In light of the recent New England Journal of Medicine study about the power of the Mediterranean diet to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, extra-virgin olive oil sales are bound to spike.
In the study, subjects who consumed a Mediterranean diet (think lots of olive oil, fruits, nuts, veggies, cereals, moderate amounts of fish and poultry and wine, but few dairy products, red or processed meats and sweets) plus more nuts or extra extra-virgin olive oil reduced their risk of cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke) by 30 percent, compared to subjects on a low-fat diet.
But what is extra-virgin oil exactly and how can you get the best deal on it? To find out, I talked with David Mahaffy, president of Candor AGS, a Fresno-CA-based company that partners with olive oil growers in Tuscany to bring the highest-quality olive oil to the American market. Here are a few facts about this healthy fat that might help guide your buying decisions.
Extra-virgin olive oil is the cream of the crop. Extra-virgin olive oil is high quality olive juice. What classifies it as extra virgin is its acidity. “EVOO” must have an acidity of no more than .8 percent (acidity affects flavor). EVOO also must be free of defects, such as mustiness or mold.
Olive oil labels have all kinds of confusing info. Terms like “extra light” or “first cold press,” don’t mean anything. What really matters is the harvest date. Unlike red wine, “olive oil doesn’t get better with age,” Mahaffy says. The closer you buy olive oil to its harvest date, the better is it. Unfortunately, though, only 5 percent of the extra virgin olive oil sold in the U.S. has a harvest date stamped on the label, which tells you when the olives were picked.
Still, it’s worth looking for. In lieu of a harvest date, the label may have a press date. That’s good information too. It signals when the olives were pressed. Ideally, compare and pick an extra virgin olive oil with a harvest or press date nearest to the day you’re shopping. The “Best Buy” date, which is on every EVOO label, doesn’t mean much. It indicates how long the product has been in a bottle. “Olive oil can sit for a year in holding tanks before it’s bottled,” Mahaffy says. It’s perfect edible. Still, the freshness clock starts ticking as soon as the olives are picked.
To get the best deal, buy private label olive oil. Store-brand extra-virgin olive oil can be just as good as name-brand olive oil. In fact, “private label manufacturers may put more effort into the quality of their product, to exceed industry standards, because store brands are perceived to be inferior,” Mahaffy says. Bottom line? “You don’t have to pay a lot to buy good quality olive oil.” Stock up at sale time or buy the store brand to save an average of 30 percent. And go ahead and use extra-virgin olive oil in cooking.
It’s not just for salad dressing anymore!