Before you can do any cooking, baking, or beauty product-making with olive oil, you should probably make sure you’ve got the real McCoy sitting in your pantry. In fact, about 80% of the Italian olive oil on the market is fraudulent.
According to Mother Jones, there are three main categories of fraud: 1) Mixing poorer quality olive oils into higher quality ones, 2) Bottling old—or even rancid—stock leftover from previous harvests and selling it as though it were fresh, and 3) Packaging products such as soybean or sunflower oils and foisting them off as olive.
So how can you tell if you’re buying the real deal? Food fraud expert Larry Olmsted offered this advice to Mother Jones:
– Look for the seal of approval from the California Olive Oil Council, as well as stamps of endorsement from the Extra Virgin Alliance (EVA) and UNAPROL, a respected Italian olive growers’ association.
– Choose oils from Chile or Australia, as the U.S. International Trade Commission gave those two countries the highest quality and purity reports in their across-the-board testing of olive oils.
– Buy oils packaged in a dark-colored bottle; light destroys the most vulnerable attributes of olive oil, and a legitimate olive oil maker wouldn’t put their product in a clear bottle.
Some nutrition gurus claim that our beloved heart-healthy olive oil becomes downright heart-harmful when heated to temperatures over its smoke point—which is 320 degrees for extra virgin olive oil and 420 degrees for virgin olive oil. However, according to olive oil expert Luisito Cercaci, olive oil won’t release harmful toxins.
What will happen, says nutritionist Bridget Bennett, is that olive oil—like all oils—will start to break down at a certain temperature. Much of the nutritional value we associate with olive oil, such as omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, are destroyed by the heating process. And if you’re buying pricier olive oils for their intensity and complexity of flavor, using them to deep-fry or wok cook means you’ll lose those subtleties anyway. For maximum health and flavor, reserve olive oil for quick sautés or as a finishing oil, and use something more heat-friendly, such as peanut or safflower oils for high-heat applications.
Many recipes recommend marinating vegetables and meats destined for the grill in olive oils and spices, or even brushing the grill grate with olive oil to prevent food from sticking. While doing this probably won’t hurt you, it’s also not doing you any favors when it comes to maximizing your grilling experience, as the olive oil will burn off, create flames, and may even make your food taste like gas if you’re using a gas grill, says chef Marc Vetri of Vetri and Alla Spina in Philadelphia.
While food doesn’t need any oil while on the grill, the grates do need to be well oiled prior to grilling. Vetri recommends something with a higher burning point, like vegetable or grape seed oil. Once your food is cooked, that’s when you hit it with a nice extra virgin.
According to gourmet olive oil purveyors Olivers & Co., in some baked goods, extra virgin olive oil can be substituted for butter or margarine. Just keep in mind that olive oil’s strong flavor can be an issue. If a delicate flavor profile is your goal, stick with butter. The same goes for anything that requires a lot of creaming together of butter and sugar (fluffy or super light cakes, such as angel food) or recipes in which the fat needs to remain a solid (i.e. frostings). For more savory or nutty baked goods, such as biscotti or muffins, olive oil might actually be exactly what you need. Olive oil also lends welcome complexity to quick breads and muffins made with fruits or vegetables like zucchini, pumpkin, orange, or cranberry.
Many people swear by olive oil as a hair conditioner, moisturizer, massage oil, and necessary ingredient in homemade soaps, lotions, salt scrubs, and other delights. And for the most part, those claims and devout followers are in the right. However, for all its redeeming qualities as a part of your daily bath and body regimen, olive oil can wreak havoc on skin already prone to breakouts and acne. That’s because olive oil is what’s known in skincare lingo as “comedogenic,” meaning it can clog pores. Experts recommend completely non-pore clogging sunflower oil, evening primrose oil, or argan oil instead.