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Taking Issue with “Extra Virgin Everything”

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Ridge Evers is perturbed. The founder of California’s DaVero olive oil is tired of the argument that “extra virgin olive oil” is the only olive oil that matters. “If you think high-end chefs are using extra virgin olive oil when they cook, you’re wrong,” says Evers. “Even Mario Batali?,” I ask, who is a good friend of Evers and has promoted DaVero olive oil in the past. Evers: “Oh, definitely.”

Evers, who imported Tuscan olive trees in 1990 and co-founded the California Olive Oil Council, says the extra virgin argument is an academic issue; i.e. pursuing the absence of defects in an olive oil. “But at the consumer level,” he says, “this really has no meaning. Olive oil is a flavor and a fat, and what matters is if it tastes good in relation to the dish.”

But what about the healthful properties associated with extra virgin olive oil versus an inferior “pomace,” “pure,” or “refined” olive oil? Evers says that any olive oil is going to be more healthful than a seed oil, like corn oil. The important thing is to buy olive oil that is fresh in order to obtain the most healthful properties. “If you tell people they must use extra virgin olive oil for everything,” continues Evers, “they will likely end up buying a mid- to low-priced olive oil, and at that price point they’re most likely getting old oil.”

That said, Evers is not discounting the use of extra virgin olive oils, and says the difference lies between cooking and finishing a dish. He recommends having several varieties of extra virgin olive oil on hand–of various intensities that will match food in the best way–in order to finish, or drizzle over, a dish just before serving. But when it comes to cooking with olive oil, says Evers, “As soon as you apply heat to extra virgin olive oil, you lose what you pay for. You might as well burn a five-dollar bill over the stove.”

Apr. 21 2010 |
  1. kme

    I knew that, I knew that, I knew that!
    But… WHICH ‘other’ / non EVOO / less costly / AND still fresh olive oil to heat?
    And… HOW do you “know” the fresh-date? It’s not like being able to read the “year” on a bottle of wine…
    Hint? [Am I merely ignorant, or truly a behind-the-times faux foodie?]

  2. jane

    During my conversation with Ridge, he mentioned he had a big jug of olive oil from Costco that he uses for cooking. (Costco gets pretty high-quality Italian products.)

    As for the expiration date, many producers will indeed put a “bottling date” on their labels (my recommended olive oils do: http://lettherebebite.com/product-reviews/extra-virgin-olive-oil/) and you have about a year before it expires.

    Harvesting usually occurs in October/November so you can imagine if you’re buying oil in August it’s probably not that fresh. Take note of short-lived “olio nuovo,” or new oil and first pressing, that happens every year. It has a shorter shelf life than regular olive oil but is as fresh as you can get!

    Read more about olive oil here: http://lettherebebite.com/in-store-guide/olive-oil/

  3. Ridgely Evers

    Thanks, Jane!

    One thing we try to get across to people is that they should cook with an inexpensive olive oil (usually labeled as ‘Pure Olive Oil’ or just ‘Olive Oil’) — that’s when you’re using it as a fat. For those oils, freshness isn’t so much of an issue because the oil is refined and has very little flavor.

    But when drizzling or dipping or making salad dressing, use a top-quality extra virgin olive oil that’s fresh, because fresh oils (the younger the better, but always less than 2 years from harvest) taste appreciably better.

    Bottom line: you’re paying for flavor when you buy an extra virgin, so take the time to try several different styles (ones made from Spanish, French, and Italian olive varietals; early-harvest vs. late harvest; etc.) to see what you like.

    And finally, remember that when you’re using extra virgin olive oil you’re doing it to add flavor. Since it’s more expensive, you’ll want to seek out more full-flavored oils so that you don’t have to use as much. That saves you money _and_ calories!

  4. jane

    Thanks for the additional info, Ridge. One question: I learned at the Sensory Evaluation of Olive Oil class at UC-Davis that olive oil is only considered fresh up to one year after harvest, and then it starts to lose its healthful properties. Why do you say two years?

  5. Ridgely Evers

    The whole ‘Sensory Evaluation’ course program arose out of academia, not the kitchen. While it’s true that olive oil flavors fade over time, we’ve found that, if properly stored, olive oils will remain pretty flavorful for 18-24 months, depending on the varietals. On the other hand, the flavors do change; in fact, they change daily. The changes are most pronounced right after pressing (‘olio nuovo’). Then, after a few months, the oil settles down and the flavors begin a long slow fade. One of the things that fades with time is the polyphenols, which are regarded as good for you, so in a technical sense older oils become less ‘healthful.’ But olive oil remains olive oil, and its core properties are positive throughout its life.

  6. jane

    Right, so my point remains about the loss of healthful properties, like polyphenols; while taste seems to linger much longer. Personally, I prefer to consume olive oil within the first year to obtain the greatest health benefits.

  7. Beatrice

    sorry, i don’t understand this whole conversation. any olive oil that is not extra virgin is treated with chemicals and solvents. sometimes even the ev olive oil is “treated” but, in that case, it is fraud. yes, the “other olive oils” are cheap and chefs do use them. so what?

  8. Ridgely Evers

    Beatrice:

    There is nothing intrinsically wrong with refining olive oil. It’s the same process that’s used to make corn oil, sunflower oil, etc. It’s a catalytic process, so no residue remains in the oil. The only downside is that there’s no flavor. But when you are cooking with an olive oil, the heat rapidly burns off any flavor, so it’s a waste of money to use extra virgin when cooking.

    The issue of fraud arises when oil is labeled as ‘extra virgin’ when it is in fact not extra virgin, which is a result of the weak labeling rules for olive oil in the USA. This happens a lot with imported olive oils, unfortunately — not all, of course, and more often with ‘supermarket’ oils. There have been cases where oil labeled as ‘olive oil’ has been found to have hazelnut oil blended in, which is not only wrong, but dangerous for people who have nut allergies!

    Jane:

    I agree — fresher is better! And it’s better tasting!

  9. Beatrice

    grazie, Ridge, but i still disagree strongly. i thank you for the opportunity to discuss this topic. virgin oil is a bad oil, the acidity is so high, it is almost a rancid oil. i don’t agree that you don’t taste the olive oil when you cook. i and all the people i have asked do taste it. in fact, to cook i would use a little older and less flavorful olive oil, but always an ev olive oil. why would you use an almost rancid olive oil? i’m a strong believer of garbage in garbage out. yes, possibly the health benefit of oil are lost after frying, but the lightness of the fried food is uncomparable (the ev olive oil’s smoke point is higher and the fried food absorbs less of it – not to talk about how your house does NOT smell, when you fry with ev olive oil). if it is an issue of cost, many merchants (including us, gustiamo.com) sell ev olive oil with passed “best before” at big discounts.
    i strongly disagree with you when you say that there is nothing wrong with refined olive oils. EVERYTHING is wrong with refined (ie treated with chemicals) olive oils. it might not be dangerous to your health, i agree. it’s very dangerous for the environment. somebody needs to produce these chemicals. who wants them, other than the big industries who make huge profits from refined olive oils?

  10. Liz Tagami

    The benefit of frying or sautéing in extra virgin olive oil is that the pungent, peppery, aromatic, flavorful polyphenols are not lost, they are transferred. The nutrients are absorbed into the food, they don’t stay in the oil!

    Studies indicate that a significant amount of nutrients from extra virgin olive oil are transferred in the first frying, and if used a second time, additional nutrients are absorbed by the food, but at a lower rate. After this it is recommended to not reuse the oil.

    Refined oils are stripped of all aroma, flavor and nutrients — you start at zero in terms of getting any health benefit.

    This was covered by speakers at a recent Beyond Extra Virgin conference, and here are some other related studies.

    Bendini A., Cerretani L., Cane A., Gallina Toschi T., Lercker G. L’impiego a caldo degli oli extravergini di oliva. In atti del “8° Congresso Italiano di Scienza e Tecnologia degli Alimenti (CISETA)” Tuttofood, Fieramilano, 7-8 maggio 2007, pp. 11.

    Katragadda, H.R., Fullana, A., Sidhu, S., Carbonell-Barrachina, A.A. Emissions of volatile aldehydes from heated cooking oils. Food Chemistry 120 (1), pp. 59-65 (2010).

    Napolitano, A., Morales, F., Sacchi, R., Fogliano, V. Relationship between virgin olive oil phenolic compounds and acrylamide formation in fried crisps. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 56 (6), pp. 2034-2040 (2008).

    Here are some more consumer-friendly related references
    http://tinyurl.com/ntm57k
    http://tinyurl.com/2aubcmh
    http://tinyurl.com/2ap3jkp

  11. Bill Sanders

    Liz, I know you’re not an attorney, but if I should ever need to be defended in court, I want you on my team. I have a lot of respect for Ridge, but I can’t swallow the “cooking with refined olive oil” argument. It’s just a fat. EVOO is fat and a JUICE with tons of flavor and healthy benefits. Annual consumption of olive oil in the U.S is around 1/2 liter per capita. In Greece it’s in the 25 liter range. We need to encourage, not discourage, the use of quality EVOO. EVOO is a simple and easy way for the home cook to layer flavoring into their everyday meals. We need to do a better job of informing consumers that olive oil is a condiment (drizzling), not just a cooking lubricant.

  12. Ridgely Evers

    One of the most delicious things Colleen and I have ever had was a fritto misto that was fried in just-pressed extra virgin olive oil, at a small but exceptional restaurant outside Sestri Levante in Italy.

    We talked with the owner, who said it was by far the most expensive dish they made, in terms of food cost, and that he did it as a labor of love because no one would pay what it actually cost.

    If you happen to have a limitless budget, then by all means use extra virgin for everything; you will detect a marginal improvement in flavor.

    But if you’re a person of lesser means, you might want to spend less on your oil when you are applying heat so you can afford to spend more on other ingredients that will have a bigger impact on flavor.

    Bill – One of the big mistakes that people make is to buy a mid-priced extra virgin oil to use for everything; they end up with a very expensive fat and a mediocre flavor. If, instead, they used a pure olive oil for cooking, and a high-quality extra virgin for finishing, they would have a far better eating experience with negligible erosion in health benefits.

    Beatrice – the refining process is catalytic, which is to say that the chemicals used are able to be used again. It’s one of the reasons that refined olive oil is relatively affordable.

    Liz – the Beyond Extra Virgin group is terrific, but comes at the problem from the assumption that extra virgin is the answer. “If all you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.” But the fact is that all olive oils are fats, and as such have the same caloric value as other fats (calories are, after all, a nutrient). Moreover, they are the right “kind” of fat – they reduce your overall cholesterol level while raising your HDLs – so they are heart-healthy. It is true that some of the nutrients such as polyphenols are stripped away in the refining process, but any olive oil is better for your body than almost any other type of fat.

    Bottom line: it’s your budget, your palate, and your body. Allocate as you see fit!

  13. Ridgely Evers

    Bill – two other points, as I think we’re pretty close.

    1. The fact that US consumption of olive oil is so low compared with the rest of the world is independent of our/their use of XVOO (also low). The rest of the world cooks with pure olive oil, not extra virgin.

    2. You wrote, “We need to encourage, not discourage, the use of quality EVOO. EVOO is a simple and easy way for the home cook to layer flavoring into their everyday meals. We need to do a better job of informing consumers that olive oil is a condiment (drizzling), not just a cooking lubricant.”

    Absolutely!

    And one of the ways you do that is by helping people understand that the mid-priced EVOOs aren’t a good source of flavor, and that you don’t need to use EVOO for cooking.

    Why? Because most people live on a budget. For them, it would be a big leap to get them to switch from, say, corn oil as their cooking fat to olive oil. They aren’t going to do that if you tell them “it has to be extra virgin.”

    Liz, it’s true that in its unaltered state EVOO is better for you because of its higher level of polyphenols. But…

    a) all olive oils are better for you than the saturated oils most Americans use:

    http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/food-and-nutrition/an01037

    b) the principle benefits of EVOO come from their relatively high levels of polyphenols. But the application of heat reduces polyphenols dramatically (60-80% at 100 degrees C – the temperature of boiling water, which is far lower than that typically used in cooking):

    http://www.springerlink.com/content/t833175k88u8v235/

    All that said, it really comes down to your budget, your palate, and your views of your body.

    But _please_, people — let’s not turn Americans away from a better fat than they’re using today just because it isn’t the perfect solution. If everyone switched from saturated oils to pure olive oil we would be a far healthier country.

  14. Susan O'Reilly

    I read the article “Taking Issue with “Extra Virgin Everything” and think it is miss-leading to the olive oil novice public. Although I agree that very few restaurants use premium extra virgin olive oil for cooking, I don’t believe it is because they wouldn’t like to use it. It’s really a matter of cost.
    Mr. Evers should have explained that all extra virgin olive oils are not of the same quality. The current IOC standards and those just enacted by the USDA set the allowable levels of free fatty acids and peroxide (the measures of the freshness and oxidation level of the oil) so high that even lesser quality olive oil can be labeled “extra virgin”. The real key is that they have the characteristic flavors of fruitiness, pungency and bitterness and no defective flavors. That being considered, anything less than extra virgin olive oil won’t provide the many benefits expected of olive oil.
    I really think Mr. Evers should read the Scientific Truth on Cooking with Extra Virgin Olive Oil (http://tiny.cc/3ew9q) before saying that “As soon as you apply heat to extra virgin olive oil, you lose what you pay for. You might as well burn a five-dollar bill over the stove.” It is the special qualities of premium (not just any “extra virgin”) extra virgin olive oil that makes it the best choice for cooking. The price may deter you (although it doesn’t really take that much oil to sauté, etc.), but you certainly won’t be throwing your money away.
    I agree that it is a good idea to have olive oils with different flavors and intensity levels at your disposal when cooking. These can all be found in premium extra virgin olive oil. It’s the taste of the oil that matters to most of us and that’s why you start with “extra virgin.”

  15. oliveoilguy

    It isn’t that hard!

    When you’re selecting which type of olive oil to use, think of the following.

    Extra virgin has great flavour.
    They should be free of any off characters which aren’t just academic – oils with defects ruin the food they are used on.
    They contain heaps of polyphenols.
    They are high in monounsaturated fats.
    They do not contain or need any preservatives.
    Good quality EVOO also has a very respectable smoke point.

    Pure, Light and Olive Oil are all refined oils.
    They are not solvent extracted but are cleaned up using acids, alkali’s and deodorising agents.
    They have no flavour.
    They have no healthy polyphenols.
    They are high in healthy monounsatured fats.
    They contain high levels of preservatives (0.2gms/litre) such as butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and others to give them shelf life.
    Their smoke point is slightly higher than EVOO but much of this is due to BHT and BHA. Incidentally the same (except the high monofats) can be said of all seedc oils, canola, vegetable etc.

    Pomace oil is solvent extracted and then refined.
    They have no flavour.
    They have no healthy polyphenols.
    They are high in monounsatured fats.
    The contain preservatives such as butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and others to give them shelf life.
    The may contain carcogenic artifacts of the manufacturing process such as PAH’s.

    Using EVOO to fry does confer the food with health giving polyphenols. Heating EVOO does result in a moderate amount of polyphenol degradation but the polyphenols found in EVOO (oleuropin’s and oleocanthal) are pretty resistant to heating (particularly oleocanthal), even at frying temperatures. The reference given by Ridgley Evers refers to chickpea polyphenols NOT EVOO polyphenols. They are NOT the same. In fact all of the abundant EVOO polyphenols are unique to EVOO. Chickpea polyphenols may degrade at 100C but EVOO polyphenols would find this a walk in the park.

    And finally. Just go to your local supermarket and compare the prices of EVOO and refined oils. They aren’t that different. A buck a litre or so. There are a lot of high quality affordable EVOO’s now coming out of California, Australia and Chile which are changing the economic balance between EVOO and refined oils. The belief that only the well off can liberally use quality EVOO is quickly becoming an anachronism.

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