Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil
By Tom Mueller
W.W. Norton and Co., 2011
Even if olive oil is not part of your regular diet, this is a fascinating look into the historical and contemporary uses of olive oil for food and industry, as well as its cultural traditions. From its farming, processing and distribution, to its industrial usage and medicinal and nutritional benefits, this is a story of what seems to be one of the most ancient sources of food and renewable energy, and consequently, food fraud. Along the way, the story of butter and margarine are told, as well as a rejection of the conventional wisdom, which blames saturated fat for heart disease.
This book is at its best when documenting the extensive fraud in adulterating olive oil, one that has been practiced from the 24th century B.C. to the present, with the highly sophisticated and ubiquitous practice of refining and blending olive oil with other inferior oils. In fact, after finishing this book, readers have no choice but to question whether or not they have actually ever consumed one hundred percent extra virgin olive oil (EVO). Fortunately, Mueller also instructs the reader on how to better distinguish and locate high quality EVO.
Mueller provides us with some basic and engaging information about the olive as tree, fruit and oil. The cultivated olive tree, Olea europaea, is the domesticated cousin of the wild oleaster, native to the Mediterranean basin and much of the Middle East. Unlike other common oils that are extracted from seeds (sunflower, canola, soy, etc.), olive oil can be extracted by mechanical methods alone because the olive is a fruit with a much higher water content than that contained in seeds.
Primarily as a result of oxidation, olive oil, unlike wine, begins to degrade in taste and quality immediately after harvest. Olive oil, like other fats and oils, is a combination of many different types of fatty acids whose percentages vary depending upon the type of olive tree, the amount of water it receives and the climate it grows in. The primary fatty acid, oleic acid, can range from 55 to 85 percent in various oil samples. Because olive oil is mostly monounsaturated, it remains fresh longer than vegetable oils that are polyunsaturated.
When not heat treated or industrially processed, EVO contains over one hundred polyphenols, vitamins and other volatile compounds that protect and repair the body as well as act as anti-inflammatories and reduce oxidization of cells.
This one and one-half billion dollar olive oil industry in the United States is governed by some of the loosest food purity laws. Although multiple government agencies consistently reported adulteration from 1930-1990, today not even the FDA tests for olive oil fraud. In 2010, the USDA did offer some regulations, but these remain voluntary and unenforceable. As Mueller states, “The United States of America is an oil criminal’s dream.”
“Cookbooks, like histories, are written by the victors,” says the author. When Germanic tribes overran the Roman Empire, animal fats often replaced the traditional Greco-Roman diet of bread, wine and olive oil. Even the philosophers of the day would soon embrace this new diet. For example, the Greek physician Anthimus wrote in about 500 A.D. about the quality of lard which was used as a dressing for vegetables and was even extolled as a cure-all: “…a remedy [such] that they have no need for other medicines.”
After the Catholic Church approved butter consumption during Lent in the fifteenth century, cookbooks of the time then included recipes using butter as well. Fast forward to today and the increased popularity of olive oil consumption (as well as the war on saturated fats) is generally credited to Ancel Keys and his Seven Countries Study promoting olive oil over saturated fats.
The adulteration of olive oil has been commonly practiced and handsomely profitable for as long as olive oil has been used. “Profits were comparable to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risks,” says one European Union investigator. Readers will be overwhelmed by the extent of olive oil adulteration, from ancient Egypt to the present day, all in the name of increasing profits at the expense of the public’s health.
Here are just a few of the many accounts of olive oil fraud enumerated in Mueller’s book:
In 1981 over 800 people died and thousands more were injured in Spain when olive oil was blended with rapeseed oil.
In 1922, during Prohibition, U.S. Health Commissioner Royal Copeland stated that “there is more profit in adulterating olive oil than there is in bootlegging.”
In 1963, the New England Journal of Medicine reported “a well-known fact that the olive oil sold in America and elsewhere is very seldom pure, but mostly adulterated with other cheap vegetable oils.”
Throughout the book, and specifically in the last couple of chapters, resources and websites are provided that will educate the reader not only about where to find high quality EVO, but provides the specific farming and processing information to equip readers with the right questions to pose when investigating the authenticity of their own sources of olive oil.