13 January 2015 4 Things You Did Not Know About Olive Oil

Winter in southern Spain is olive-harvesting season so the countryside is filled with the buzzing sound of hand-held machines with a large claw, which hooks onto an olive tree branch and shakes the tree until most of the olives drop onto a tarp covering the ground below. These olives are cold pressed the same day into EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) and sold throughout the world.

Come join me as we hike through the fields of 1,000 year old “millennium” olive trees and visit an olive farm in Andalusia, the southernmost province of Spain, where 75% of Spanish olive oil is produced and learn 4 things you did not know about olive oil.

1. What country produces the largest percentage of olive oil?

It’s not Italy or Greece, but Spain! (I bet you wished that you had known this for a conversation starter around your holiday table!). Actually 45% of olive oil is produced in Spain, while Italy produces 25% and Greece produces 20%. Thus, 90% of olive oil is produced in the Mediterranean region.

Before moving to Spain, I looked at 10 bottles of extra virgin olive oil sold at my local grocery store in Boulder, Colorado and 9 out of 10 were produced in Italy. Interestingly enough, 8 out of the top 10 olive oils are Spanish, with 6 of those Spanish olive oils coming from Andalusia, including the top 4!

2. Is color or flavor more important in olive oil quality?

During our olive oil tasting, since the three different types of olive oil were given to us in small blue-colored glasses, we knew that smell and flavor were more important than color. We were instructed to take a small sip of oil and then take a deep breath so the oil coated the back of our throats to evaluate the types of 3 oils: EVOO, virgin olive oil, and olive oil.

I was surprised at how obvious the differences were among the samples. The EVOO smelled like olives and truly burned on the back of my throat like a strong pepper taste, which was actually due to the high amount of polyphenols our host told us. The lowest quality olive oil was actually odorless and tasteless to me. Since EVOO is so flavorful, one needs just a small amount for a delightful taste sensation.

Weight loss tip: Light or extra light olive oil has nothing to do with calories or fat content, but purely the flavor. All olive oil, and all oils for that matter, contain 9 calories per gram of oil.

3. What’s so special about EVOO or extra virgin olive oil?

At the small local olive coop that we toured, a temperature-controlled centrifuge was used to press the olives within 24 hours of being harvested. Since in this mechanical cold press method the temperature is kept below 27 degrees Celsius, less oil can be squeezed and thus fewer nutrients are lost. Consequently, EVOO contains about 30 phenolic acids, which are the antioxidants shown to help reduce heart disease risk factors by lowering blood pressure, decreasing cholesterol and improving the health of the lining of your arteries.

Polyphenols are highest in olives from older trees (yes, 1,000 years old count!) and green olives. Interestingly enough, the same tree produces both green and black olives. Green olives are harvested earlier in the season; it’s easier to extract more oil from more ripe, more black olives.

Buying EVOO is so important to Spaniards that some good-intentioned hosts have read to me from their one gallon bottles, emphasizing the words “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” as if I was a kindergartener learning to read.

4. If olive oil is so good for me, should I add it to my smoothie?

For people trying to lose weight, all fat still contains 9 calories per gram. One teaspoon of oil or butter contains 40 calories. Appreciate EVOO with moderation and with foods that you can really taste the difference!

Living and cooking in Spain this year, I use EVOO for salads and dipping. However, I still use canola oil for baking because it is low in saturated fats, has a neutral flavor and is cheaper. Aprovecha!

Martha Henze

MS, RD, Traveling Taste Buds, LLC

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Foods & Recipes/Oils Travel/Regional Foods

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