are one of the oldest trees known to man, and one of the earliest trees cultivated in the world, being grown before written language was invented. Our best guesses are that it was a native of Asia Minor and spread through Palestine, Syria and Iran to the Mediterranean region about 6 000 years ago. Olive wood fragments and pits have been found in tombs throughout the Mediterranean area, dating as far back as 5 000 years. Olives have been found in Egyptian tombs from 2 000 BC. Olives spread from the early Greeks to the Romans, and wherever the Romans moved, conquering new regions, the olive tree found a new home too. Maybe this is how olive branches have become a symbol of peace, as the new Roman colonies were given olive trees after being conquered. Greek athletes were also rubbed with olive oil, to prevent damage to their skin during competition and to protect them from the sun. Hippocrates believed and taught that olive oil was useful for many physical and even some mental ailments.
Olive oil is now the most famous oil in the world, with Spain being the largest producer in the world, at 30%, followed by Italy and Greece. Combined they produce 75% of the world's production. Australia is also becoming a noted producer, with New Zealand, Argentina and Chile, as well as South Africa being smaller producers. In America, the areas of California and Arizona are two areas that are also becoming known for good olive oil. About 2.7 million tonnes of oil are produced each year, and although it’s challenging to estimate how many dollars worth of olive oil is sold every year it is now well over the billion-dollar mark.
Three reasons olive oil became so famous
One of the reasons that this fabulous oil has enjoyed such popularity throughout history is because it is a stable oil, which was important in areas where the temperature could soar, especially in the days before refrigeration.
Another reason for its popularity was that it is fairly easy to press the oil from the fruit, due to its high water content, without technologically advanced equipment, which wasn't available centuries ago.
Considering that each tree can yield between 1.5 and 2 litres of oil per year, they are also very productive ‘oil providers.’ Seeds on the other hand only became popular and available in large quantities when technologically sophisticated machinery was developed (using heat) to extract the oil, along with chemicals (solvents) that ‘suck’ the oil out of the seeds.
Olive oil is fabulous – if it’s extracted from healthy, ripe olives
Olive oil is extracted from fruit, whereas other vegetable oils, such as canola and sunflower oils, are extracted from seeds. So olive oil is actually a fruit juice, and like fruit juice, will go ‘off’ if exposed to light and air for extended periods – it therefore has a shelf life.
When olive oil is produced from ripe, undamaged, healthy olives, which are processed within 24 hours of being picked, using simple, traditional methods, that have been used for centuries, with no heat, and only mechanical pressing, the resultant oil is referred to as virgin olive oil. When it is the first pressing of the olive, the oil is referred to as extra virgin. These oils contain all the natural compounds that are unique to olives. This is also the reason that true virgin olive oils contain real flavour, aroma and colour – these nutritious compounds have not been destroyed through harsh, damaging processing methods.
Read the labels very carefully
The labels on the bottles are meant to indicate both the quality and amount of processing the oil has undergone. The words ‘extra virgin’ are meant to indicate that no heat or chemicals were used to extract the oil, the oil being extracted solely with a mechanical press. These oils contain the most antioxidants and polyphenols of all the oils. The words ‘cold pressed’ or ‘first cold pressed’ can be used with the term ‘extra virgin’ to indicate the best and most flavourful oil. The term ‘first’ simply means that the oil is the result of the ‘first’ pressing of a batch of olives. The term ‘cold pressed’ means the oil wasn't heated beyond a specific temperature, 27˚C/80˚F. The term ‘extra virgin’ also means that no other olive oil has been mixed with the oil, and it has a superior taste and quality, as well as containing less than 0.8% acidity.
The term ‘extra-light’ simply refers to an olive oil that has been refined, and which allows the manufacturer to avoid using that label. This often fools consumers into believing these oils have less calories than the ones that are virgin, cold pressed oils. This is not true – the label refers only to the process of extracting, not to the calorie content. Consumers have also been led to believe that extra light olive oils are better to fry with than their virgin, cold-pressed counterparts. This is also a fallacy.
However, these labels can be misleading, as will be discussed in the next section.
The dark side of olive oil
If reading and understanding the labels on olive oil was the end of the story, consumers wanting the best oils could simply continue to purchase olive oil that is labeled extra virgin, cold pressed from stores, secure in the knowledge that they were getting what they were paying for. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
European exporters of olive oil have no compliance body/quality control process or organisations rules to adhere to, and many unscrupulous suppliers are exporting rancid, old, solvent extracted olive oil, to unsuspecting countries, and misinformed consumers. There are also many cases of olive oil being diluted with cheap, solvent extracted soybean and/or sunflower oils, which are sold as pure, virgin olive oils.
Many of them are coloured with chlorophyll to mimic a true olive oil colour and flavoured with beta-carotene. In fact, the Italian olive oil producers who are not ethica,l expect consumers to trust their olive oil with pretty Tuscan landscape labels, because most people have come to see Italians as being synonymous with great olive oil. Italy is one of the major importers of olive oil, with much of it being blended, re-packaged and exported. If you can’t see the exact point of production on the label, avoid the oil.
Damaged, spoilt olives produce damaged oil, which means that the oil has to be degummed, refined, bleached and deodorized so that it doesn't taste rancid. This means that olive oil produced from olives that are not harvested quickly, and which are not healthy to start with, will end up being similar to shelf stable vegetable oils, which have gone through the same, damaging processing experience.
Checking that the oil has a harvest date on the bottle is also a good idea, although there have been cases where these dates have been found to be incorrect. If there is no harvest date on the bottle then that’s another reason to leave it on the shelf.
The process of fooling the consumer, around the world, with sub-standard olive oil is dubbed ‘International olive oil fraud’ by author Tom Mueller in his book ‘Extra Virginity – The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.’
Labels therefore cannot be trusted, so it is wise to check with one of the olive oil organisations in the reference section below to find out whether the olive oil you are using is what it says it is.
A quote from The New Yorker states ‘Olive oil has historically been one of the most frequently adulterated products in the European Union, whose profits, one E.U. anti-fraud investigator told me, have at times been “comparable to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risks.’
Testing olive oil
All of the seven imported brands tested by the Australian Olive Association in the last few years, were found to contain old, damaged and diluted olive oil. These oils are still being stocked and sold as pure virgin olive oils in large retail stores. The Australian Olive Association is the organisation that discovered these sub-standard oils were on store shelves in Australia, and decided to put all the olive oils available to the consumer through rigorous testing procedures, to check for purity and freshness. Australians are fortunate to have the AOA as olive oil watch dog to protect the consumer. When purchasing olive oil look for the label below to ensure the olive oil you purchase has been tested by the AOA.
In Canada, 15 of 45 extra-virgin olive oils tested were found by the CGIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) to have been adulterated with cheap soybean, canola and sunflower oils. And in the US, up to 70% of the of the imported olive oil did not meet international standards for the term ‘extra virgin.’
However, the practice of selling olive oil that is mixed with cheap oils is happening all over the world.
What’s so special about olive oil?
Olive oil contains 80% monounsaturated fatty acids, 8-10% omega 6 and about 1% omega 3. The benefits of olive oil actually come from the minor ingredients that it contains, such as.
- Antioxidants, such as Vitamin E, of which 88% is in the form of alpha-tocopherol and Beta carotene (or pro-Vitamin A), both with heart-protective properties
- Magnesium-rich chlorophyll, which has many health benefits, including heart health
- Squalene, a precursor of phytosterols, which is heart protective
- Phytosterols, such as beta-sitosterol, which are protective against cholesterol absorption and have heart-healthy benefits
- Polyphenols are responsible in part for the colour of olive oil, have antioxidant capacities, including lowering blood pressure. One of the most potent ones is called oleocanthol, which tastes peppery, and is a potent anti-inflammatory agent.
In addition, there are more than 100 volatile compounds, which give olive oil its aroma and flavour, of which the benefits have not yet been researched.
Olive oil, if processed with care, from healthy, ripe olives, where the oil is extracted quickly, is truly a time-tested, healthy oil. Just beware which oil you buy, buying it from someone who cares and understands that the natural, pure, unrefined and ripe olive offers a fabulous bounty of health benefits.
On a very positive note, there are many olive oil producers, around the world, that are pursuing excellence in terms of the quality of their oils, the extraction process and the antioxidant content of their products. There is evidence of these producers at olive oil competitions, which strive to reward the people who are producing excellent oils, and to inform the public that their choice of olive oils is expanding. Keep in mind, that organic olive oil is always a better option than conventionally grown olive oil, simply because pesticides accumulate in fats and oils.
Extra Virginity: The sublime and scandalous world of olive oil. Mueller T. Published by W.W Norton & Company. New York, USA. 2011.
Australian Olive Oil Association
http://www.australianolives.com.au/ cited 29 November 2016
http://australianextravirginoliveoil.com/about/ cited 29 November 2016
In America with the California Olive Council /Association and the North American Olive Oil Association
http://www.cooc.com cited 29 November 2016
http://www.naooa.org cited 29 November 2016
The International Olive Association is also helpful http://wwwinternationaloliveil.org
The New Yorker, 'Olive Oil's Dark Side - Sally Errico - 8 Feb 2012 (cited 29 November 2016) http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/02/the-exchange-tom-mueller.html
Fats that heal, fats that kill. Erasmus, U. Dr. Alive Books. Burnaby BC, Canada. 1993.