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Exotic Spices, Food and Technology

Extra-virgin olive oil is a universal ingredient in Greek Cooking, Italian recipes, Middle Eastern Recipes and religious rituals and beauty products. Sadly many of the bottles labelled "extra-virgin olive oil" on supermarket shelves have been mixed and shouldn't be classified as extra-virgin, according to New Yorker contributor Tom Mueller.

Mueller's new book is called, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, chronicles how distributors have added lower-priced, lower-grade oils and artificial colouring to extra-virgin olive oil, before passing the new adulterated substance along the supply chain. (One olive oil producer told Mueller that 50 present of the olive oil sold in the United States is, in some ways, adulterated.)

The term "extra-virgin olive oil" means the olive oil has been made from crushed olives and is not refined in any way by chemical solvents or high heat. It also means that the acidity test must be very low to be considered “Extra Virgin Olive Oil”

"The legal definition simply says it has to pass certain chemical tests, and in a sensory way it has to taste and smell vaguely of fresh olives, because it's a fruit, and have no faults," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "But many of the extra-virgin olive oils sold in USA today in don't clear [the legal definition]."

Extra-virgin olive oil wasn't created until stainless steel milling techniques were introduced in the 1960s and '70s. The technology allowed people to make much more refined olive oil.

"In the past, the technology that had been used had been used really by the Romans," says Mueller. "You grounded the olives with stone mills [and] you crushed them with presses."

The introduction of stainless steel milling techniques has allowed manufacturers to make more complex and flavourful extra-virgin olive oils, however, the process is likewise is extremely expensive — it is also expensive to properly store and mill extra-virgin olive oil. Mueller says that's why some people blend extra-virgin olive oil with lower-grade, lower-priced products.

"Naturally the truthful suppliers are getting terribly undercut," he says. "There's a huge unfair advantage in favour of the bad stuff. At the same time, consumers are being defrauded of the health and culinary benefits of great olive oil."

Bad or rancid olive oil loses the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of olive oil, says Mueller. "What [good olive oil] gets you from a health perspective is a cocktail of 200+ highly beneficial ingredients that explain why olive oil has been the heart of the Mediterranean diet," he says. "Bad olives have free radicals and impurities, and then you've lost that wonderful cocktail ... that you get from fresh fruit, from real extra-virgin olive oil."

Book Description
The best Italian extra-virgins are made by authentic artist-craftsmen, who combine traditional farm wisdom and cutting-edge extraction technology to produce the finest oils in history. Despite the unprecedented quality and popularity of their oils, however, top Italian producers are being steadily driven from the market by fraud. Extra-virgin olive oil is difficult and expensive to make, yet alarmingly easy to adulterate with inferior grades of olive oil, cheap seed and nut oils, or worse. Skilled oil criminals are flooding the market with low-cost, faux extra-virgins, reaping rich profits and undercutting honest producers. Yet the Italian government does little to fight this corruption. Extravirginity introduces olive oil's saints and sinners, whose conflicts, over the next decade, will determine the fate of quality olive oil worldwide: a feisty pugliese woman of sixty struggling to keep the family business afloat; her mafiosa neighbour who has grown wealthy on adulterated oil; a terminally-ill manager from Milan who is dedicating his last years to preserving high-quality olive oil; and a Catholic priest in Sicily who harvests olives and makes oil on lands confiscated from Cosa Nostra, despite regular death-threats. Extravirginity is rich with classical allusion, with the integral cultural significance of olive oil, and the passion of those who produce it.

About the Author
Tom Mueller lives in Liguria, Italy with his wife and three children. Educated at Oxford and Harvard, he is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, and also writes for National Geographic Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, and The Atlantic Monthly.

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