Do you trust the bottle of olive oil in your kitchen? Turns out, the label could be misleading.
In December, the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) held a public hearing to launch an investigation into the olive oil industry. At issue: Whether many of the imported olive oils on our supermarket shelves are truly first-press extra virgin olive oils or blends that are being falsely advertised as such.
We checked in with California olive oil and vinegar producer Theodora (Theo) Stephan of Global Gardens, who planted her first olive trees in Santa Barbara County in 1996, to discuss the hearings and the domestic olive oil market. Stephan has a number of helpful tips to make sure the extra-virgin olive oil you buy is authentic, and how to ensure it remains fresh.
TakePart: Were you involved in the December USITC hearings?
Theo Stephan: No. I am so interested, but also very happy that California Olive Ranch and other big guys have taken up the policy side. This is all about big business and big money. I’m so much smaller, on the other side of things, really—imports are not my competition. But I think it’s similar to what has been happening with Prop 37. We should know what’s in our olive oil bottles.
When I saw Tom Mueller’s 2007 article in the New Yorker [“Slippery Business”] and then his book [Extra Virginity], I thought, wow, finally! Someone is talking about what’s going on. Those of us who are producing olive oil, and going through the toils, always knew something was off. How can we buy imported Italian olive oil at the grocery store for little more than $5? It takes about 10 years for a tree to mature to produce 50 pounds of fruit, which on average will make about a gallon of olive oil. It just doesn’t make sense.
TakePart: You import a few oils. How do you make sure they are pure?
Theo Stephan: Yes, I work with importers occasionally; I have two Greek oils that I import. But I know the family they come from. I also have the oil tested for authenticity every time. I’m careful.
TakePart: As a small producer, what are your challenges?
Theo Stephan: My biggest goal is to educate consumers on what I put in the bottle, the attributes of olive oil. The olive oil industry is relatively new in California, like wine was back in the 1950s. UC Davis has been a great proponent for agriculture. They trained me on olive tree propagation, and they’ve long been huge industry advocates. But there is still a need for education. When I got started, I was the first to plant olive trees in Santa Barbara County to make oil. I had to really fight to get Greek varietals. I had to get them directly from Crete; now I can get them from a nursery. Having been raised Greek [via Ohio], it still flabbergasts me to hear people come into the tasting room and say they’ve never tried olive oil. Ever. How is that possible? There is also technically no such thing as “light” extra virgin olive oil like we see at supermarkets. People feel like they’re doing themselves a healthy favor, but they’re not.
TakePart: That conflicting marketing information is likely part of the reason we’ve used sub-par oils for so long and never realized it.
Theo Stephan: Yes. People are becoming more kitchen savvy today, a good thing. I try to show them all the things they can do with olive oil. You can deep fry in olive if it’s real. That’s actually a good authenticity test. Set your deep fryer to 365, toss olive oil in there. If it smokes, it’s not genuine. You can taste the difference too. It’s absolutely thrilling when you taste fried vegetables in Europe. It’s so wonderful because of the olive oil. You can actually fry in olive oil up to 5 times without losing the polyphenol quality.
TakePart: Good to know. Fresh-ingredient recycling at its finest. Authenticity is one issue, but how can we tell if the olive oil we are buying is fresh? Some have “use by” dates on the bottles, others do not. To add to the confusion, olive oil is available in grocery stores and high-end specialty shops. Is there a difference?
Theo Stephan: As I tell visitors to our tasting room, a “real” olive oil is going to dance on your throat. You’ll get almost a tingling sensation on the back of your throat. A lot of people confuse that sensation with pepper, but it’s really the polyphenols. The oil should taste buttery and fruity. Olive oils that go flat are flavored, not pure olive oils.
And yes, we’ve got all of these “fancy” olive oils shops now, but price point doesn’t always matter; neither does that “use by” or harvest date. With olive oil, freshness is about storage: temperature in particular, but so many things will set off olive oil. That’s one reason I don’t wholesale my products. For example, I always travel with olive oil on vacation because I cook a lot with my family. Recently, when I was in Palm Springs, I forgot mine, so I bought a bottle from a high-end, specialty food store. I knew the oil well, a colleague of mine makes it. It’s fantastic. But I got home, and that $40 bottle was rancid. It was still “fresh” according to the date. I encourage my customers to take any bad bottle back to the store.
TakePart: We gather you took the bottle back?
Theo Stephan: Oh, yes, my girls stayed in the car, hiding out while mom embarrassed them with an olive oil “talk” in the store.
TakePart: Funny. So how should we store our olive oils?
Theo Stephan: I don’t get direct sun in my kitchen, and I go through a liter quickly, so I leave mine on the counter. If you’re going to use it more slowly, you should store oil in a pantry where it’s cool—but never in the refrigerator like you would with walnut oil. Olive oil coagulates when it gets too cold. I’ve had customers tell me they store their olive oil in the refrigerator, and then they put it in the microwave to warm it up. Ah! That kills all the polyphenols, I can hardly stand it.
TakePart: We’ll remember not to do that when you come over to dinner.
Global Gardens olive oil and vinegars are available online and at Theo Stephan’s Los Olivos, CA tasting room.
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Jenn Garbee covers the people behind what we eat and drink for publications such as The Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Magazine, Cooking Light and Saveur, and has written several books between extended bouts of wine-fortified procrastination in the kitchen. @eathistory