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The Olive Oil Scandal

By Raymond Francis

Reprinted from Beyond Health Copyright 1998

For more than a decade I have advised people to substitute olive oil for the regular oils available in the supermarket. Good advice. But here's the problem: trying to find real olive oil is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Olive oil has been part of the human diet for more than 5000 years. These millennia of human experience plus modem research indicate that olive oil is beneficial to health and that we can safely include it in our diet. In fact, olive oil has been singled out as contributing to the health of Greek centenarians. But, to get the same health effects as the Greek centenarians, the oil has to be made the way they made it. The problem is most of the olive oil on the market does not duplicate what our ancestors were eating, and people are not getting what they think they are buying. Almost all olive oil is processed in ways that result in the loss of nutrients which are essential to health.

Olive oil is almost unique among oils in that it can be consumed in the crude form without refining. This has the effect of conserving all its vitamins, essential fatty acids, and other nutrients. Because it contains all these nutrients, including powerful antioxidants, real extra virgin olive oil is beneficial to health and protects us from damage by free radical oxidation. Cell membranes contain fatty acids that are highly susceptible to free radical damage. This damage produces lipid peroxides that can kill the cell. Real olive oil contains polyphenols, vitamin E, and other natural antioxidants that prevent this damage.

Numerous studies show that olive oil reduces cholesterol, lowers blood pressure, inhibits platelet aggregation, and lowers the incidence of breast cancer. Because it is so rich in antioxidants, olive oil appears to dramatically reduce the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, thereby preventing heart disease. These same antioxidants also add to the stability, shelf life, and flavor of the oil.

Historically, high quality olive oil, rich in antioxidants, was easy to obtain, but not any more. Today, high quality oil is available only in relatively small quantities, usually from family owned farms, where the oils are produced in ways similar to how the Greeks and Romans made theirs. On these farms, olives are picked by hand so as not to damage the skin or pulp. They are transported in well aerated containers and milled within 48 hours of harvesting. Before milling, leaves and twigs are removed, the olives washed and dried, and then stone pressed the same way as it was done in antiquity. The resulting olive paste was then pressed in a hydraulic press without the use of heat, hot water, or solvents. The oil is left unfiltered as filtering removes many nutrients. The first pressing produces the best "extra virgin" oil.

The problem with most of today's olive oil is that it is rarely produced in the old way, which is more time consuming and expensive. Due to the increasing demand for olive oil, the trend has been to reduce production costs by moving toward more automation and concentration of production in ever larger installations. These modem factories extract more oil more cheaply, but their processing methods substantially reduce the nutritional quality of the oil.

To reduce costs, olives are machine harvested along with leaves and twigs. Olives that have dropped on the ground, which can be said to contain bad oil, are often mixed with the good ones. They are shipped in all kinds of containers, many of which are poorly ventilated, and heaped in large piles where the olives are stored for too long and often become moldy. The oil is then extracted in a continuous centrifuge where hot water is used to help separate out the oil.

Antioxidant polyphenols are soluble in water and are washed away in this process, thereby lowering the shelf life and the nutritional quality of the oil. Italy alone produces 800,000 cubic meters of waste water per year from this process. Because substantial amounts of antioxidants are washed away, factory produced olive oils have a short shelf life of only months, whereas real olive oil lasts for two to three years. Factory produced olive oil is filtered and looks clear. Real olive oil is not filtered and looks cloudy.

Most people think that by purchasing "extra virgin" olive oil they are getting a high quality oil.

Unfortunately, in most cases, this is not true. It's more complex than that. A label reading extra virgin is no guarantee of quality. For one thing, nowhere does it say that extra virgin olive oil has to be made 100% from olives. An major criterion for grading olive oil is its level of acidity. Extra virgin oil should have a free oleic acid acidity of no more than one percent, whereas ordinary virgin olive oil can have an acidity of up to 3.3 percent.

Lower quality oils can be refined to bring the acidity down so they can be labeled as extra virgin. But now the oil has been refined, and that's not what you want. That's why being labeled extra virgin is no guarantee of getting high quality oil, which has not been processed in ways that reduce its nutritional value. To complicate matters even more, the term "extra virgin" has no official meaning in the United States. The U.S. is not a member of the International Olive Oil Council. So, olive oil sold here can be labeled extra virgin without meeting the accepted international standards.

Another reason why you can't trust extra virgin olive oil is exemplified by a problem that manifested last year, and may turn out to be the biggest food fraud of the 20th Century. Despite the fact that details of this scandal have been published in Merum, a Swiss-German magazine, and in Italian journals such as Agra Trade, and the newspaper Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno, this information has been successfully suppressed and is known to only a handful. Investigators are gathering evidence indicating that the biggest olive oil brands in Italy have for years been systematically diluting their extra virgin olive oil with cheap, highly-refined hazelnut oil imported from Turkey. International arrest warrants have been issued and so far documents indicate that at least ten thousand tons of hazelnut oil are involved. As much as 20% hazelnut oil can be added to olive oil and still be undetectable to the consumer. In fact olive oil labeled "Italian" often comes from Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco, Spain, and Greece. Considering what has happened in Europe, where there are strict regulations, imagine what can happen in California where there are no regulations. Apparently, more oil is "produced" in California than there are olives available. The truth is, most of the extra virgin olive oil on the market does not supply all the nutritional value and health giving properties that we have a right to expect from olive oil.

This is scary stuff when you consider how extremely important oil is to human health. Our modem chronic disease problems are the result of radically changing, in a short period of time, the fundamental parameters of human existence, namely: diet, environment, and behavior. One of the most fundamental changes in our diet has been the kind and the amount of fats and oils that we consume. For example, the consumption of hydrogenated oils has proved to be a disaster for human health. Hydrogenated oils have been implicated in both our cancer and heart disease epidemics. In fact, all modem processed oils are injurious to human health. To reverse our pandemic of chronic disease, we have to return to eating a more traditional diet, and high quality olive oil can safely be included in that diet. It's not so much that olive oil should be added to the diet as much as healthy, real olive oil should be used to replace the unhealthy, processed oils now being consumed.

How does one ensure that they are eating the most healthful oil? Find an extra virgin olive oil that is cold pressed, unfiltered, and looks cloudy. The oil should be packaged in dark glass bottles to protect it from the damaging effects of light. Real olive oil is still made in small estate bottled settings. The challenge is to find one that does it! all right.

After selecting the oil, it has to be stored properly. When properly stored, real extra virgin olive oil can last two to three years. Because of processing, most of the extra virgin oil on the market has a shelf life of only a few months. A good rule of thumb is to purchase oil in small bottles and consume it within a year of purchase; this will also ensure getting the best flavor. Store the oil away from both heat and light.

Storing in a dark place is important because exposure to light will start a chain reaction that will destroy the oil a thousand times faster than oxygen. During storage, olive oil oxidizes and undergoes a slow, continuous, and irreversible deterioration until it becomes inedible.

The bottom line is that modem, factory- produced olive oil has been stripped of its health enhancing nutrients, and the task of selecting a high quality oil has been made very difficult. That's why Beyond Health has made the selection process easier for you. We have searched for a high quality, estate bottled oil that meets our standards and we have found one. The brand name is Bariani. It's produced by the Bariani family on a small farm in the central valley of California. Their olives are grown without pesticides.

They are hand picked from the trees, carefully washed and dried, and milled with a stone wheel within 48 hours of harvesting. It is pressed in a hydraulic press, collected in stainless steel vats, decanted, and bottled.

This first cold pressed oil is the real stuff and retains all the natural flavor and goodness. Bariani is used by chefs in a number of fine restaurants. It is available at selected specialty food stores in California, and from Beyond Health.

Raymond Francis is an M. L T.-trained scientist and an internationally recognized leader in the emerging field of optimal health maintenance.

Reprinted with permission from: Beyond Health News Subscriptions: Call 800-250-3063

 

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