Did You Know?

Did You Know?




It is good to understand the different types or grades of olive oil to help you select the appropriate uses for this healthful and flavoursome type of fat. The basic types of olive oil are:

  • extra virgin olive oil
  • virgin olive oil
  • pure olive oil

There are other forms described below, but these are blends and are not part of the formal grading process.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Extra virgin olive oils are sometimes treated like fine wines, and, as with wines, some people will argue that no two olive groves will produce extra virgin olive oils that taste alike. The seasoned palate is able to detect distinctions in taste and aroma, and these subtleties are extensively discussed and intensely debated. To be certified for the “extra virgin” label, an olive oil should satisfy four criteria: it must be produced by mechanical extraction methods (no chemicals or hot water applied), come only from first cold-pressing, have an oleic acidity level of less than one percent, and must have a perfect taste. Acidity level is the most important factor that determines its grade. This is a measure of the percentage of free fatty acid content: the best oil has the lowest acidity. The oil should also be free from perceptible defects in taste or smell. Extra virgin olive oil is valued for its perfect balance in terms of flavour, aroma, colour, and acidity level. One reason extra virgin olive oil is prized so highly is its high content of vitamins and nutrients. Also, it is pure and without any additives. The fruitiness of its taste and the complexity of its aroma give it universal appeal. The light, delicate consistency of extra virgin olive oil makes it perfect for dressings. It is also the preferred oil for use in cooking by more discerning users.
Extra virgin olive oil comes in four sub-types:

  • Extra virgin olive oil (regular)
  • Organic extra virgin olive oil
  • Protected Designation of Origin (PDO)
  • Protected Geographical Indication (PGI)

Different extra virgin olive oils may share the same characteristics but there is marked variation in taste. There are many nuances, and connoisseurs categorise its flavours as mild (delicate, light, or buttery), semi-fruity (stronger, with more taste of olive), and fruity (oil with a strong olive flavour). If you wish to become familiar with the different olive oil flavours, you should try to taste as many of them as possible; one cost-effective way to do that is to split several large bottles of different extra virgin olive oils with your friends.

Virgin Olive Oil

Virgin olive oil also comes from the first pressing, and is also produced without refining. In a technical sense, virgin olive oil may have an acidity level of up to 3.3%, however, industry practice in the producing countries is to maintain under 2% acidity. Its flavour intensity can vary and its taste is less mild than extra virgin olive oil.

Pure Olive Oil

This is now simply called olive oil and is a blend of virgin olive oil and refined olive oil. Its label will bear the designation “pure” or “100% pure”. However, refined olive oil has very little vitamin E content. This is why producers need to add unrefined virgin olive oil to impart some of flavour, colour and aroma into the blend. The proportions of the two components may vary from one producer to another, depending on the flavour the producer desires to create.
Pure olive oil actually has the same acidity level as virgin olive oil, and for that reason it has good resistance to high temperatures. Its lower nutrient content than virgin olive oil makes it less expensive. It cannot be used for dressings and is better suited for heavy-duty, high-heat cooking.

Olive Pomace Oil

Pomace oil is the lowest grade of olive-based oils. Pomace is that part of the olive that remains after all the oil and water in it has been removed by pressuring or centrifuging processes. With the use of certain solvents, there is still some residual oil that can be extracted from the olive pomace. This oil may then be refined, which results in a product bereft of any specific taste or colour; it also contains none of olive oil’s vitamins. To make pomace oil acceptable to consumers, the producer blends it with virgin olive oil. As with pure olive oil, the producer may vary the proportions between the pomace oil and virgin olive oil; however, the virgin olive oil content is generally quite low. The blended product is called olive pomace oil. Like pure olive oil, it is suitable for use only in high-heat cooking.

Lite Oil

There are certain light-tasting, light-coloured oils containing minute proportions, if at all, of virgin oils. These are pure rectified oils called lite oils. They are being marketed with a particular slant that would have people believe that they are buying oils that have lower in fat or calorie content. The truth is, lite oils have 125 calories per tablespoon – exactly like all olive oils, and all fats, for that matter. Grading of olive oil is done, to a less significant degree, based on colour. Most olive-based oils have colours ranging from pale yellows to deep cloudy greens. The latter colour may indicate that the oil is from green, barely ripe olives – but not always. It is possible that an excess of olive leaves slipped into the crusher, sometimes inadvertently sometimes not, resulting in pale oils acquiring a deeper aura (which can give it a better price). The authentic green colour should indicate a wholesome, intensely fruity taste and freshness. Yellow oils indicate that the olives were black and ripe when they were picked late in the season, yielding a sweeter, rounder oil. However, a lighter colour may also signify oxidation arising from exposure to sunlight. If that happens, the delicate aromas and vitamin E content in such oils generally have suffered, and the oil may taste rancid. In general, olive oil is a good source of vitamin E and is rich in monounsaturated fats. However, extra virgin olive oil has the highest content levels of these healthful nutrients and has the most exquisite flavours. It should come as no wonder that extra virgin olive oil is known as the queen of oils.


Health Benefits of Olive Oil

The health benefits of olive oil have been recognised by many ancient physicians like Hippocrates, Galen, Dioscorides, and Diocles. In recent years, modern doctors and nutritionists have realised that extra virgin olive oil, particularly, contributes significant nutritional value to human health.
You should not be too surprised if you read that people in the Mediterranean region, where the bulk of olive oil is produced and enthusiastically consumed, have reaped immense health benefits from olive oil.

Olive Oil and Cholesterol

  • Researchers at the University of Minnesota, for one, have discovered that while Greek, Cretan and other Mediterranean men consumed almost as much dietary fat as Americans, they had much lower rates of heart disease. The difference was attributed to the Mediterranean’s consumption of extra virgin olive oil, which is largely monounsaturated fat.
  • Researchers at the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid in Spain found in a study that a diet rich in extra virgin olive oil helped to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and, perhaps more importantly, stimulated an increase in HDL (good) cholesterol.
  • Researchers at the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands discovered that simply following a low fat diet reduced total cholesterol but HDL cholesterol also declined; in contrast, a high fat diet based on extra virgin olive oil also reduced total cholesterol but HDL cholesterol actually increased.

This is all very good for those concerned about their cholesterol levels, especially the good HDL cholesterol, and the effects on the human circulatory system.

About Cholesterol

Cholesterol is not a water-soluble substance: it floats around in our bodies, attaching itself to proteins and making them lipoproteins. Two types of cholesterol are formed. LDL or low density lipoproteins, is the so-called “bad” cholesterol; it accumulates in bodily tissues and sticks to artery walls as plaque, causing arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) if left unchecked. The other type is HDL or high density lipoproteins, the “good” cholesterol, which helps prevent artery-clogging deposits. The levels of these two cholesterols are affected by the types of fat that we take in daily.

The structures of different fats are described as saturated, mono-unsaturated, and poly-unsaturated. Saturated fats come primarily from animal meats. They are thought the greatest damage to our health, because they increase levels of LDL resulting in arteriosclerosis.

Poly-unsaturated fats come mainly from vegetables, seeds, nuts, and grains. They lower the body’s overall cholesterol level, but to do so they reduce both LDL and HDL. You may want LDL lowered, but you would want HDL increased. There are also tests indicating that in higher doses polyunsaturated fats may do more damage than good, increasing the risk of nervous system problems, brain synapse connectivity, gall bladder stones, and perhaps even cancer, unless their action is controlled by antioxidants.

Monounsaturated fats are found in varying amounts in all fats. They lower LDL but promote increases in HDL. Thus, the best oil you can use is that has little saturated and polyunsaturated fats content but has plenty of monounsaturated fats.

Fortunately, such an oil exists: olive oil. In olive oil you find some of the lowest levels of saturated and polyunsaturated fats, averaging only 10 to 15% for saturated and 8 to 9% for polyunsaturated. More significantly, olive oil has by far the highest level of monounsaturated fat among all oils, about 75% to 80%.

Olive Oil and Rheumatoid Arthritis

A study in Greece showed that people who had the lowest lifetime consumption of extra virgin olive oil had two and a half times greater probability of developing rheumatoid arthritis than those with the highest lifetime consumption. If you know somebody who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, you must be familiar with the pain and inconvenience it can cause. A rheumatologist of the Arthritis Foundation, which did the research, cites that adding olive oil to your diet could help you protect yourself against rheumatoid arthritis. And, the spokesperson added, since the type of oil consumed in Greece is extra virgin olive oil, that offers additional protection.

Olive Oil and Antioxidants

Among the major components of extra virgin olive oil are antioxidants. Olive oil provides beta carotene (pro-vitamin A) and tocopherol (vitamin E) which are excellent buffers of acids produced in the gastrointestinal tract and those resulting from body metabolism. Extra virgin olive oil contains 88% of its vitamin E in the form of alpha-tocopherol, which is easily synthesised by the body. These are very important antioxidants that prevent the oxidation of LDLs. Such oxidation can cause damage to ordinary cells, nerve cells and arteries and lead to arteriosclerosis, coronary heart disease, or even cancer.

Olive Oil and Aging

Medical studies have indicated that diets which are deficient in vitamin E accelerate the breakdown of certain fatty acids, a process which invariably leads to aging. The vitamin E content in olive oil is thought to provide a defence against such effects, and thus help maintain mental faculties and muscular control longer and better. Among other benefits, the vitamin A helps prevent and minimise the development of skin wrinkles. As we get older, our digestive capacity becomes markedly reduced resulting in more difficulty to absorb nutrients from food, especially vitamins and minerals. Olive oil is very digestible and its nutrients are easier to digest. It also has beneficent effects in aiding digestion and stimulating the appetite. Another problem associated with aging – bone calcification – can be rectified by olive oil consumption. Studies have shown that a diet containing enough oleates as well as a moderate supply of essential fatty acids is needed for healthy bone mineralisation – a process that aids the developing bones in children and prevents calcium loss in adults.

Olive Oil, good for every body function

Olive oil is nature’s storehouse of many healthful nutrients like vitamins A, E, D and K. Other nutrients found in olive oil are:

  • Magnesium-rich chlorophyll encourages formation of healthy red blood cells.
  • Squalene, a precursor to phytoesterols, helps reduce acidity.
  • Phytoesterols (in the form of beta-sitosterol) assists in preventing cholesterol absorption.
  • Caffeic and gallic nutrients stimulate the flow of bile which helps alkalise food coming out of the stomach, reducing stress on the pancreas.
  • Phenolic compounds protect against fermentation of fats and cholesterol, and may promote higher production of fat-digesting enzymes in the pancreas.
  • Cycloartenol lowers the amount of cholesterol in free circulation and increases excretion of bile to mop up excess acidity and increase alkalinity of the food coming out of the stomach.

Olive Oil has been shown to have beneficial effects on virtually every aspect of body function, development and maintenance, including brain development, bone structure, digestion, aging process, the condition of skin and hair, metabolism, and on plaque formation in the blood vessels.

There is so much scientific evidence now that establishes the health benefits of olive oil. You will be hard put to find any other food that has so many positive effects on so many different parts of the body and their functions.

These health benefits can be derived from all forms of olive oil; however, refined oils undergo a lot of high temperatures during processing which destroys or alters the antioxidants, and thus have very little, if any, vitamins left. In order to gain the maximum medicinal benefit, you should use only Extra Virgin olive oil


There is something surprisingly modest about olive trees, given their noble history and legendary reputation, going back far before biblical times. For an American, the first time you meet the tree in person, you may well be shocked by the extraordinary ordinariness of it. Its shape and proportions are remarkably reminiscent of a dowdy, good-natured housewife - the kind who greets you in a tattered apron, with a disarming smile. Quite often, there is nothing particularly breathtaking or impressive about the tree’s height or girth; nothing striking or exotic about its leaves or fragrance. And if you ever get a chance to climb one to pick its fruit - which is remarkably easy to do, given how short and accommodating the younger trees are - the feeling will no doubt remind you of climbing into the lap of a favorite old aunt, the one who’d benignly allow you to yank at her necklace without a hint of protest or resistance.

But for most Mediterranean people, the olive tree has been seen throughout history as almost holy - a symbol of peace, victory, and the endurance of life itself - evoking feelings of bonhomie, vitality, and health. The ancient trees grow in wondrous, tangled ways, with trunks resembling characters in fairy tales. The olive tree is one of the heartiest of all trees on the planet: able to survive salt water, adapting itself to almost any sunny and temperate environment, able to thrive in most soils, retaining its leaves year round, and living in some cases more than a thousand years, occasionally bearing fruit for centuries. In Greek mythology, Zeus pronounced Athena the victor in a competition because it was she who had bestowed upon mankind the most useful plant of all: the olive tree. These ancient trees, which originated in the region that is today called Turkey, have had a huge impact on all the important civilizations of the Mediterranean for at least 4000 years - providing food, medicinal potions, and the most nourishing of oils. Today there are 500 different “cultivars” or varieties of olives. Spain is the world’s largest producer of extra virgin olive oil, with dozens of different geographical denominations recognized by the European Union.


Like wine grapes, olives do not go well with mechanization. It’s a fact that the quality of the oil decreases with the increase of mechanization and electric tools because the more gently the olives are treated the better the resulting oil. The high quality oils normally are obtained by hand picking the olives directly into a basket (brucatura) - the best method of all but the least efficient and so the most costly. Picking “by hand with a net” (a mano con telo) is the next best method, with 50% more production resulting than when just a basket is used. By hand with a net, with the help of plastic rakes (pettini) and sometimes long wooden sticks, is probably the most common method. Electric-powered tools for harvesting olives do exist, but the branches and olives can suffer. In some flat areas which have huge olive trees, special large machines that shake the trees are sometimes used. There are also monstrous machines that work something like a car wash, enveloping the whole tree and then actually sucking off all the olives. But in Italy, most harvests by hand with the help of nets, ladders and rakes.
The weather at the time of harvest is of great importance, and experienced farmers know when it’s the right moment to start - before the wet, cold days of fall set in. It’s impossible to pick olives in rain, wind, or fog for many reasons: besides the obvious dangers and difficulties of climbing trees and ladders in wind and rain, moisture can cause the olives to spoil in their crates before they are taken to the mill, or frantoio, for pressing. Fortunately, Italy is usually blessed with many splendid, sunny fall days for harvesting olives, and this year was no exception.

Generally, one to three people work on a tree, first laying down the net, which is slit in the middle, like a pair of pants, so that it fits nicely around the base of the tree, like a bib. Nowadays the nets are made of nylon, but years ago, burlap was used. One person starts on the upper branches, while the other(s) work on the lower ones. With your hands - you slide the olives gently down the branch, as if sliding beads off a necklace, and just allow them to drop where they may onto the net below. Both the green and the black are harvested; a mix of the two makes for the most flavorful olive oil. The tree offers no resistance - no thorns, no tug of war - there is an almost effortless, childlike easiness to the process. The day’s work progresses amidst gossip, jokes, and the pleasant sound of olives plopping onto the net below in a soft rain of purple, black, yellow and green - sometimes falling at an impressive pace, gently bouncing off your head, rolling down your shirt, or into your pockets. Of course, some - well, many really - do get away, bouncing outside the net, seemingly happy to roll away down the yellow hills on a gorgeous November day.

Olive harvesting for those who have a few hundred trees or less is a family affair in much of Italy. Hiring workers is difficult due to the endemic lack of young people in rural areas nowadays and strict labor and immigration laws. So, it is often family members or friends living in cities who come to help pick the olives by hand. It’s a great way to get together and give a hand to the farmers, who are often elderly and proud and very attached to their beloved olive trees. People from other countries, many with second homes in Italy, love this experience and help vigorously and whole-heartedly, often with more enthusiasm than the locals. These gatherings are usually filled with warmth and joy - especially during lunches, where, depending on the weather, cured meats such as salsicce, capocollo, lombetto and prosciutto crudo, and pecorino (cheese) are served, with plenty of local wine and delicious bread. On cold days, a warm “zuppa di farro” (spelt soup), “zuppa di ceci” (garbanzo bean soup) or “pasta e fagioli” (cannellini or borlotti bean soup) regenerates the old and the young. Nobody gets paid here; the reward is the joy of being in nature and a part of the magnificent countryside, having some fun (attested to by the cuts and bruises that you would normally expect only to see on seven-year-olds) and eventually, after the pressing, collecting at least a few bottles of that green elixir that everybody here simply calls… olio.


Ideally, after they are harvested, the olives will be stored in their crates for just a day before they are brought to the frantoio. At the mill, local farmers, friends and helpers meet and chat about their yield, the weather and how this year’s harvest compares with last. But, everyone is very concerned about their olives and often stays there during the whole process out of eagerness and anticipation, and just to ensure that the olive oil they end up with is indeed from their batch of olives. Mills are operated during the day and sometimes part of the night to accommodate the need of farmers to press the olives as fast as possible; people must book in advance. The scene is reminiscent of a busy copy shop at mid-term when papers are due - an excited tension fills the place, people comparing their olives with others, and watching over things to make sure there are no snags or mix-ups.

Two things are of primary concern for every farmer when taking the olives to the frantoio: the yield of oil obtained per quintal (100 kg, or 220 lbs) of olives, which varies every year, and the percent of acidity - lower than .8% classifies it as extra virgin. The entire milling process must be done at a very low temperature, in order that the nutritious elements, color and flavor are preserved. So, the mills - which are often quite spacious as ventilation is needed - are not exactly warm places to hang out. It’s usually cold outside, and just as cold inside, but nonetheless the mood is usually festive and friendly.

The olives go through a few basic processes at the frantoio, all done mechanically - washing, grinding, mixing, pressing, separation and stocking. First the olives are washed, eliminating all the stray leaves and stems. Next comes grinding or hammering (martellatura, this is the step when the olives, including their pits, are crushed into an olive paste. Next comes mixing, a crucial phase that must be done slowly and well to ensure the ultimate uniformity of the oil. This is the moment in which the air is filled with a wonderful fragrance and aroma. After the mixing, comes the pressing,the juices are separated into three parts: oil, vegetable water and pomace (sansa), which is ejected into the outer part of the decanter. There is a further centrifugal process of separation in which the heavier water is removed from the oil. Finally, the precious, unfiltered extra-virgin olive oil pours out of a tube that drains into a steel container where it will be stocked in a cool place before bottling.

Extra–virgin olive oil is the oil that comes out of the first pressing. It is considered one of the few truly healthy oils because it is a mono-unsaturated fat with high amounts of potent anti-oxidants, and a low content of cholesterol.

Eating it regularly is now believed to actually reduce the risk of coronary heart disease; the lower incidence of heart disease associated with the Mediterranean diet is attributed to the consumption of olive oil in that region. Pouring the oil directly over food - such as salads, vegetables, pasta, bread - as well as cooking with it, and even rubbing it directly into the skin produces many health benefits.

But, the best thing about olive oil is its taste - which is utterly unique, giving Italian regional cuisine its distinctive character. The ways it is used in the Italian cucina (kitchen) are seemingly endless - whether crudo (uncooked) or as the basis for an infinite number of antipasti, sauces and pasta preparations, and main courses. Olive oil enhances the taste of just about anything it accompanies, lending its own flavor to any dish in which it is used - sometimes imperceptively. In central and southern Italy, and also in Liguria and around Garda Lake, every region, every piece of land - almost every hill! - has its own particular olio: some have a delicate taste, some are corposi (full-bodied), and some could almost be described as tangy or spicy. For most Italians, olive oil is as essential to their diet, their lives and sense of well-being as wine and pasta. Today with the availability of products that once could only be found locally, it’s possible to recreate the same unforgettable dishes found in Italy in your own kitchen.

Refining Olive Oil Process