Olive Crazy: All About Olives and Olive Oil
Jan 292014
 
I hope I get a good grade cuz I want to wear this great hat.

I hope I get a good grade cuz I want to wear this great hat.

Ever since returning from San Francisco where I attended the Italian National Olive Oil Tasting School (O.N.A.O.O.) mini-class I’ve been looking into different published sources on sensory and chemical evaluation of olive oil. Articles are abundant, but I’ve never before stumbled upon a U.S. student paper on the subject (more on the paper in a few paragraphs).

Olive oil quality and the health benefits of olive oil are definitely top issues these days. Not only do professionals disagree on many aspects surrounding what determines quality and health value, but the testing of quality and content are major battlegrounds. This lack of agreement and coordination, which is due to territoriality and money-making, causes confusion in the general population. Most certainly the losers in all this are the consumers of olive oil since they are being bombarded with a plethora of inaccurate, biased and sensational information ranging from ‘what constitutes extra virgin olive oil’ to ‘the higher the phenolic content the better the olive oil.’

A great example of the quality-confusion messaging comes from the New York Times in a slideshow entitled “Extra Virgin Suicide.” While the infographics are kind of cool they are also dangerously simplistic, using inaccurate and incorrect data to support the activities depicted in the final few slides.

Yes, some olive oil is adulterated (mixed with non-olive oils). Yes, olive oil from other countries is milled and then bottled in Italy. Yes, some extra virgin olive oils are mixed with inferior olive oils. No, the Italian police do not regularly raid refineries. No, the price of olive oil has little to do with any of the actions described in the slides, but is part of a complicated bigger picture.

There IS a problem with quality but there is a worse problem with correctly educating consumers and the general public. Why? Because you get the paper below, an example of what will pass into the world of publications to be found on the internet as facts regarding the health benefits of phenolic compounds in olive oil.

Yes, the phenols found in virgin olive oils provide health benefits in humans, but the only strong evidence involves eating unrefined olive oil in combination with certain foods, hence The Mediterranean Diet. The evidence that higher concentrations of phenolic compounds in olive oil are better for people does not exist (if there is such a study, I invite you to send it to me). What I found most interesting about this paper is the assumption that higher phenolic content equals greater sensory appeal and by default better health value.

Here is where I present the paper mentioned in the title. It is called Quality of Olive Oils Available Locally: Chemical, Sensory and Market Investigations and is by Madeleine M. Gould, a B.S. Nutrition student at the University of New Hampshire College of Life Sciences and Agriculture.

Abstract link

Paper link

After reading this paper I found that I could not fault the student for her assumptions since there is so much incorrect information out there. However, I do place blame elsewhere. I place it squarely on the shoulders of the scientists who fudge the data that places their ‘miracle’ food on grocery shelves. I blame the olive oil producer that sends tons of rotted fruit through the mill and instead of refining it and selling it as ordinary olive oil adds coloring agents. I blame the ambitious naifs whose conceit and greed leads them to blindly blunder about altering political and economic landscapes just enough to allow all those who wish ill to shove a foot in the door. I blame those who by action or inaction promote olive oil fraud.

May the sun shine through your branches.

www.olivecrazy.com

  4 Responses to “My Opinion and a Student’s Senior Thesis on Olive Oil Quality”

Comments (4)
  1. Hi Mary,

    You wrote,

    Yes, the phenols found in virgin olive oils provide health benefits in humans, but the only strong evidence involves eating unrefined olive oil in combination with certain foods, hence The Mediterranean Diet. The evidence that higher concentrations of phenolic compounds in olive oil are better for people does not exist (if there is such a study, I invite you to send it to me). What I found most interesting about this paper is the assumption that higher phenolic content equals greater sensory appeal and by default better health value.

    I’m surprised to hear that you’ve gotten this impression. There are actually quite a few studies available to show this: controlled trials in which subjects are fed (or are asked to eat) the same diet, except that one group gets a higher- and one group a lower-phenolic EVOO (or, a refined oil, the principle effect of which refining is of course to strip out the phenolic content). Without burying you in a mountain of such reports, examples include more powerful effects on things like blood pressure,(1) oxidized LDL cholesterol (the “baddest of the bad” fraction of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which is most likely to form plaques in your arteries),(1-8) inflammation,(9) and factors regulating blood clotting.(10)

    These studies show that the subjects consuming the higher-phenolic oil enjoy greater beneficial effects on health risk factors and metabolic state than do the subjects getting the lower-phenolic oil. And because the subjects in both groups are eating the same diet, the effect can’t be attributed to the Med diet per se (even if the two groups are indeed consuming a Med diet in some of the studies), but can only be attributed to the different phenolic contents of the oil, because that is the thing that is different between the groups in the experiment.

    Of course, it’s healthier to consume such a Med diet with a particular olive oil (high or low phenolic) than some other diet — but it’s healthier to consume a high-phenolic olive oil than a low-phenolic olive oil, independent of the rest of the diet. And best of all is a high-phenolic olive oil as part of a complete Med diet.

    References
    1. Moreno-Luna R, Muñoz-Hernandez R, Miranda ML, Costa AF, Jimenez-Jimenez L, Vallejo-Vaz AJ, Muriana FJ, Villar J, Stiefel P. Olive oil polyphenols decrease blood pressure and improve endothelial function in young women with mild hypertension. Am J Hypertens. 2012 Dec;25(12):1299-304. doi: 10.1038/ajh.2012.128. Epub 2012 Aug 23. PubMed PMID: 22914255.
    2. de la Torre-Carbot K, Chávez-Servín JL, Jaúregui O, Castellote AI, Lamuela-Raventós RM, Nurmi T, Poulsen HE, Gaddi AV, Kaikkonen J, Zunft HF, Kiesewetter H, Fitó M, Covas MI, López-Sabater MC. Elevated circulating LDL phenol levels in men who consumed virgin rather than refined olive oil are associated with less oxidation of plasma LDL. J Nutr. 2010 Mar;140(3):501-8. doi: 10.3945/jn.109.112912. Epub 2010 Jan 20. PubMed PMID: 20089783.
    3. de la Torre-Carbot K, Chávez-Servín JL, Jaúregui O, Castellote AI, Lamuela-Raventós RM, Nurmi T, Poulsen HE, Gaddi AV, Kaikkonen J, Zunft HF, Kiesewetter H, Fitó M, Covas MI, López-Sabater MC. Elevated circulating LDL phenol levels in men who consumed virgin rather than refined olive oil are associated with less oxidation of plasma LDL. J Nutr. 2010 Mar;140(3):501-8. doi: 10.3945/jn.109.112912. Epub 2010 Jan 20. PubMed PMID: 20089783.
    4. Gimeno E, de la Torre-Carbot K, Lamuela-Raventós RM, Castellote AI, Fitó M, de la Torre R, Covas MI, López-Sabater MC. Changes in the phenolic content of low density lipoprotein after olive oil consumption in men. A randomized crossover controlled trial. Br J Nutr. 2007 Dec;98(6):1243-50. Epub 2007 Jul 9. PubMed PMID: 17617938.
    5. Covas MI, Nyyssönen K, Poulsen HE, Kaikkonen J, Zunft HJ, Kiesewetter H, Gaddi A, de la Torre R, Mursu J, Bäumler H, Nascetti S, Salonen JT, Fitó M, Virtanen J, Marrugat J; EUROLIVE Study Group. The effect of polyphenols in olive oil on heart disease risk factors: a randomized trial. Ann Intern Med. 2006 Sep 5;145(5):333-41. PubMed PMID: 16954359.
    6. Fitó M, Cladellas M, de la Torre R, Martí J, Alcántara M, Pujadas-Bastardes M, Marrugat J, Bruguera J, López-Sabater MC, Vila J, Covas MI; members of the SOLOS Investigators. Antioxidant effect of virgin olive oil in patients with stable coronary heart disease: a randomized, crossover, controlled, clinical trial. Atherosclerosis. 2005 Jul;181(1):149-58. Epub 2005 Feb 12. PubMed PMID: 15939067.
    7. Weinbrenner T, Fitó M, de la Torre R, Saez GT, Rijken P, Tormos C, Coolen S, Albaladejo MF, Abanades S, Schroder H, Marrugat J, Covas MI. Olive oils high in phenolic compounds modulate oxidative/antioxidative status in men. J Nutr. 2004 Sep;134(9):2314-21. PubMed PMID: 15333722.
    8. Marrugat J, Covas MI, Fitó M, Schröder H, Miró-Casas E, Gimeno E, López-Sabater MC, de la Torre R, Farré M; SOLOS Investigators. Effects of differing phenolic content in dietary olive oils on lipids and LDL oxidation–a randomized controlled trial. Eur J Nutr. 2004 Jun;43(3):140-7. Epub 2004 Jan 6. PubMed PMID: 15168036.
    9. Llorente-Cortés V, Estruch R, Mena MP, Ros E, González MA, Fitó M, Lamuela-Raventós RM, Badimon L. Effect of Mediterranean diet on the expression of pro-atherogenic genes in a population at high cardiovascular risk. Atherosclerosis. 2010 Feb;208(2):442-50. doi: 10.1016/j.atherosclerosis.2009.08.004. Epub 2009 Aug 8. PubMed PMID: 19712933.
    10 Ruano J, López-Miranda J, de la Torre R, Delgado-Lista J, Fernández J, Caballero J, Covas MI, Jiménez Y, Pérez-Martínez P, Marín C, Fuentes F, Pérez-Jiménez F. Intake of phenol-rich virgin olive oil improves the postprandial prothrombotic profile in hypercholesterolemic patients. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Aug;86(2):341-6. PubMed PMID: 17684203.

    • Thanks Olive Chirper, you’re the bomb. I look forward to reading up on the high vs low phenolic studies. Thanks for your assistance and education. Mary

  2. Hi Mary,

    I’ve read your article (with some astonishment, as I never expected my honors thesis to be read by anyone outside the university) and am coming away with mixed messages. I believe that we are actually on the same page regarding olive oils, despite the fact that you called the scientific facts that backed up what I wrote in the paper “assumptions”. In truth, they were well researched. It is wrong of you to explicitly state that researchers have been fudging their data- the peer reviewing of modern day scientific journals is exactly the mechanism by which this is prevented. The overwhelming wealth of scientific articles proving that antioxidants (of which phenolic compounds are a class) are beneficial to the human body makes a fairly solid case for this fact. Olive Chirper is right- phenolic compounds have been proven hundreds of times over to be beneficial to the human body. In fact, they are antioxidants, which are have been indeed attributed to health benefits such as the eradication of free radicals from the body, contributing to the prevention of cancer and atherosclerosis in later years.

    You are completely correct when you say that olive oil is not necessarily of higher quality when it contains higher amounts of phenolic compounds. I am writing this comment to alert you to the fact that I began writing my paper with the intention of showing that olive oils are supposed to contain x amount of phenolic compounds, showing that they are of high quality, and the olive oils available are not up to par. However, through further research, I soon realized that while olive oils containing higher amounts of phenolic compounds are without a doubt more beneficial to health, they are not necessarily of higher quality from a sensory perspective. In fact, my consumer taste panel found no higher affinity for the olive oils containing higher amounts of phenolic compounds- quite the opposite, in fact. In essence, my paper ended up concluding that the content of phenolic compounds in an olive oil were neither related to its pricing nor to its sensory qualities.

    The bottom line of my paper was that extra virgin olive oils are marketed as ALL EQUALLY HEALTHFUL, and thus the consumer should not feel like he or she is being taken advantage of while paying 2 or 3 times the price for an equal amount of a different oil or even a non-virgin olive oil. In the supermarket where I shop each week, extra virgin olive oils- all of them- are presented with 3 stars for health. However, with varying amounts of phenolic compounds, they just are not all equally healthful and they should not be marketed as such. That is not even taking into account the ridiculous adulteration that occurs in many of these oils!

    Many consumers are only purchasing olive oil for the health benefits- perhaps they are changing their dietary habits, perhaps they are recovering from a heart attack, olive oil is just considered a saintly oil. I don’t think it should be marketed this way unless it is actually this way. So, in terms of my paper, (as I was a nutrition major, but not a gastronomy major and health was therefore my first concern), olive oil’s quality was indeed related to health benefits. However, I completely understand that healthful components of olive oil don’t make up all of its measures of quality. For someone who is clearly a foodie like yourself, that may not even matter. I have attended a true olive oil tasting and I understand that, like wine, there is an olive oil appropriate for various types of its consumption. An olive oil for dipping bread in, for drizzling on salad, etc. Each olive oil has an appropriate function based on its sensory attributes.

    All of that being said, I do want you to realize that the first and foremost reason I decided to investigate olive oils is because I am more than aware that the olive oil industry is mislabeling non-olive oil products as olive oil, or refining oils and still calling them “extra virgin”. This is abominable, as, again, the consumer is paying a premium for these products. However, I had a student grant to work with and could not afford to carry out an entire host of chemical analyses on these olive oils. I worked with what I had, and proved what I could with the resources available to me. If you read my paper correctly and all the way through you will note that I concluded by saying that no conclusions could be drawn. I will include the paragraph so that you can see this.

    “Currently olive oil sells for about $13 USD per gallon . That is about 3.7 times the price of a gallon of rapeseed oil, which sells for about $3.50 USD per gallon (27). Olive oil is not a cheap commodity. It is marketed as a high class, health promoting and delicious product that consumers should feel is worth the money they spend on it. However, recent studies have questioned whether consumers are truly getting what they are paying for when they purchase olive oil off the supermarket shelves. Adulteration, inappropriate storage techniques, rancidity- these are all very real concerns from the consumer and nutrition perspectives.

    During this study, no conclusions could be drawn regarding the quality of the olive oils studied, as a non-professional tasting panel was used, and the only chemical aspect of the olive oil studied was the phenolic content. However, this study did reliably find that phenolic content in various olive oil brands does tend to vary greatly based on brand. This study also was able to determine that the average consumer prefers olive oil containing less phenolic compounds rather than more, which conflicts with the fact that greater amounts of phenolic compounds promote more effective health benefits.”

    • Dear Madeleine,

      I read your paper with great interest when I found it. The health benefits of olive oil are truly part of the new frontier for consumer use of virgin olive oils.

      I definitely realized you were writing as a student in a nutrition program who had a different need for your research. Most of my audience, myself included, grow olives and have varying opinions on whether the value of high phenolic content is the only value that can be found in virgin olive oils.

      Your paper was a different perspective that helped further the debate. I am grateful to you and hope you are doing splendidly in your professional endeavors.

      Highest regards,
      Mary

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