Dubai: Gulf News Food reader Mohammed Assadi wrote in and asked: “My concern is whether the olive oil we buy is refined or processed. How do you find out if it is pure? Secondly, someone told me that using olive oil to deep fry foods is not good for health because it loses its properties. In Egypt, people consume raw olive oil with some of their food like 'Foul mudammas' (fava beans cooked with cumin and herbs), where they add olive oil while eating it with their bread (Qubz or Aish). What are the benefits of consuming raw olive oil like that?”
The letter set us thinking. In the Middle East, because of its abundance, we take olive oil and its purity for granted. So, we set out to find out how we can identify and test olive oil.
Identifying your olive oil
The easiest way to identify olive oil is by checking its consistency and smell. Greasy, rancid, flavourless, or unpleasant odour means poor quality. On the other hand, good olive oil should have bright, peppery, earthy or grassy notes – which, when added to your food, increases flavour.
False olive oil are oils with high acidity and/or a mix of olive oil and perhaps other types of vegetable oils. If handled correctly and preserved in a cool and dark environment, olive oil can maintain its quality for a long time. However, you can detect a clear difference in the smell and taste if you are an expert.
“When it comes to extra virgin olive oil, the most crucial aspect is the handling, picking, and pressing of the olive oil. Once this is done, according to international standards, the olive oil needs to be bottled as quickly as possible and stored in the dark – preferably glass bottles – away from direct light and heat. This in turn, will help maintain its quality after that for as long as one year, keeping its aroma and benefits. Moreover, a good olive oil, especially extra virgin, will add a great taste and flavour to cold food such as salads and dips,” explained 46-year-old Hanan Wehbi, the Founder of Maknoon – a homegrown olive oil brand in the UAE.
2. Look for a certification seal. Often known as a third-party seal, these are usually stamped on the bottle under the acronyms PDO (Protected Designation of Origin), COOC (California Olive Oil Council) or IOC (International Olive Council).
3. Always look for the ‘harvest date’ and not necessarily the ‘best by’ or ‘bottled on’ dates because these could vary by years, if not months.
“Consumers should always check the source and credibility of the olive oil brand they purchase. Check the label and read the origin and ingredients. The label should specify if the oil is extra virgin, virgin or just olive oil and whether it contains one type of oil or a mix of many oils. Use a trusted brand and know that a good bottle of olive oil, especially extra virgin, is never cheap,” said Wehbi.
If you are also confused between olive oil and pomace oil, the only difference is that the former is produced directly from the fruit, whereas the latter is produced from the remains of already spun pulp.
Is using olive oil at high temperatures harmful?
Assadi’s concern led us to track the myth behind cooking with olive oil. We spoke to Sakina Mustansir, a Dubai-based dietician at Prime Hospital, who said: “Using extra virgin oil for high-temperature cooking is not ideally recommended as it has a low smoking point. Every oil has a unique smoke point – this means the point at which your oil starts to smoke. When you start to heat olive oil to its smoke point, the compounds in it start to degrade and convert into potentially health-harming compounds. However, the smoking point is 180 to 200C, so if you don’t go beyond this temperature, it should be safe.”
Olive oil contains primarily monounsaturated (healthy fats) fatty acids, which have a high resistance to heat. However, using it as a salad dressing or for mild cooking is always best advised. As for the benefits of consuming olive oil regularly, Wehbi said: “Extra virgin olive oil or virgin olive oil has one of the highest polyphenols, which are natural antioxidants. In addition, extra virgin olive oil has strong anti-inflammatory properties.”
Testing the purity of olive oil
There are a few home tests you can do to test the purity of your olive oil. Natural olive oil should be easy to determine based on the aroma itself. Like we said earlier, it should smell peppery, which is because of its polyphenols. Here are two proven ways you can do it:
1. Light a wick: If you have an earthen pot or lantern, dip a wick in olive oil and light it up. If the light stays on for a long time, chances are you have pure olive oil.
2. Refrigerate it: You can pour a small amount of olive oil into a glass jar or bowl and place it inside a refrigerator for 24 hours. You have natural olive oil with monounsaturated or healthy fats if it solidifies. If it doesn’t and remains in a liquid state, you have bought adulterated olive oil.
Where do the best olives come from?
Due to their ideal climate, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine are among the countries that grow the best olives, right after Spain, Italy and Greece. Mediterranean climates usually feature mild winters, followed by sunny springs and hot summers. The areas where olive trees are cultivated for commercial use must have an average annual temperature of 60 to 68F (15 to 20C) – anything below 15F will kill a young tree.
When is olive oil ideally produced?
“The best way to produce olive oil is to know when to start the crop season. It usually starts in late October or the beginning of November. The right time is when the olives change their colour from green to purple to black. Then, handling the crop, handpicking with care, and keeping them in crates or on a cloth is important to separate them from dirt. Then the time it takes from this process to the production or pressing is also crucial. The faster this process is the better. Once the olives are washed and separated from the leaves, they must be cold-pressed (temperature should not exceed 27C) and stored immediately in tins or dark glass bottles. This way, they preserve their flavour and aroma,” said Wehbi.
Olive oil is made by extracting the juices from fresh olives, without chemicals, heat or processing – called a cold press. To qualify as ‘extra-virgin’, which is the highest grade, the oil has to pass a lab analysis and sensory test set by the Madrid-based International Olive Council in Italy.
How is olive oil faked?
Research showed us that olive oil, especially the ‘extra virgin’ labelling is a major victim of food fraud, especially in the US, where it apparently affects at least 75 to 80 per cent of olive oil sold. These facts are as per a 2011 New York Times bestseller titled Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by non-fiction writer Tom Mueller. The book details the “culinary, cultural and criminal history of olive oil, one of the world's most marvellous and murky substances”.
As per another study done by the EU FFN (European Union Food Fraud Network) in 2020, the primary reason behind olive oil being adulterated is mainly due to the time consuming process of making it. Therefore, producers take the shortcut and blend it with other vegetable oils such as sunflower, corn and palm oil.
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