Food fraud – olive oil

Food fraud is nothing new, but the intensity and frequency have been on the rise. From counterfeit extra-virgin olive oil to intentional adulteration of spices and the manufacturing of fake honey, food fraud has been estimated to be a $US40 billion a year industry. In a series of posts we will cover a range of recent issues.

Olive oil is second in our series on fraudulent food

Olive oil bottleSimilar to honey, which we covered in a previous post, food fraud involving olive oil has been around for millennia and remains among the top five food tampering issues.

Ancient Rome established an international trade in olive oil, and instituted elaborate mechanisms to prevent fraud. Olive oil fraud continues today, though modern governments are often less thorough and effective than the Romans at preventing it.

Olive oil has long been one of the most frequently adulterated products in the European Union, and equally in America where olive oil has been adulterated with soybean and seed oils,

Examples of adulterated olive oil

In Europe, common cheating involves mixing extra virgin olive oil with lower-grade olive oil or with virgin olive oil that has been sitting around since the previous year’s harvest or longer. Although the latter is not illegal, by the time that bottle reaches the store its quality has deteriorated.

In November 2015, seven of Italy’s best-known olive oil companies were investigated for allegedly passing off inferior quality virgin olive oil as extra virgin. Of 20 brands tested in the laboratory by specialists from the Italian customs agency, nine were found to be lower quality oil.

New methods of chemical refinement, commonly known as “deodorisation,” allow unscrupulous producers to remove sensory defects found in other oils. Thus a recent study confirmed that quite a lot of the olive oil available in the USA had been fraudulently cut with other oils like peanut, canola and sunflower.

Grades of olive oil

So what is olive oil and how is the different qualities defined? Bare with me, as classification of different olive oils gets a little complicated.

Olive treesFirst, let’s make the obvious clear that olive oil is the oil obtained solely from the fruit of the olive tree (Olea europaea L.) without the addition of any other vegetable oils (or animal fats for that matter).

Second, olive oil is classified according to the method of production and the resulting properties of the oil. Depending on the quality it can be used in cooking, whether for frying or as a salad dressing, in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and soaps, and as a fuel for traditional oil lamps.

Third, to be called olive oil in retail it cannot be extracted using solvents (see olive pomace oil) or undergo re-esterification processes.

Thus, we have the following broad categories of oils produced from olives.

Virgin olive oil obtained by mechanical means only under conditions that do not lead to alterations in the oil, and which have not undergone any treatment other than washing, decantation, centrifugation and filtration.

Refined olive oil obtained from virgin olive oils by refining methods which do not lead to alterations in the initial fat structure but unfortunately removes some of the beneficial antioxidants and polyphenols found in virgin olive oils.

Olive oil consists of a blend of refined olive oils and virgin olive oils fit for consumption.

Olive pomace oil is the oil obtained by treating olive pomace (the olive pulp left after the first press) with solvents or other physical treatments.

The different categories of olive oils and olive pomace oils are named and defined by the International Olive Council (IOC) according to physico-chemical characteristics including organoleptic quality (taste to you and me).

Extra virgin olive oil comes from virgin oil production only, and is of higher quality: it contains no more than 0.8% free acidity and it has a superior taste, having some fruitiness and no defined sensory defects. Extra virgin olive oil is better than virgin olive oil with 2% free acidity and some sensory defects allowed. And virgin olive oil is better than ordinary virgin olive oil with 3.3% free acidity and further sensory defects allowed.

Further down the quality scale we find the lampante virgin olive oil with more than 3.3% free acidity intended for technical use unless further refined, and the olive oil consisting of a blend of original and refined virgin oil fit for human consumption.

Also olive pomace oil is split into quality categories. Crude olive pomace oil is the initial output destined for further refinement producing refined olive pomace oil with not more than 0.3% free acidity or as is for technical use. Finally, olive pomace oil is the blend of refined olive pomace oil and virgin olive oil fit for human consumption with not more than 1% of free acidity.

How to avoid inferior products

After all that what can a consumer do as there is ample room for deception along the production chain.

Olive oil certificationIn the USA, not an official signatory to the standards prescribed by the IOC, not much as the product could easily have been diluted by other vegetable oils. However, if you look for the “COOC Certified Extra Virgin” seal from the California Olive Oil Council for California-made oils you will be on the safe side as their standards and certification program is even stricter than the IOC’s.

In Europe, you are also on your own as olive oils claimed to originate from Italy, considered to be of the best quality, are often mixed with olive oil from large producing countries like Spain, Greece or Turkey. You could look for a third party certification seal. In particular, the European Union’s Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), Italy’s Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP), Extra Virgin Alliance (EVA) and Consorzio Olivicolo Italiano (UNAPROL), the respected Italian olive growers’ association.

If you are in Australia or Chile or go for imported Australian or Chilean olive oil you are blessed. It is going to be fresh and untainted. Australia has the most stringent standards and a highly advanced testing system, and neither country mixes in carryover oil from the previous harvest.

Why is this important?

The most obvious fact is that you should get what you pay for.

Part of what makes virgin olive oil so valuable is its many touted health benefits. Rich in monounsaturated fats and antioxidants, olive oil can lower LDL cholesterol and blood pressure while stabilizing blood sugar levels and reducing inflammation in the body.

Olive oil on breadIf you pay for extra virgin olive oil because you prefer its taste and potential health benefits this is what you should get. It is nothing inherently wrong with ordinary olive oil except that the taste is more bland and the amount of beneficial antioxidants and polyphenols is significantly reduced.

If you are after high quality olive oil go for extra virgin on the label. Avoid anything labeled “virgin,” “light,” “pure,” or just “olive oil”.

If a label indicates the producer or estate, or the variety of olive used, it’s very likely genuine.

Look for a third-party certification seal, and avoid cheap deals, although expensive doesn’t automatically mean quality.

And trust your taste buds. Fraudulent olive oil might taste greasy, rancid, flavourless, or just not pleasant. Extra virgin olive oil should smell and taste green, bright, peppery, earthy and grassy. It might be too late to avoid the bargain olive oil you already purchased but at least you can avoid the brand in the future.

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The Mediterranean diet unfolded

Mediterranean diet with plenty of vegetables (Photo: Maria Pontiki)

Mediterranean diet with plenty of vegetables (Photo: Maria Pontiki)

Time to put some nuts in your salad or why not a dollop of olive oil. This is now supposed to be the secret combination explaining the beneficial effects of the Mediterranean diet. This diet, recognised as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage” by UNESCO in December 2013, was originally inspired by the traditional dietary patterns of Spain, Morocco, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Cyprus and Croatia. Well, Portugal might be a bit of a stretch and most of Morocco, but the rest of the countries are situated around the Mediterranean Sea, thus the name.

The Mediterranean diet is based on the paradox that, although the people living in Mediterranean countries tend to consume relatively high amounts of fat, they have far lower rates of cardiovascular disease than in countries like the United States with similar levels of fat consumption. The important components of this diet include proportionally high consumption of olive oil, legumes, unrefined cereals, fruits, and vegetables, moderate to high consumption of fish, moderate consumption of cheese and yoghurt, moderate wine consumption, and low consumption of meat and meat products.

What about olive oil and red wine?

The Mediterranean diet has often been cited as beneficial for being low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fat and dietary fibre. One of the main explanations is thought to be the health effects of olive oil included in the Mediterranean diet. It contains a very high level of monounsaturated fats, most notably oleic acid, which epidemiological studies suggest may be linked to a reduction in coronary heart disease risk. The inclusion of red wine has also been considered a factor contributing to health as it contains flavonoids with powerful antioxidant properties.

Studies have shown that a Mediterranean diet appears to be more effective than a low-fat diet in lowering cardiovascular risk factors, such as cholesterol and blood pressure, thereby lowering the rate of early deaths by more than 50 per cent.  One study reported that the Mediterranean diet reduced the risk of heart disease in people at high risk by about 30 per cent when compared with individuals on just a low fat diet. Sounds marvellous, doesn’t it?

Now before we go overboard here, let’s make it clear that not all people around the Mediterranean adhere to this diet. In Northern Italy, lard and butter are commonly used in cooking, and olive oil is reserved for dressing salads and cooked vegetables. In both North Africa and the Middle East, sheep’s tail fat and rendered butter are the traditional staple fats. In Egypt, Malta, and Israel, olive oil consumption is negligible. And on top of that, the most popular dietary candidate, olive oil, has been undermined by findings that diets enriched in monounsaturated fats such as olive oil are not atheroprotective when compared to diets enriched in either polyunsaturated or even saturated fats. So what’s going on here?

Nitro fatty acids lower blood pressure (Photo: Illuminati Owl)

Nitro fatty acids lower blood pressure (Photo: Illuminati Owl)

Nitro fatty acids explains the benefits

The answer now seems to be the formation of nitro fatty acids. A diet that combines unsaturated fats found in olive oil, nuts and avocados, along with vegetables like lettuce, spinach, celery and carrots that are rich in nitrates and indirectly nitrites can reduce blood pressure, suggests a new study led by King’s College London. When these two food groups are combined, the reaction of unsaturated fatty acids with nitrogen compounds in the vegetables results in the formation of nitro fatty acids. Studies in two types of mice showed that nitro fatty acids lower blood pressure by inhibiting an enzyme known as soluble Epoxide Hydrolase which regulates blood pressure.

So now you know why a diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil or nuts can reduce the incidence of cardiovascular problems like stroke, heart failure and heart attacks.

Time to indulge!

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