Why extra virgin olive oil is not so innocent: journalist Tom Mueller on Q

First aired on Q (13/1/12)
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In Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece Godfather trilogy, family patriarch Vito Corleone starts an olive oil business as a front for his dealings in the underworld. But today a young and ambitious crook would do just the opposite: it would be the olive oil part of the business that he would keep under wraps. Journalist Tom Mueller has spent the past five years investigating the olive oil industry, and was on Q last week to speak with guest host Jim Brown about the shocking discoveries he writes about in his book Extra Virginity.

For example, did you know that olive oil is the most adulterated substance in the European Union? Because of that, and some lax enforcement in North America, the stuff you see on supermarket shelves may not be exactly as advertised. "Cold-pressed" could mean that industrial solvents were used to remove the last drops of oil from olive waste. "Extra virgin," meanwhile, could mean something altogether unmentionable.

We use olive oil to sauté, marinate, and drizzle, and we count on it being good for our heart, but we might not be getting what we're paying for... because we're not paying enough for it, according to Mueller. In fact, sometimes what's in that bottle might not have ever been near an olive. "The basic low-grade method is to take a cheap vegetable oil, colour it with chlorophyll, flavour it with beta keratin to give it a taste, and sell that as olive oil," he says. It's your basic buy-low, sell-high scam. "That's quite common in food service, but not quite as common in retail."

But don't relax just yet: the olive oil you're buying off the shelf is prone to a different sham. "Deodorized" olive oil is a very low-quality, low-grade olive oil that's been cleansed of all its bad smells and bad tastes (and most of its good smells and tastes, and nutritional value as well), flavoured with a little bit of real EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) and sold as the real thing. "The latter, although made from olives, is no less damaging to the producers of real olive oil, and doesn't give the consumer the nutritional bang for their buck that they were expecting when they bought the olive oil," says Mueller.

This is not simply a "food geek" desire for fancy flavours, says Mueller. With olive oil, he says, the "taste quality" is strongly indicative of the oil's health value. Likewise, if the FDA in the United States endorses the health value of olive oil, they have a moral obligation to police what's in that bottle, to make sure it lives up to the standards of real olive oil.

But what's a home cook to do? How can you be sure the oil you're buying was squeezed from actual olives? Until labeling laws become more stringently enforced, you can't be certain, but there are some clues to go by, says Mueller. First, don't buy oil that comes in a clear glass or plastic bottle: Light is the enemy of fresh oil and will cause it to go bad more quickly. Look for a label that mentions a specific place that the olives were grown: none of this vague "made in Italy" or "bottled in Greece" shim sham. If the bottle includes a harvest date, it's a great sign the producers are serious about freshness (don't confuse this with a "best buy" date).

Ultimately, Mueller thinks that olive oil should be policed much more stringently, because without any kind of oversight, the industry will just take the shortest line to short-term profits, at the expense of quality and ethics.

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Extra Virginity

by Tom Mueller

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But what if this symbol of purity has become deeply corrupt? Starting with an explosive article in The New Yorker, Tom Mueller has become the world's expert on olive oil and olive oil fraud-a story of globalization, deception, and crime in the food industry from ancient times to the present, and a powerful indictment of today's lax protections against fake and even toxic food products in the United States. A rich and deliciously readable narrative, Extra Virginity is also an inspiring account of the artisanal producers, chemical analysts, chefs, and food activists who are defending the extraordinary oils that truly deserve the name "extra-virgin."

Read more at W. W. Norton