Unbeknownst to most consumers, the multi-million dollar olive oil industry has powerful lobbying bodies that have carefully crafted a narrative based on tradition, history, and purported health benefits to lure in customers over the past two decades. While cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil is indeed a good source of vitamin E that boasts a nutrient profile with more than thirty phenolic compounds (which act as antioxidants and free-radical scavengers in the body), what most people aren’t aware of is that olive oil is not a heat-stable oil and thus should be reserved for consumption only in cold dishes (Attya, 2010). As the now-infamous Mediterranean Diet rose in popularity during the 1990’s, the olive oil industry seized the moment and wooed prominent nutrition scientists and the press into promoting olive oil as the latest and greatest “heart-healthy” cooking oil (Teicholz, 2014). With the endorsement of the nutrition science elite and an appealing narrative about olive oil’s supposedly historical use in the kitchen on their side, the olive oil lobby succeeded in convincing the American public that everything they cooked – whether fried, sauteed, baked, or otherwise – was better with a glug (or several) of olive oil.
It’s hard for most of us to imagine life before industrialization, so we take for granted that certain products have always existed throughout history in the same capacity that they do in the modern era. This erroneous thinking causes us to project our modern-day mindset and experiences onto how we conceptualize the lives and eating habits of our predecessors. But anyone who has participated first-hand in the production of olive oil knows that the process is incredibly time consuming and labor-intensive. Before the industrialization of agriculture, not only did olive oil production require the harvesting of the olives by hand, but it was also necessary to crush the olives, pick out the seeds, and then crush and strain the oil from the olive pulp through a fine-mesh cloth. According to Yannis Hamilakis, a Greek archaeologist, the average amount of olive oil consumed by a medieval Greek peasant was very low, and there is no evidence to show that olive oil was being produced for culinary use in Greece until the nineteenth century. The other prominent olive oil producers of the Mediterranean, namely Spain and Italy, also did not appear to consume olive oil in significant amounts until the 1880’s, according to scholars (Teicholz, 2010). In fact, the increase in production of olive oil by these countries in the nineteenth century was not spurred on by human consumption of the oil, but instead by a demand for the oil from Venetian merchants who required it for making soap.
Although this oil does have a rich history, it was mainly used in antiquity as a cosmetic, a moisturizer, and in religious rituals. In the kitchen, the fat of choice of the ancients in this region was, believe it or not, lard (Teicholz, 2010). Lard is a hearty fat that is more stable than olive oil when heated to high temperatures due to its greater percentage of saturated fatty acids (although it is still technically considered a monounsaturated fat, like olive oil, because this type of fatty acid dominates the composition of lard*) (Enig, 2000). In addition, lard has a neutral flavor profile, unlike olive oil – and especially unlike the cruder olive oils of the past – making lard ideal for a variety of culinary ventures, including baking.
In Part 2 of this primer we’ll delve into the finer points of olive oil, including what the different names mean (e.g. extra virgin vs. virgin), the best ways to use it to maintain its nutritional value, and why you should never heat your EVOO.
*The nutritional merits of lard deserve their own post and thus are not covered here as they are beyond the scope of this discussion.
Attya M, Benabdelkamel H, Perri E, et al. “Effects of conventional heating on the stability of major olive oil phenolic compounds by tandem mass spectrometry and isotope dilution assay.” Molecules. 2010 Dec 1;15(12):8734-46.
Enig, Mary G. Know Your Fats: The Complete Primer for Understanding the Nutrition of Fats, Oils, and Cholesterol. 2nd ed. Bethesda: Bethesda, 2000. Print.
Teicholz, Nina. The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat, and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2014. Print.