Olives in Chile ready to harvest

Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, called it “the great healer,” believing olive oil could fight disease and heal trauma. Thousands of years later we’re still reaping the health benefits of this fabulous liquid. 

A search of the National Institute of Health’s database shows scores of peer-reviewed, scientific studies that prove olive oil’s efficacy in fighting disease.  It protects against certain cancers and heart disease, helps stabilize metabolism and fight obesity, aids in alleviating symptoms of arthritis, ulcerative colitis, and Alzheimer’s disease. and has the same anti inflammatory properties as ibuprofen.  The benefits of olive oil are clear, but what isn’t always clear is that not all olive oil is created equal. Only fresh, high-quality olive oil contains the properties that are most beneficial to our health. 

Ideally, any olive oil labeled as Extra Virgin would be of the highest quality, but since labeling standards are not enforced in the United States, and because most of us don’t know the flavor of a truly fresh olive oil, the U.S. has become a dumping ground for oils labeled as Extra Virgin that don’t meet even the minimum standards.  In order to find genuinely good olive oil, it is important to be armed with some basic knowledge. 

Olive oil is the epitome of an unprocessed food. It is produced simply, by pressing the oil from the olive then separating the oil from the solids and bottling it. The highest quality oil is produced from healthy olives picked at the exact right time and pressed within hours of picking.  To retain the quality and freshness of the oil, it must be kept away from heat, light, and air. Age is another enemy of olive oil, so it is important to use olive oil while it still maintains its health benefits and flavor. 

Ancient olive grove

There are a number of ways that producers put profits over quality – they leave the fruit on the tree too long, which increases yield but reduces the elements that provide the health benefits. They wait too long to crush the olives, often storing them to rot in the sun for days after harvest. Unfortunately, some producers resort to actual fraud. They label oils as extra-virgin when they were produced chemically or add other, less expensive oils.  Some producers don’t even use olive oil, instead adding flavoring to mimic the smell and color of olives. Another common practice is to produce olive oil in other countries and then ship it in tanks to be bottled in Italy and labeled as such. All of these practices significantly diminish the freshness and quality of the olive oil.

A study at the University of California at Davis set out to understand just how prolific these practices are. They found that 70% of the samples of imported oil failed to meet the standard of extra virgin due to, “(a) oxidation by exposure to elevated temperatures, light, and/or aging; (b) adulteration with cheaper refined olive oil; and (c) poor quality oil made from damaged and overripe olives, processing flaws, and/or improper oil storage.”

So how do you know if your olive oil is what it says it is? One way is to buy from a reputable and knowledgeable business whose salespeople take the time to share their knowledge with you.  The harvest date should be on the label. Olive oil should be consumed within 18 months of the harvest date. Beyond that date, its health benefits have dwindled. Much beyond that date olive oil will become rancid and actually damaging to our health. 

Olive oil should be kept away from heat, light, and air. Be wary of olive oil stored or sold in clear glass as it will have suffered from light degradation. Look for olive oil that is stored in light-proof tanks and has been freshly bottled in tinted bottles.

Ideally, you should be able to taste the olive oil before you buy. While the health benefits alone make it desirable, the taste of truly fresh olive oil is a marvel. There is as much variety in olive oil as there is in wine. Being fresh and high quality isn’t enough if you don’t love the flavor. 

For further information about olive oil and where to find the best ones, Tom Mueller, an industry expert, maintains a site called truthinoliveoil.com, in which he provides information on what supermarket brands are reputable and directories of stores that provide high-quality olive oils. 

It’s amazing that one of the most potent tools we have in fighting modern disease is thousands of years old. With a little education, you can easily find and enjoy this magic elixir.