U.S. consumers are better informed these days about selecting, tasting and cooking with extra virgin olive oil. It’s the top – and most expensive – grade of olive oil, delivering the best taste and the full health benefits. Yet my colleagues and I still encounter plenty of bogus information on the Internet and elsewhere about extra virgin olive oil – and olive oil generally. I’ll try to set the record straight with our own Top 5 List of Olive Oil Myths.
Dr. Mehmet Oz created a sensation last February when he popularized the so-called “fridge “test” on his nationally syndicated TV show, The Dr. Oz Show. If the oil “freezes” and doesn’t pour, Dr. Oz noted, that’s a good sign the oil is truly extra virgin; but he also noted it’s not “100 percent foolproof.” There’s just one problem, however. The test doesn’t work, according to olive oil experts.
After the Dr. Oz segment aired, researchers at the University of California, Davis, Olive Center conducted their own test and concluded the fridge test is “unreliable in judging whether an olive oil is truly made from olives, nor does it provide information on the quality of the oil.” (Click here to see the UC Davis report.)
The researchers refrigerated seven samples: two unrefined extra virgin olive oils, a refined olive oil, a canola oil, a safflower oil, and two blends. Some samples showed minor congealing at the bottom of the bottles, but none solidified completely. “None of our samples showed any signs of congealing after 60 hours in a laboratory refrigerator set to 40.5 degrees Fahrenheit,” Dan Flynn, executive director of the Olive Center, said. “Even after 180 hours, the samples never fully solidified.”
2. Light olive oil is lower in fat and calories.
The fat and calorie levels in “light” olive oil are the same as any other type of olive oil. Light olive oil is made from refined olive oil. It’s really light in flavor or color – not calories or fat. In short, the term “light” has absolutely nothing to do with the quality or health benefits of the oil. It’s a marketing ploy.
3. You can tell an olive oil’s quality by its color.
Color is an unreliable indicator of quality. “Don’t pay much attention to the color of an oil. Good oils come in all shades, from vivid green to gold to pale straw,” olive oil aficionado Tom Mueller said in his book, Extra Virginity. Flavor and aroma are better gauges of quality. In other words, smell and taste the oil. Mueller notes “genuine extra virgin oils have a marked fruitiness reminiscent of fresh olives, and typically some level of bitterness and pepperiness.”
But color will tell you other things. Olives harvested early in the season are naturally very green and therefore produce a greener oil. “Olives picked early in the season tend to make green colored oil as they contain higher levels of chlorophyll,” Australian olive oil expert Richard Gawel noted. “Olives harvested late in the season will typically produce more golden colored oils due to a higher level of natural occurring levels of carotene-like substances. Both oils may be technically equivalent in quality but very different in style.”
This belief mistakenly assumes extra virgin olive oil has a low “smoke point” – the temperature at which the oil begins to break down and smoke. However, residents of the Mediterranean have been cooking and baking with extra virgin olive oil for generations.
“There’s a myth that olive oil breaks down at frying temperatures, but that’s exactly what it is – a myth,” food writer and historian Nancy Harmon Jenkins told us, adding that extra virgin is “actually very stable up to over 400 F” thanks to its “high content” of polyphenols. “Olive oil is very good, even for deep-frying. You can heat it to the right temperature – which is about 365 degrees Fahrenheit, more or less – and it will crisp the outside of the food and won’t get soggy.”
5. European extra virgin olive oils are superior to U.S.-made extra virgin oils
Scientific research has blown this myth out of the water. A 2011 study provided more evidence that U.S. consumers often pay premium prices for European olive oil labeled as “extra virgin” when, in reality, they’re buying lower quality oil. The U.S.-Australian report suggested “most” top-selling European “extra virgin” oils sold in California supermarkets “regularly” fail to meet international standards for extra virgin. (Click here to read the study.) The researchers found that nearly three-quarters of the top five imported brands failed to pass “blind” taste tests conducted by two panels of professional tasters.