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Is it extra-virgin: Central Coast olives de-mystified

Modified: Friday, Aug 17th, 2012

A resident pours local olive oils to taste for local growers prior to each year’s Paso Robles Olive Festival. File photo.

PASO ROBLES – Chances are that for supermarket consumers looking for extra virgin olive oil, what's truly "extra virgin" and what's not can be a difficult feat, according to at least one Central Coast olive grower.

Not that consumers are being intentionally misled by the supermarkets as the supermarkets themselves can't be held accountable because they're sometimes equally misled.

The job of the Central Coast Olive Group, which represents more than 60 farm members throughout the Central Coast, is to help spread public awareness about the importance of delineating the difference between authentic "extra virgin" olive oil versus the imitators, among other things, according to its leadership.

"What (consumers) find in the supermarkets is often fraudulent, and if not fraudulent, inferior because of age," said Olio Nuevo's Art Kishiyama, president of the group. "It's important to distinguish between what is truly 'extra virgin' and not."

Kishiyama, who has about 3,700 trees planted near Highway 41, typically produces 1,000 gallons per year, "small by area standards" in comparison to others in excess of 10,000 trees, he said.

Central Coast olive growers are quick to point out that grabbing the cheapest extra virgin olive oil off the shelf at the store isn't the best idea at the store because it's hard to tell what is and isn't the real thing.

Paso Robles Olive Festival 2012 attendees may get a bit of that same education as they head from booth-to-booth in Downtown City Park, hearing from authentic extra virgin olive oil producers on the importance of qualities such as age this Saturday, Aug. 18.

Studies on the topic are prolific, according to Kishiyama.

One landmark study by U.C. Davis researchers found that, in fact, many California-sold olive oils in retail stores "are not the top-grade 'extra virgin' oils that labels claim they are.

Consumers Reports has published several articles on the subject. In its article, "Which extra virgin olive oils make the grade?" consumers might be surprised to know that of the 23 extra-virgin oils tested, only nine truly tasted like extra-virgin olive oil at all, according to the study.

Meanwhile, a report by U.C. Davis, "Imported olive oil quality unreliable, study finds," found that in its examination of 134 samples of high-volume olive oils purchased in major supermarkets throughout California, 73 percent (66 of 90 samples) of the five top-selling imported brands failed international sensory standards for extra virgin olive oil by failing two International Olive Council-accredited taste panels.

The report said that nearly three-quarters of popular brands of extra-virgin olive oils found in California actually don't qualify as extra-virgin at all. Studies also show that more than two-thirds of imported extra-virgin olive oils and one-in-10 made in California fail to meet international and U.S. standards, according to a U.C. David report.

With the United States being the third-largest worldwide olive oil consumer matched with an increasing demand from its heart-healthy benefits, there may well be reason for concern amongst groups like the Central Coast Olive Group and Kishiyama.

That's because they're proud purveyors of the true, authentic extra-virgin olive oil – smack-dab on the Central Coast of California. It's something that Central California olive growers like Kishiyama take pride in.

Kishiyama said that the Paso Robles Olive Festival in particular is an important, local event for Central California's olive producers and consumers.

The way he sees it, locally in Paso Robles the industry has grown hand-in-hand with the wine industry. With a proliferation of wine grapes throughout the Paso Robles American Viticultural Area (AVA), he thinks that many are seeking out alternatives to best utilize their soils – olives being one of them.

He only sees the industry continuing to expand in the future.

"Olives are being identified as an alternative to vineyards," he said.

• Fresh approach

True extra virgin is of the highest quality and is made solely from fresh olives, Kishiyama said.

"As one of the healthiest foods we consume, it is loaded with anti-oxidants and the healthy, mono-unsaturated fats our bodies need," Kishiyama said. "When very fresh, extra virgin olive oils have a pleasant aroma, unique taste and peppery finish that makes other healthy foods like seafood and vegetables taste very good. Professional chefs have always known this and will often use robust-flavored extra virgin olive oils to enhance their specialty dishes."

• Standards

The U. S. Department of Agriculture and the International Olive Council identifies extra-virgin as the highest grade of olive oil.

Currently, U.S. olive oil producers must follow USDA olive oil standards, which dictate that be considered extra virgin, oils bust be chemically sound, sensory defect-free with some fruitiness in their flavor and aroma.

According to the U.C. Davis study, "Extra virgin olive oil can be adulterated by mixing extra virgin with cheaper refined oils such as hazelnut oil or with a cheaper refined olive oil, making the adulteration more difficult to chemically detect.

• Defective oils

By definition olive oils that are not extra virgin are defective. 

According the the California Oil Council and the International Olive Oil Council standards extra virgin olive oil cannot contain any defects identified through taste or smell. Other grades of olive oil contain defects. To achieve extra virgin olive oil, the olives and the olive oil must be handled properly. The fruit has to be disease free, picked at the correct ripeness and cold pressed right away. 

The oil should be stored in tanks without oxygen in a temperature controlled environment. Age, oxygen, heat and light can make an olive oil defective. Olives are a fruit and should be handled as such, said Marti Menacho of Olivas de Oro Olive Company, based in Creston.

"You wouldn't pick a shriveled or moldy orange to squeeze for juice," Menacho said. "You wouldn't keep that juice on the countertop for months and then serve it with breakfast. Just by smelling it, you would know that it is defective. You also wouldn't take that defective orange juice in the preparation of any other food."

• It tastes better

Not only is true extra virgin olive oil healthy, it's tasty as well.

According to Kishiyama, inexpensive supermarket brands are often adulterated by seed and other refined oils and then mislabeled as “extra-virgin.” 

"If these imposters contain olive oil, it is often inferior and as much as three or four-years-old," Kishiyama said. "As these oils have oxidized over time, almost all beneficial attributes for health and flavors have been lost to oxidation." 

Kishiyama said that to help the consumer, the California Olive Oil Council provides independent, third-party tests to assure quality. 

A dated, certification seal will appear on bottles of extra virgin olive oils that have undergone these tests. To ensure high-quality, olive oils should be consumed as fresh as possible and within 24 months of harvest, he said.

"Central Coast consumers should 'buy local' to get the freshest and most flavorful products available," Kishiyama said.

• More information

For more information on the Central Coast Olive Growers, visit www.centralcoastolivegrowers.org.

For the complete article see the 08-17-2012 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 08-17-2012 paper.

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