Olive oil is, without argument, the most important and commonly used oil in the historic western world. Existing records suggest that olive oil was being produced in the Mediterranean basin and Mesopotamia as early as the 4th millennium BC. Prehistoric evidence indicates that olives were collected for human consumption 10,000 years ago. Production and trade of oil played a significant role in the creation and distribution of wealth in ancient Greece and its neighbors.
While olive oil use as food and for cooking was widespread throughout the ancient western world, the oil had a diverse number of applications. Olive oil has been historically used as fuel for lanterns as well as in the production of soaps and cosmetics. The English word “oil” is derived from the Greek word for olive. Today, Olive oil is used throughout the world. While the bulk of the production continues to be based in Mediterranean countries, it has spread to include Australia and the United States. In 2010, approximately 3.3 million tonnes were produced.
Production and Grading
Aside from modernization of equipment and volume of production, the processing of oil from olives has remained relatively unchanged since historical times. In fact, labeling regulations demand that simple production methods are used in order to maintain quality and grade. Oils processed using chemicals or heat receive a lower grade and subsequently command a lower price on the market. Consumer demand for superior olive oils has led to an extremely competitive market at the top end of production. In turn, shady producers have developed means of passing inferior oils off as high end, with regulators often playing catch up.
Spain is by far the largest producer of olive oil, accounting for roughly 45% of global production. Italy, Egypt and Greece account for a further 40%-45%. In terms of consumption, Greece far outstrips any other nation, with annual per capita consumption of approximately 24 kilograms (nearly two liters per person per month).
Traditionally, and currently, olive oil is extracted from the olive through a process of crushing the olives and creating a paste. The olive paste is then pressed to extract a liquid, which contains a mixture of both oil and water. The oil is then separated from the water.
The major differences between historical and modern day processing lie in the crushing and separation steps. Traditionally, olives were crushed using millstones and the oil was separated from the water using gravity. Modern techniques use steel drums for crushing and centrifugal action to divide the oil and water.
Olive oil production is regulated by an international body known as the International Olive Council (IOC). The IOC determines the requirements for grading olive oils and is followed by most countries, except the US where a pre-existing regulatory body is responsible for overseeing olive oil production.
Grades are awarded based on production method, level of acidity, and taste; as determined by a blind panel. The designation virgin means that the oil was produced using mechanical rather than chemical methods. Alternatively, refined olive oils have been chemically processed.
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil – Has met industry standards of no more that 0.8% acidity and has a proven superior taste.
- Virgin Olive Oil – Has met industry standards of no more that 2.0% acidity and is considered to be of good taste.
- Other labels – Include the designations “pure” or “refined” or simply “olive oil.” These oils are usually a mix of virgin and refined oils.
Again, some producers have developed methods to mask inferior olive oils and have them mislabeled as Extra Virgin. It is estimated that a significant portion of oil sold on supermarket shelves is intentionally mislabeled. Furthermore, labeling restrictions regarding country of origin are relatively loose. An olive oil labeled as “Italian” need only have a small percentage of Italian olive oil.
Olive oil, as a mono-unsaturated fat, is considered one of the “good” fats. It has the ability to lower overall cholesterol and increase “good”, or HDL, cholesterol levels.
Studies showing a lower proportion of cardiovascular disease in the Mediterranean population have linked it to a diet high in virgin olive oil. In the United States, olive oils meeting the appropriate standards are allowed to be labeled as potentially reducing the risk of coronary heart disease when used as a replacement for saturated fats in a diet.
The presence of Omega-3 fatty acids and anti oxidants in olive oil also boosts its claim as a healthy and beneficial fat alternative. Furthermore, olive oil has been linked to reduced blood pressure in individuals suffering from hypertension.
As society and popular culture continue to promote more organic and natural lifestyles and consumption, products such as olive oil benefit from increased awareness and demand for pure, unprocessed foods.