Let’s test your knowledge about buying olive oil. Don’t worry — this is a very basic quiz.
- Rank the following countries, from highest to lowest, according to their per-capita consumption of global olive-oil production: Greece, Spain, Italy, the United States.* (Answers below.)
- Now rank them in order of total consumption by country.** (Note: According to the United Nations, Greece has 10.9 million people; Spain, 46.07 million; Italy, 59.8 million; the United States, 324.12 million).
Buying olive oil and using it has benefits
The residents of Southern European countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece have long recognized the benefits of olive oil. It is, after all, one of the staples of the renowned “Mediterranean diet.” So why do Americans lag so far behind their Mediterranean counterparts in olive-oil consumption?
Maybe it’s because, as you drive through, for example, the countryside of Spain (where I lived from June 1968 to July 1971), you’ll often pass olive groves. In America, we rarely see an olive grove.
Or maybe it’s because not enough of us know enough about this versatile — and tasty — liquid. So here’s some help.
Varieties of olive oil
Countless varieties are grown around the world, and various factors — including growing conditions, weather, production methods, storage and distribution — affect how each one tastes. In fact, “even fruit from the same tree can have different results each year, depending on the weather and other factors,” says the website of the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA).
Three types of olive oil
In North America, there are three common types, according to the NAOOA: extra virgin olive oil, olive oil and light-tasting olive oil.
“Extra virgin (EVOO) is not only the healthiest type but also the most versatile due to the broad range of flavor profiles. … (It) is used to flavor salads and dressings; as a base for marinades; as a grilling oil; and — most often — as a finishing oil, drizzled on just about anything right before it is served. … Use a delicate EVOO to enhance and a more intense EVOO to fill voids. Stronger ingredients, like red meat and hearty grains, can typically support more intense flavors. Delicate foods, like white fish and crisp veggies, are often better served with a more subtle, fruity oil.”
Extra virgin accounts for about 60 percent of all olive-oil sales in North America, according to the North American Olive Oil Association. Canadians consume 50 percent more olive oil, per capita, than Americans (about 1.5 quarts per capita, vs. about 1 quart for us).
“Olive oil … easily adapts to a number of cooking methods such as grilling, sautéeing, roasting, frying and baking. The subtle flavor … enhances food without overpowering … and provides a good base oil for spice-infused dressings and hearty sauces. … You can also re-use the same olive oil for frying up to three times.”
Light-tasting olive oil is almost flavorless, making it an ideal choice for all the same cooking methods as olive oil, and especially in preparations where you don’t want to influence the flavor of the dish.
More American households buying olive oil than five years ago
About half of American households are buying olive oil today; that’s up from about 30 percent five years ago. But we still have a long way to go to catch up with the Greeks. So the North American Olive Oil Association has a suggestion.
Host an EVOO-tasting event
Don’t turn up your nose at tasting “straight-up” extra virgin olive oil. This “is an art that anyone can practice, and possibly even learn to love! … Like wine, many producers even blend multiple extra virgin olive oils in order to achieve a pre-determined flavor.”
Kaló fagitó! (“Good eating!” in Greek.)
Answers to challenges at top:
* Greece has the highest per-capita consumption: (6.34 gallons per person annually); Spain (3.96 g); Italy (3.43 g); United States (slightly over 1 quart).
** Rank according to total consumption by country, expressed in percentages: Italy (accounts for 21% of the world’s consumption of olive oil); Spain (19%); United States (9%); Greece (7%).
Five fun facts about how to buy and use olive oil
Given the number of choices that olive-oil consumers face, they could easily become overwhelmed. Don’t let that happen. The NAOOA offers these five tips.
1) Know your intended use, so you can narrow down which type best fits your needs;
2) Buy only bottle sizes that you will use within eight to 10 weeks of opening;
3) Learn to read and interpret the label. Olive oil from quality sources will contain key pieces of information on the label, including: the distributing or packaging company’s name and contact information; ingredient statement; country-of-origin statement; “best-by” date; and global quality or authenticity seals;
4) Beware of “award” seals; on extra virgin olive oil, the award would technically apply only to the specific batch or harvest year when the award was given. Worse: Some award graphics are simply made up to decorate a label.
5) Avoid packages that show signs of poor handling or storage, such as dust on the bottle; a broken or loose seal on the cap; or an orange tint to the oil – this indicates heat damage and/or over-exposure to fluorescent lighting.
Information is courtesy of the North American Olive Oil Association (aboutoliveoil.org).