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What to know when buying extra virgin olive oil

December 12, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
You may have heard that extra virgin olive oil is a healthy fat that is loaded with antioxidants that promotes heart health. But just grabbing the cheapest bottle at the market isn't the best way to go as you might not be getting the real deal.

"Really for me, olive oil is the best thing to use - salad dressing, sauteeing, roasting, desserts, cakes, pies, cookies," said Akasha Richmond, owner and chef at Akasha Restaurant in Culver City.

Olive is the oil of choice for Richmond, who even swaps butter for it.

"You can substitute olive oil if you're making any kind of cake with oil, like a chiffon cake, a bundt cake, a pound cake," said Richmond.

But Theo Stephan, author of "Olive Oil and Vinegar for Life," says heads up when buying your next bottle.

"Unfortunately, the [Food and Drug Administration] here in our country doesn't police truth in labeling," said Stephan.

Stephan, who grows and bottles her olive bounty in Los Olivos, recommends checking a few things on your olive oil.

To guarantee freshness, Stephan said the harvest date or bottling date should be on the bottle.

"A lot of times, oils are cut with other oils, so consequently, that takes the fresh value," said Stephan.

Using seed oils or heating oil in processing to yield more product - neither constitutes extra virgin status.

A University of California, Davis analysis of grocery store olive oils found 69 percent were not extra virgin olive oil, which means consumers miss out on health benefits and taste that they thought they bought.

Stephan suggests buying California boutique olive oil, which is found at farmers' markets, fairs and specialty restaurants. Those tested in fairs actually need to be third-party lab certified.

Another test? Fry with it. If it smokes, you've got a fraud, as olive oil heats to 385 to 400 degrees. Stephan said you can even put it in your deep fryer.

And know this: Unlike wine, aging is not good for extra virgin olive oil. It will lose its aroma, its flavor and some of the health benefits. So only buy as much as you can use within about three months.

It's also best in dark bottles and stored in a cool pantry. Don't leave it in direct sunlight, and don't let it live on the stove or in the fridge where it will coagulate and lose flavor.

Beyond that, perform a taste test on your brand.

"It should taste either fruity, buttery, peppery or herbacious. And if it doesn't, take it back to the store," said Stephan.

Stephan's book "Olive Oil and Vinegar for Life" can be found at Amazon.com.

To learn more about extra virgin olive oil, check out "Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil" by Tom Mueller.

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