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by Robin Allen

Ever wonder what the phrase “extending the olive branch” means? It is an offer of peace and extends back to biblical times, the ancient Romans and Greek mythology.  A dove brought back an olive branch to Noah to signal the flood had ended.  In ancient Rome the defeated used to hold up an olive branch for peace. In Greek mythology, Athens is named after the Goddess Athena who brought the olive to the Greeks as a gift after she won a contest with Poseidon, god of the sea. This gift proved useful for light, heat, food, medicine, and perfume.  Indeed olive trees are one of the oldest cultivated trees in the world.  Originating in North Africa it spread to the Mediterranean, especially to early Greece.  The Greeks exported the olive trees to Italy around 1000 B.C.  As the Roman Empire spread so did the olive trees.  The Romans were the first to document the growth and production of olive trees and olive oil.  The first olive tree can be traced back over 5000 – 6000 years. The greatest use for olive oil at the time was for lamp oil which made it a very valuable trading commodity.  Other uses include anointing rulers, religious purposes, offerings to gods, skin and hair health, and athletes rubbed olive oil on their skin then scraped it off to clean themselves.  Olive trees proved to be long-lived and drought resistant.

Today we still value the olive for its oil, especially extra virgin olive oil (EVOO).  I recently had the pleasure of participating in a tour of Puglia which is the Eastern boot portion of Italy. There we immersed ourselves in the Mediterranean Diet, a key component of which is EVOO! One of our stops was to 2 olive farms to understand and participate in the harvest and production of olive oil. The olive farm we visited had dated back 3000 years and was planted in the ancient Roman tradition with trees set far apart.  Since this was harvest time tarps were laid underneath to catch the fallen olives so they did not hit the ground.  Harvesting was done with a rake like device which shook the olives from the trees.  The best quality olive oils are made with the youngest, greenest olive.  The quality of the oil goes down as the olive ripens.

So have you ever tasted a fresh olive from the tree?  If you like the tasted of chewed up aspirin that the best I can compare it to.  It was harsh and bitter however makes the best EVOO with the most antioxidants and flavor.

What else did I learn? Well, I have been consuming not very good olive oil.  In a study by UC Davis, 2010, of the five top-selling “extra virgin” olive oils, 73% failed International Olive Council (IOC) and USDA sensory standards. The chemical testing indicated that the samples failed extra virgin standards for reasons that include one or more of the following:

  • Oxidation by exposure to elevated temperatures, light, and/or aging;
  • Adulteration with cheaper refined olive oil;
  • Poor quality oil made from damaged and overripe olives, processing flaws, and/or improper oil storage.

So what is high-quality olive oil? Extra virgin olive oil should be:

  • Fruity, pleasant flavors of ripe or green olive
  • Bitter, will have a pleasant acrid sensation on your tongue
  • Pungent, peppery sensation in your mouth or throat.

Signs of a poor quality olive oil:

  • Rancid! Olive oil is best when fresh and used within 1-2 years of harvest. Do not hoard or save it.  Use it! Store in a cool dark place.  Pepperiness and bitterness is a good sign.  Greener robust olive oils keep longer than oils made from riper olives.
  • Fusty! This is caused by fermentation and absence of oxygen.  This occurs before the milling process if olives are left to sit in bags or piles.  For many, the “fusty” odor is the norm and can smell like vinegar, sweaty socks, and brown mushy Kalamata olives.
  • Winey or vinegary, started the fermentation process.

So how is a shopper to know?

  • If at all possible taste before you buy.
  • Buy from a local grower.
  • Look for dates on the olive oil bottles. EVOO does not last longer than 2 years from harvest to consumption. Most experts prefer EVOO to be used within a  year after harvest.
  • Olive oil should be kept in dark bottles or tins to prevent oxidation.

What are the different types of olive oil? There are over 100 different varieties of olive oils with their own taste.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) The gold standard! EVOO is an unrefined oil which is not treated with chemicals or heat. It has a higher level of oleic acid and a golden-green color with a distinctive flavor and peppery finish and also has the highest level of antioxidants. EVOO is unique from other oils because it is extracted using a cold press technique without solvents or heat so the chemical structure of the oil is not altered or compromised. This results in an oil which is higher in antioxidants or phenolics.  These phenolic compounds are associated with increased LDL oxidation, decreased platelet aggregation, improved endothelial function, and lower blood pressure as well as many other benefits.

Virgin Olive Oil, next quality, also unrefined but has a slightly lower level of oleic acid and less intense flavor.  It is from riper or poorer quality grapes.

Refined Olive oil or Pure Olive oil involves chemical treatment and may contain other oils. It is a blend of virgin olive oil and refined olive oils.  It usually has a lighter color and can be treated as an all-purpose oil.

Light Olive oil is a refined olive oil.  It is lighter in flavor, not calories.

Pomace Olive Oil is produced by high heat and chemical solvents and has a high smoke point for cooking.  It is extracted from the pomace with is the solid substance that remains after the virgin olive oil has been extracted.

Lampante Oil is virgin olive oil not fit for human consumption.  It is a poor quality oil and is used for industrial purposes.

All olive oils are a monosaturated fat which has been shown to benefit heart health.  All alive oils can be used for cooking. EVOO is best used for dipping and dressings but is used throughout Italy for all baking and cooking needs.  However, the antioxidants and their benefits are what has separated EVOO as an even more beneficial oil and is characteristic of the Mediterranean Diet.

If you want to learn more about olive oils please see the following references.  High-quality EVOO has become like wine tasting and chefs are starting to pair different types of olive oils with different foods. What olive oil do you use?  Check out the quality and see if you are using the best for your health.


Report Evaluation of Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Sold in California (Accessed 11/17)

The Olive in the Ancient Mediterranean (Accessed 11/17)

History of the Olive

It’s Extra Virgin Olive Oil Day – Is Your EVOO Real or Fake? (Accessed 11/17)

Olive oil: more than just oleic acid (Accessed 11/17)

The Olive Oil Sources (Accessed 11/17)

Extra virgin olive oil and oleic acid (Accessed 11/17)