The Mediterranean diet isn’t new. All around the world, people try to mimic what those in the Mediterranean countries have been naturally eating for years. One superfood after another, all of which depends on the high quality ingredients found in that environment. However, there is one superfood at the focal point of the Mediterranean diet- olive oil. Let me be more specific, extra virgin olive oil from Italy.
I remember growing up hearing how fatty olive oil was. Everyone said you needed to be careful of the quantity or else you’d blow up like a birthday piñata. But, even at a younger age I thought there must be a better way to this life! Well, all my fellow olive oil lovers, that horrifying thought that olive oil is fattening and bad for our health is actually very far from the truth. How far? Keep reading for all the truths behind olive oil.
Italy’s olive oil producing regions – where the magic happens
Italy is the world’s largest importer and exporter of extra virgin olive oil, and the second largest producer (Spain takes the cake on that one). Let’s put a number to that, shall we? The annual production of olive oil in Italy is 500,000 to 700,000 tons.
There are near 700 varieties of olives found in wonderful Italia. As such, you can imagine the different types of flavors in olive oil. For example we have:
- Tondi Iblea: Sicily, oil with hints of tomato and pepper.
- Coratina: Apulia, stronger pepper taste.
- Itrana: Lazio, creamy, silky taste.
- Moraiolo, frantoio, and leccino: Tuscany, peppery taste with buttery texture
Here is a breakdown of the top olive growing regions in Italy:
- Apulia 45%
- Calabria 19%
- Sicily 10%
- Campania 7%
- Lazio 5%
- Tuscany/Sardinia 3%
- Basilicata/Umbria 2%
What’s the difference between olive oil and extra virgin olive oil?
A question we have all asked ourselves… so what is the difference? Well, extra-virgin olive oil is made from 100% cold-pressed olives, whereas regular olive oil is a blend of both cold-pressed and processed oils.
The “cold-pressed” process is done by grinding the olives into a paste and then pressing them to extract the oil. This method is quiet an elaborate and time-consuming process which explains why extra virgin olive oil has a higher price.
If a cold-pressed oil doesn’t meet the extra virgin olive oil standards, it is refined to get rid of its impurities and is blended with extra virgin olive oil to create the final bottle of what we know as; olive oil.
So which is best for you? Extra virgin olive oil of course.
How healthy is Italian extra virgin olive oil?
I know this is the part we’ve all been waiting for so let’s get down to business.
- Extra virgin olive oil has large amounts of antioxidants. I’m emphasizing the EXTRA VIRGIN part because if you buy simple olive oil there are not only no antioxidants but actually harmful chemicals.
- Strong anti-inflammatory properties
- Consumption can actually lower your risk of strokes.
- Protective against heart disease. It has monounsaturated acid (MUFAs) which helps to lower blood pressure.
- It actually doesn’t cause weight gain. In fact, studies show that, after high consumption of extra virgin olive oil, there was zero weight gain.
- One of the polyphenols in extra virgin olive oil is thought to prevent/delay Alzheimer’s.
- Extra virgin olive oil is great for your hair! You can put it directly on your hair to fight damage caused by heat/styling/coloring.
- Beneficial for your skin in more ways than one. Anti-aging benefits, moisturizing, and preventing skin irritation are just a few.
- You can cook with extra virgin olive oil! It is actually resistant to high heat so the fat content doesn’t increase and the health benefits don’t disappear. One study even showed that it took the oil 24-27 hours of deep frying for it to reach a harmful level.
How to find the real extra virgin olive oil in a sea of ‘fakers’?
We love healthy eating in the United States. Or, at least we say we do before we sneak a Big Mac before our yoga classes.
Unfortunately, though, not everything that is imported to our supermarkets is the real deal. The US is the best place for cheap knock offs of extra virgin olive oil and even here in Italy there are frauds playing dress up.
Consequently, you need to put on your detective hat. Here are some important steps in making sure you’re buying authentic extra virgin olive oil:
Ask for the new olive oil (“olio nuovo”) at a restaurant. This is the season’s freshest batch and a sure-fire way you’ll get the good stuff.
- Check the color. Good quality oil will be as green as a ripe granny smith apple. If there is an orange tinge that means it’s gone bad.
- Don’t trust the “Bottled in Italy” or “Imported from Italy” labels. These mean you are consuming oil from somewhere else that was simply packaged in Italy.
- Check for DOP labels. This is a special certification in Italy which ensures quality inspection.
- Look out for a harvest date. Unlike wine, olive oil doesn’t improve with age. Instead, it goes bad after a year or two.
- Loosen the purse strings. The $5 bargain for one liter is a fraud, I’m sorry to say. A real bottle won’t be cheap. Essentially, there is a very high production cost and in turn a very low profit. Say ciao ciao to that massive Costo bottle of olive oil!
- Best option to find authentic extra virgin olive oil is to buy it directly from the producer, farm, or agriturismo. If your time in Italy doesn’t allow for that, seek out artisanal shops. I recommend the following shops in Rome:
There is a motto in Italy when you buy produce: “Go small or go home.” Family businesses and local shops- that’s where you find the liquid gold of authentic extra virgin olive oil.
- To find some more local shops and become an expert yourself, check out our food tours in Rome, Florence, and Venice.
- Up next: Check out our top train trips from Rome
- As always, stay up-to-date on what’s happening in Italy and share your favorite memories with us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube!