At my December 19th, 2013 show of Sporcle Live trivia, the 9th question of the night was:
What makes extra-virgin olive oil ‘extra’ virgin? Is it:
- A) low acid
- B) low saturated fat
- C) low carbohydrates
- D) low protein
The answer is A) low acid. Though, overwhelmingly the crowd answered B) low saturated fat, which is definitely not a bad guess. Apparently, the benchmark for ‘low saturated fat’ is food which has less than 1 gram of saturated fat per serving. Extra virgin olive oil only slightly misses that mark, at 1.9 grams of saturated fat per serving of 1 tbsp.
This was the point in time when I realized there was a gap in my knowledge and it was called ‘everything about olive oil’. If you’re anything like me, then you don’t accept new information with the quiet complacency of, ‘Huh. Who knew?’ I immediately needed to know more and, for someone who doesn’t even like olives, I spent an inordinate amount of time researching and fact-finding.
Fig. 1.1: Here we find the majestic olive oil in captivity, torn away from the freedom of its natural habitat.
Here’s what I found: the adjective of ‘virgin’ in terms of olive oil simply means the oil was obtained through manual or mechanical means, free from any chemical alterations. That is to say, it’s olive oil in its purest form, hence ‘virgin’. And, much like any other consumable product on the market, virgin oil comes in commercial grades: ‘extra’, ‘fine’, and ‘ordinary’, which, as mentioned above, denote specific levels of acidity in the oil. So, if a virgin oil is desirable, then I suppose it follows that extra virgin is more desirable, especially over the connotatively lackluster ‘fine’ and ‘ordinary’. Really, who wants an olive oil that is ‘only just okay’?
Why is ‘extra virgin’ olive oil commonly heralded as the best, though? What’s so good about low acidity? Well, it appears there’s a whole host of reasons, and if I wanted to, I could write a book touting the superiority of extra virgin olive oil. In the interest of brevity, though, here are the takeaways: a better, richer, purer, and fruitier taste (which, that makes sense to me—the higher the acidity of a food, the more we associate it with sour, tart, and bitter flavors) compared to the lower-grade virgin olive oils. Also, it has the distinction of being suited for consumption in both cooked and uncooked form (such as a salad dressing, sandwich topper, etc.)—which is not something all olive oils are allowed say for themselves, according to the International Olive Oil Council. More than that, ‘extra virgin’ has a cold-pressed method of extraction; olive oil heated beyond a specific temperature during extraction damages essential nutrients and antioxidants and raises acidity levels.
So, there you have it. A little trivia snapshot into the nebulous world of olive oil. I couldn’t find any information on whether a person who works with olive oil has a specific name, but the punny part of my brain really wants it to be a sommOILier.
And, if by some chance you couldn’t care less about olive oil (highly unlikely, that), then let me leave you with these digestible tidbits: did you know that an olive is actually a fruit, and that, according to one source, it takes around 1375 olives to make just one liter of oil?
‘Huh,’ I can hear you saying. ‘Who knew?’