Unraveling the mysteries of olive oil

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Not all olive oil is created equal

There’s a reason that 98 percent of olive oil that comes from the Mediterranean — they’ve been producing it there for thousands of years.

Even then, according to Lewis, the quality varies greatly depending on how it was produced. The finest oil comes from the best of the harvest from very green olives. The olives are crushed and smashed with grinding stones, pit and all. From there, the resulting mush goes through several extraction processes to separate the oil droplets, leaving behind a leftover paste.

What most shoppers don’t know is that most low-end olive oil comes from that leftover paste. The paste are processed with chemicals that extract the remaining oil, then the oil is refined so that it will have a long shelf life.

“Most of what you buy in the supermarket for $5 a liter is mass produced,” Lewis said. “Often it’s very refined. Sometimes you can get a good product. High quality oil is more like fresh olive juice.”

So how do you find a decent bottle? Because labeling standards are hazy, Lewis said recommends finding a reputable seller or to try different oils to find what you like.

Oils have unique flavors

Think that all good oil tastes alike? Think again. While many mass-produced oils have been stripped of their flavors in the refining process, artisan oils can taste wildly different. One might taste like a tart green tomato, while another might be buttery and creamy. Another might have a particularly peppery kick at the end, the result of the healthy polyphenols present in the oil.

Labels can be misleading

Unfortunately, the United States does not have strict laws about how olive oil is labeled. Oil labeled “cold pressed” is meant to imply the temperature at which the oil was obtained, but in the U.S. there are no regulations about using these terms, so it often doesn’t mean much.

Similarly, Lewis scoffs at the labels “virgin” or “extra virgin.” Virgin means that the oil was made from olives and not through a synthetic chemical process. That’s definitely a good thing, but the U.S. doesn’t regulate the use of those terms either.

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