Updated: May 19, 2019
There is only one true quality olive oil and that is Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO).
Virgin olive oil is a lower grade but is rarely available on the market.
Products labelled as “pure olive oil” or “light olive oil” are really a totally different product. They are NOT lower grades of natural olive oil.
These substances are a mixture of virgin olive oil with defects in aroma or flavor, and chemically rectified lampante products that can be very bad for your health.
They are artificially produced, often through industrialized processes that use steam, acids, alkalis, solvents and other chemical agents, or heat.
That may shock you, and so it should. The fact is that these products have “olive oil” on the label is quite misleading. They don’t contain the nutrients and goodness that EVOO does.
Another fact is that not all olives produce the same quality of oil. Roughly half the olives in the Mediterranean basin deliver oil of such poor quality that it has to be refined or rectified to make it saleable.
This poor quality oil might have severe organoleptic defects (defective flavor, aroma or color) or at worst even be unfit for human consumption due to high free fatty acids content.
How is extra virgin olive oil made?
There are two important factors in the productions method of EVOO
Only mechanical pressure is used to squeeze the juices from the olives. No chemical additives or processes can be involved.
The temperature is carefully maintained at under 30°C (86°F) to preserve the chemical composition. This is where the term “first cold pressed” originated.
If either of these constraints are breached, then the resulting product is not EVOO.
You can see that is a completely natural process that has changed little in thousands of years.
Grading olive oils
The International Olive Council is the recognized authority on all things to do with olive oil. This body sets the criteria that govern how producers may or may not grade their product.
In addition, local regulations – such as exist in the European Union – may also pass laws about aspects such as permitted wording on labels. The sensory and chemical characteristics must meet certain standards, and labelling too.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil meets or exceeds the highest quality standards of acidity, flavor and appearance. It is pressed from olives at low temperature with no chemical additives or processes.
Virgin olive oil is simply not quite as good as EVOO but is produced in exactly the same way.
Lampante olive oil is the lowest grade natural oil produced in the same way as EVOO and virgin olive oil. It’s deemed unfit for human consumption due to its high free fatty acids content.
Pure, Light etc. are all refined oils, made using heat and/or chemicals. They have little or no nutritional value. Any color or flavor is introduced by additives.
Why is olive oil refined?
Some olive oil is simply not as good as the best grades. In fact, these inferior oils (virgin olive oils) may have an ugly flavor or odor that makes them unsaleable. Refining strips out these undesirable features.
It results in oil that has no flavor or odor and is completely colorless. It also has practically none of the beneficial nutrients of EVOO, such as a high level of antioxidants.
Even worse, some oils come from waste or inedible products such as lampante olive oil. They can only be made suitable for human consumption by refining them a great deal.
Then the manufacturer makes it look and taste a little more like olive oil. That can be done by adding some virgin olive oil, or also by different species oil, such as sunflower or hazelnut.
Only then does it resemble a cooking oil that people might buy and use.
What happens when olive oil is refined
We will explain some of the steps in the refining process. Be warned that you may never want to use refined olive oil – the “pure” and “light” varieties – ever again after reading this.
Depending on what the manufacturer needs to do, say to rectify organoleptic defects (flavor, aroma, color) or reduce free fatty acids content, any or all of these processes might be used:
Water Degumming and/or Acid Degumming (with phosphoric acid) removes the gum, a type of fatty acid called phospholipids, which makes up a large proportion of all cell membranes. Healthful polyphenols are also removed by degumming.
Neutralization is necessary to remove free fatty acids by treating the oil with caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) that converts them insoluble soaps that are then separated by centrifugation.
Bleaching - The oil is heated to around 100°C (212°F) and mixed into a slurry with an acid-activated bleaching earth followed by filtration. That acid bleaching removes the pigments, metals and soaps that have formed.
Winterization (Dewaxing) - Waxes or saturated triacylglycerols (fatty acids) can cause the oil to be cloudy at normal storage temperature. This is unattractive to consumers. Therefore these compounds are removed to achieve a cosmetic improvement in appearance at room temperature or when refrigerated. The oil is chilled to make it into a solid and then filtered.
Deodorization by steam distillation is a severe process that removes volatile compounds that make up flavor and odor, amongst other features from neutralized bleached oil. It uses a stripping gas at high temperatures of up to 260°C (500°F) under tremendous pressure. Citric acid may be added to ensure stability during storage.
A final word on refined olive oil
It’s very obvious that nothing compares with Extra Virgin Olive Oil for sheer nutritional goodness. All refined foods have those health-giving benefits stripped out. That is why food nutritionists all over the world recommend against consuming them.
Everything from refined white flour to refined olive oil is processed to within an inch of its life simply to create a product that we consumers will pay money for. We really don’t know what we are eating when we use them.
Insist on Extra Virgin Olive Oil – the best and healthiest oil for cooking.