Olive oil is the liquid produced by pressing whole olives - the fruit of the Olea Europea tree traditionally found in Mediterranean countries. It is commonly used in cooking or as a salad dressing and is a staple part of the Mediterranean diet. Its consumption is considered to be beneficial because it contains large amounts of mono-unsaturated fatty acids and vitamins.
MAJOR OLIVE OIL PRODUCING COUNTRIES
The Mediterranean is the main area of olive oil production in the world and olive trees have been grown in this region since the 8th millennium BC. Greece has the highest per capita consumption of olive oil but Spain is the largest producer accounting for 50% of global production. In fact, 75% of Spain’s olive oil production is based in the region of Andalucia making this the global centre for olive oil. In addition to Spain; Morocco, Turkey, Greece and Italy make up the top 5 global oil producers according to the International Olive Council (2019)
OLIVE OIL CLASSIFICATION
There are actually seven different types of olive oil as classified by the International Olive Council. These broadly divide into virgin and non-virgin olive oil types.
Virgin oils are made by pressing fresh olives by mechanical processes only and follow strict regulations throughout the production process to ensure the oil is pure and natural.
Non-virgin olive oils on the other hand either utilise the leftover pulp from virgin olive oil production or the oil has been heavily processed using chemical processes or heat to extract and refine the oil.
The seven types are:
Virgin Olive Oils
1. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2. Virgin Olive Oil
3. Ordinary Virgin Olive Oil
4. Lampante Oil (not fit for human consumption)
Non-Virgin Olive Oils
5. Refined Olive Oil
6. Blended Olive Oil
7. Olive Pomace Oil
This article summarises the characteristics of each one in descending order of quality.
EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
Extra virgin is the highest grade and best tasting olive oil. To be certified as “Extra Virgin”, the oil has to adhere to strict production methods and achieve the defined taste and chemical composition qualities. These are:
1. The olives must be pressed within 24 hours of harvesting.
2. The oil must be extracted using non-chemical, mechanical means only and without the use of excessive heat (specifically below 28C).
3. The oil must not have more than 0.8 grams of oleic acid per 100 grams - expressed as an acidity level less than or equal to 0.8%
4. It must be free of any defects and have a perfect taste and aroma.
VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
Virgin olive oil also comes from the first pressing of the olives (hence the term “Virgin”) and the oil must have an acidity level of less than 2%. With less strict controls, its flavour intensity can vary and the overall taste is milder than extra virgin olive oil.
ORDINARY VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
This is virgin olive oil but the acidity level is much higher - up to 3.3%. Acidity is one of the key quality indicators of oil and therefore ordinary virgin olive oil is considered the lowest quality of the virgin olive oils.
This is virgin olive oil that has severe defects as a result of bad fruit or poor processing practices. In its natural state, this oil has acidity levels above 3.3% and is not fit for human consumption. The term “Lampante” is based on the Italian word for Lamp referring to the earlier use of such oil in oil lamps. Today, Lampante olive oil is usually shipped to refineries for processing in order to remove the defects associated with high acidity, poor flavour, and unpleasant odours. Once refined, the oil has no colour or taste and is usually used as a packing for tinned fish or blended with other oils and sold as Refined Oil.
REFINED OLIVE OIL
When virgin oils are not fit for human consumption (because of high acidity, poor flavour, and unpleasant odours), they are sent to a processing plant where they become "refined olive oils." There they undergo processing with agents that might include heat, chemicals, and/or filtration. Once refinement is complete, the acidity of the refined oils must not exceed 0.3%. The refining process removes colour, odour and flavour from the olive oil, and leaves behind oil that is tasteless, colourless and extremely low in beneficial antioxidants.
BLENDED OLIVE OIL
To sell refined oil, it is usually blended with small amounts of virgin oil (typically around 15%) and sold in supermarkets labelled as “Olive Oil” or “Pure Olive Oil”. The acidity levels cannot be more than 1% and there are requirements related to its chemical composition and organoleptic characteristics. However, don’t be confused, these are still refined oils.
These oils are made from the waste products from virgin olive oil production. The leftover pulp containing olive skins and seeds are heated and the remaining oil is extracted using solvents (usually Hexane). The oil is then heavily refined and the result is pomace oil which is bland and extremely low in antioxidants. The level of acidity may not exceed 0.3% after the refining process.