Extra Virgin or Greasy Harlot?

The olive has been with us for some 8,000 years. Its oil has been a treasured culinary companion around the Mediterranean basin for most of that time. In the past 40 years olive oil’s appeal has gone global. So much so that there is now a shortage and prices have risen dramatically. So has the associated fraud. Here’s what that means for us in Asia.

For me there can be no better aroma than the moment when tomatoes hit a pan of olive oil. It does not just activate the taste buds, it lifts my spirits and the world instantly becomes a happier place.

Alas, apart from the pasta al pomodoro that follows, there is not much else simple about olive oil today now that we all, including such populous nations as China and India, have developed the taste for it.

In our global village the popularity of olive oil hardly comes as a surprise. It’s just too delicious – and, it’s good for us. By now we’ve all heard that the Mediterranean diet is one of, some say, the - world’s healthiest. As a major component of that diet, due to its composition of phytonutrients and mono-unsaturated fats, research confirms that olive oil reduces the risk factor of some of the world’s most chronic diseases, including cancer, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol.

For all these reasons (and now we know most other plant-based oils made commercially available are bad for us) the world’s appetite for olive oil has become a problem and an opportunity.

Just as well then, after two disastrous olive seasons, things are looking up. The olive crop of 2011/12 produced the largest amount of olive oil ever, 3,408,000 tons of it. Since then production fell as a result of heat, drought and a disease called Xylella fastidiosa (Xf), affected the world’s largest growers, Spain and Italy. As a result prices spiked. Happily this year’s crop is now expected to hit 3.2m tons, a figure last achieved in 2010.

Now demand for olive oil has gone global, the question is:-

can we produce enough of it without turning it into some over-processed denatured facsimile of the real thing, or a luxury comestible for well-off foodies?

Other than the greed of global food manufacturers and the complicity of too many regulatory authorities, there is no good reason why, with good husbandry and reasonable oversight, we should not all share in the fruit of the olive tree with its abundant gifts, just as nature provided and at reasonable cost.


World olive oil production

Fortunately for us, the olive tree is hardy and long-lived. Olive trees can bear fruit for 1,000 years. They don’t require a lot of water or soil. To bear fruit it needs sunshine and a seasonal cold spell. It is not, as we’ve seen in Puglia, recently, immune to disease, but it is generally resistant. While the Mediterranean has been its historic home there are many areas in the world where olives can be grown successfully. Currently these non-Mediterranean but Mediterranean climates are estimated to account to about 2% of world production, but acceptance and demand is growing fast. Expect olive groves to proliferate in many more parts of the world, just as they have in California, Australia, South Africa and South America.

Mediterranean countries currently produce over 97% of the world’s olive oil, with the European Union producing 77% of that, the balance coming from Levant and Magreb countries. Biggest producers are Spain (45.5%), Italy (16.8), Greece (10.8), Syria (5.4), Morocco (5.2), Turkey (4.9), Tunisia (4.9), Portugal (2), Algeria (1), France (1).

You might be surprised to discover some of the countries producing prizewinning EVOO these days. At the annual New York International Olive Oil Competition, in addition to the countries mentioned above other winners included: USA, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Chile, Turkey, Uruguay, Croatia, Jordan, Israel, Egypt and Japan.

Consumption of olive oil per capita traditionally follows production, but not necessarily in order of volume. Greeks consume more olive oil per head than anyone else in the world, followed by the Italians and Spaniards. But when it comes to national importation the picture is changing fast. US imports are now the largest in the world, followed by the EU, Brazil, Canada, Australia, Japan and China.

While the worlds growing appetite for high quality olive oil can be satisfied - there’s a snag. It’s not for nothing that olive oil has been called liquid gold. A litre of the finest olive oil of impeccable provenance can set you back several thousands of dollars. Since biblical times the temptation to cheat has been irresistible. Given today’s explosive growth the problem of counterfeit olive oil is at an all-time high.

Simply put, the only olive oil that has the taste and health properties we want is classed as cold first pressed EVOO made from olives of known provenance with the date of harvest provided. This means it is solely the liquid obtained from the first pressing of olives without the use of heat or chemical solvents or the addition of any other non-olive oils. An ordinary 1 litre bottle of blended EVOO in a supermarket, equivalent to a decent table wine say, costs you anything between US$9.50 to $16.00. Anything below that price is unlikely to be kosher.

Refined Olive Oil denotes further pressings and extraction with the use of heat and chemical solvents. The result is a colourless, tasteless, odourless oil with no health or other merit. It’s not worth buying, which is why the makers blend it with Extra Virgin. Don’t be misled by the terms Light or Classic. It’s simply marketing verbiage and has no real meaning.

There are two other liquids extracted from the olive. These are termed Lampada and Pomace. This is the dross left behind after pressings and extraction; it is not fit for any use other than industrial. Lampada as the name implies is what traditionally was used as lighting fuel for lamps before electricity. Pomace is in fact a cake of the remains of all this dross, which is then re-hydrogenated, re-processed and re-blended with refined olive and often other non-olive oils, packaged and re-branded to be sold at a pretty price for human consumption as ‘Olive Pomace’.

Buying a decent EVOO is complicated. Adulteration of olive oil is widespread, including the involvement of organised crime. In Italy the Agro-Mafia is responsible for Euro10m theft of agricultural produce, racketeering and counterfeiting of cheeses, wine, and olive oil every year. The Italian authorities, the EU and various other national and international bodies from the major olive-producing countries do their best to regulate the market and protect the consumer. But it’s a game of catch-up. Recently many of the big-name distributors have been found peddling fraudulent oil as EVOO. These include Bertolli, Sasso, Colavita, Cirio and Filipo Berio. Recent research in the US and Australia shows anything between 60-80% of all EVOO imported from Europe is not Extra Virgin. The figures may be exaggerated and a case of special pleading since the recent University of California Davis research was funded by the 3 largest Californian olive growers, who also part-funded the initial setting up of the department concerned at UC Davis.

Authorities have tried to combat olive oil fraud for millennia. In 1980 archaeologists dug up 4,000 year-old Syrian tablets promulgating laws against counterfeit oil. Then as now the problem mostly involves the blending of all kinds low grade olive oil (like pomace, not to mention other oils, such as canola, rapeseed, palm oil, avocado, oil, hazel nut oil, etc.) processed and de-odorised with the aid of heat and toxic chemicals to be passed off as EVOO.


Pomace – what’s left before it’s heated & treated with toxic hexane

The scale and value involved in the fraudulent olive oils is colossal and continues today. That said, laws in both producing and consuming countries are beginning to kick-in to protect both legitimate manufacturers and the end-user in well-established markets. For the rest…. Caveat emptor!

In theory effective regulation should be easy, given that the definition of EVOO is very clear and compliance required to be stated on the label. Given the explosive growth of EVOO consumption the grosser kinds of fraud (which in 1980 killed over 1,000 Spaniards and sickened 24,000 more) are now hopefully a thing of the past.

Nowadays fraud more usually involves the blending of lower quality olive oils and passing it off as EVOO.

At a minimum, the label should show the date of harvest, a best consumed by date (two years after harvesting is the standard), where the olives were grown, that it is cold first-pressed by mechanical means, the name of the packer and distributor, and if it is a blended EVOO from which country(s) the oil originated. It should also carry the imprimatur of a reputable regulating/verifying body.


In a Tuscan olive grove – the way they were

So where does that leave us in Asia?

Depends where you live. In large countries like Indonesia with weak and opaque regulatory systems, where olive oil hardly impinges at all on the national dietary landscape, there is limited choice catered to by the major European blenders from Spain and Italy (Bertolli, Berio, Cirio, Colavita, Coricelli, Santagata). Given the limited labeling requirements these suppliers and importers take advantage of the situation providing very little, if any, information allowing consumers to make an informed choice. In the case of EVOO, the unbacked assertion that it is ‘extra virgin’ and the country where the contents have been bottled with a date to be used by is sufficient. Given a history of cheating trusting these labels, however well known, is hard. In which case EVOO from Australia or the USA may well be the best choice you can make if you can find it. Production is well-regulated and the oil can be just as good, if not better, than most Mediterranean oils. The thing about them though is – you will be paying a premium as these countries cannot compete with the EU economies of scale.

The other development of note and something to watch out for is that in a country like Indonesia, where the market for olive oil is relatively young and where duties are high, is the promotion of ‘Olive Pomace’ packaged and priced as an alternative and to look like the real thing. It is nothing of the sort.


Not a bad label, but doesn’t tell you when it was harvested. Without that the ‘use by’ date is meaningless.

In the Asian city states, Hong Kong and Singapore, the situation is very different. Here we have an urban middle class well acquainted with the pleasures of olive oil, in much the same way as they have taken to drinking wine. All the usual European suspects are much in evidence in the supermarkets, along with a large selection of specialist domain labels from up-market grocers offering the best there is from all over the world. You are now entering territory requiring deep pockets and an educated palate or - merely the olive equivalent of wine snobbery, as the case may be.

Another phenomenon is the appearance of ‘own labels’ offered by the large grocery conglomerates in Singapore and Hong Kong. These can be good value. A liter bottle of EVOO for US$8.50 tasting and smelling like it should stating the origin of the olives as being from Spain, Tunisia and Italy say or even just as of ‘EU origin’ should take care of your EVOO ordinaries requirements. If it does not state the origin of its olives – steer clear. There’s a good chance it is fraudulent. Bear in mind you can buy a 40ft container of oil in Shenzhen purporting to be EVOO, bottle it and resell it calling it what you like and make a tidy fortune

As rough guide and recommendation:

Buy only EVOO, take it home, open it, smell it, swirl a little in your mouth and judge for yourself. If it don’t pass muster, consign it to cooking or use it on creaking doors - and try again.

Select a Mediterranean blended EVOO as your ‘pourer’, upon the proviso its provenance is clearly stated (i.e. where the olives come from). Never buy “Olive Pomade” under any circumstances. In fact don’t buy anything but genuine Extra Virgin. Anything less (refined, light, etc.) has neither the taste nor the nutritional merit of the real thing.

Then have fun. Go up-market for your salad dressings or for simply putting it on bread. Explore the territory just as you do with wine. Nowadays there’s a whole wonderful world of real olive oil out there way beyond the Mediterranean.

Buon Appetito!