Olive Oil Labeling Terms and What They Mean

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We all know how well balanced and delicious a Mediterranean diet can be. Compared to a typical American diet (if there is such a thing anymore), it has fewer meats and processed foods, along with more plant-based foods (thus more fiber) and monounsaturated fat (i.e., olive oil).

According to sources such as Medline Plus and the Mayo Clinic, the Mediterranean diet may result in more stable blood sugars, lower cholesterol and triglycerides, and a lower risk of heart disease and a host of other health problems.

This is not news to Italians, Spaniards, Greeks, and other people in the Mediterranean region, who have eaten this way for thousands of years. One can argue that it’s easy to eat large amounts of raw and cooked vegetables, instead of meat, or slices of grilled bread instead of chips because olive oil makes them taste so wonderful.

In Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit (1996), Mort Rosenblum wrote, “On her 121st birthday, Jeanne Calment, of Arles, France, had a simple answer when asked how she survived to be the world’s oldest person: olive oil. It appears in nearly every meal she eats, and each day she rubs it into her skin. ‘I have only one wrinkle,’ she said, ‘and I am sitting on it.’ ” Calment, who died a year later, also ate two pounds of chocolate a week, rode a bicycle until she was 100, and didn’t quit smoking until five years before her death. (With her vision, she couldn’t light up herself and hated to ask for help.) God bless.

The olive oils you’ll find on the shelves of supermarkets and specialty foods shops include those from Italy, Spain, France, Greece, Morocco, Tunisia, and California. Depending on what olive cultivars they’re made from (as well as the time of harvest, the pressing process, and other variables), they range in flavor from mild to robust, from fruity to peppery; the throat-tickling pungency (due to an abundance of the phenol oleocanthal) of some Tuscan oils is a prized attribute called pizzicante.

A vibrant green color doesn’t necessarily equal strong olive flavor. And in price, olive oils run the gamut from a few bucks to around $40 or so, although if you’re a sucker for opulent packaging, Clare Leschin-Hoar can tell you all about a bottle that costs $15,000.

Olive Oil Labeling Terms and What They Mean

Extra-Virgin: This, the highest grade of olive oil, contains less than 1 percent oleic acid and must pass muster in terms of flavor, aroma, and mouthfeel by a professional taste panel. It must also be produced entirely by the mechanical crushing of the whole olive (including the pit) without the use of any chemical solvents and under temperatures that will not degrade the oil (less than 86°F/30°C).

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