As of January 1, California became the second state in the union to enact laws enforcing standardization of the olive oil industry. (Connecticut became the first late last year.) Texas olive grower Jim Henry hopes that Texas will become the third.
Why the need for laws? Because, in short, as Henry puts it: "Olive oil is the most altered food commodity imported into the United States. It's a problem and it will always be a problem until there's legislation. A lot of olive oil has a lot of different stuff in it."
Stuff like peanut, soy, and hazelnut oils, each of which were detected in olive oils purchased from store shelves in Connecticut a couple of years ago.
Even olive oil that is not adulterated with other oils is often something less than what consumers think, Henry says. Labels bearing the words "extra virgin olive oil," a pretty picture of an Italian orchard, and a mellifluous Italian name generally assure consumers they are getting the very best.
Not so, says Henry, who grows his olives in the southwest Texas town of Carrizo Springs. Consumers should read the small print. "Often it will say on the back 'Extra virgin olive oil from the Mediterranean basin,'" he says. "It will list four countries - Spain, Italy, Tunisia and Greece. Well, you don't know what's in the bottle. You don't know what kind of olives are in there, what percentage they are. So consequently the oil is priced at the lower end because it's basically crap - it has no taste."
That could certainly be said of the olive oil I had at home. After talking to Henry, I looked closely at the pretty bottle of Italian extra virgin olive oil we had at home, complete with its picture of waves crashing against the Cinque Terre's cliffs.
Read the back of the label, and there are the weasel words. One disclaimer noted that it had been bottled at a plant that also bottled hazelnut, soy and peanut oils, while another said it had been "packed in Italy," so presumably it wasn't even bottled there, much less made from Italian olives. I smelled the stuff and even drank a shot - and there was no flavor or aroma at all.
The sale of adulterated olive oil is vastly lucrative and as most American laws stand now, only quasi-illegal. "Profits were comparable to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risks," one investigator told the New Yorker in 2007. Apparently, it was not for nothing that Mario Puzo pictured the fictional Corleone family laundering their money through an olive oil importing company front.
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Although nut oils could be fatal to those with allergies, the state of Connecticut cited only some cases of adulterated olive oil-related illnesses. However, the health benefits - the boosts to the heart and digestive system -- of adulterated or diluted extra virgin olive oil are greatly diminished.
To get the best olive oil, Henry says consumers should ensure that the olive varietals -- arbequina, manzanillo, or mission, to name three - should be listed on the back. And if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. "If it has those varietals on there, you know it will cost you 15 bucks or more a bottle but you'll also know what's in it," he says.
It's like wine, he says. "If you go buy something that says 'red table wine' on the label you'll expect to pay about $3.99, and you will get something that tastes like it is $3.99. On the other hand, if you go buy a merlot with a blend of zinfandel grapes and it is $30, then you'll know it will taste a lot better. It's the same with olive oil but there are no laws that require people to do that."
-- John Nova Lomax