An Interview with California Olive Oil Council Executive Director, Patricia Darragh
July 22nd, 2011 by emilydavis
If you’ve been to one of our ten We Olive stores in California, you know that we take pride in sharing the high quality olive oil that our states growers are producing. You may have even noticed a small seal featuring an olive branch that adorns each and every one of our extra virgin olive oils. That seal tells you that the olive oil in the bottle has been certified as extra virgin by the California Olive Oil Council, or COOC. Why does that matter and what does it mean? I sat down recently with Patricia Darragh, the Executive Director of the COOC, for a Q&A session to find out.
Emily asks: Extra Virgin – we hear the term all the time and most people know that it’s the best quality of olive oil, but why?
Patricia says: It’s the highest standard for olive oil, so it’s absolutely the best olive oil that you can consume. Extra virgin means that the olive oil must be free of defects, so it must undergo chemical analysis in a lab that has been certified to test olive oil with the most current equipment and technology. The olive oil will also undergo a sensory assessment, where a panel will blind taste it to determine if it’s free of defects. In addition to the chemical and sensory testing, the producer of the olive oil must provide legal documentation that the olives are 100% California fruit.
Emily asks: I’m sure most people don’t realize how strict the standards are to be certified as extra virgin. Aside from being the highest quality of olive oil, why is extra virgin better than say, virgin olive oil?
Patricia says: One of the primary benefits of extra virgin olive oil is that it is one of the least processed fats available to consumers. We all need a small amount of fat in our diets and extra virgin olive oil is very high in polyphenols and antioxidants, which makes it the best type of fat to include in a healthy diet. At the same time you are consuming something that is very fruity and flavorful and fresh to the market. You want to consume olive oil very young, much like produce, in order to get the best health benefits.
Emily asks: While we are on the subject of health benefits, I often have guests come in to the store who are trying to sort through the different things they’ve heard or read about olive oil. One of the most common questions is about the smoke point in olive oil. Many people want to know first, what is the smoke point (which generally refers to the point at which cooking fat or oil begins to break down into free fatty acids and glycerol and begins to produce smoke) and second, if high heat cooking damages all those healthy benefits we get from the oil. Can you shed some light on the subject?
Patricia says: That’s a great question because there’s a lot of controversy about that. All of the research that I’ve done, on behalf of the COOC shows that olive oil has a higher smoke point than most people think. It’s anywhere from about 395 degrees to 425 degrees. Now, most of us prepare our food at around 375 degrees, when we are roasting or sautéeing, but people should feel comfortable doing the same up to 425 degrees, knowing that they will retain the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil. I would not recommend deep frying, because any fat will break down to some extent over high heat, but for most of what you cook, olive oil is the best choice.
Emily asks: So we now know that certified extra virgin olive oil is the highest quality and healthiest kind of fat we can include in our diet. Is there a reason to buy California olive oil over say, olive oils from countries like Italy or Spain?
Patricia says: You know, a lot of people have traveled to the Mediterranean and if they’re on vacation in Greece or Spain, they’re probably getting fairly fresh, delicious, local olive oil. And a lot of the best olive oils and freshest olive oils are being consumed within the country in which they are produced. The majority of the olive oils we find on our supermarket shelves would not qualify as extra virgin in their own country because the export laws are so lenient. They favor the distributor, so we do get a tremendous amount of adulterated olive oil. There are unscrupulous importers in the US who do sell olive oil that is not actually extra virgin and is in some cases not even olive oil. We do get some great true extra virgin olive oils from other countries, but you really have to know and trust the source you’re getting it from. Consumers have to be aware that at some lower price points, they may not be getting authentic extra virgin olive oil, and if they want authentic extra virgin, and they want the health benefits, they have to look for some third party regulation, and that’s the service that we at the COOC think we can provide. And it’s our hope that the new USDA standards (which the COOC helped put in place and took effect in October 2010) will help curtail the importation of inauthentic olive oil.
Emily says: I think more and more people today are motivated to support local farmers and to know the source of the food they are consuming. Olive oil doesn’t have to be any different especially with the bounty we have in California. You’ve been incredibly informative to me, and I’m sure to our readers in deciphering the ins and outs of extra virgin. Before I let you go, would you mind sharing how you personally use olive oil?
Patricia says: Sure! When I’m cooking, I use it for everyday things like frying eggs or roasting asparagus. When I have toast, I put olive oil on it. When I make salad, I use it in my vinaigrette. There are so many great olive oils with different flavor profiles that it’s fun to experiment with different dishes. For example, if I’m grilling a flank steak, I would use a more robust, peppery oil than I would for something like a beet salad, which I’d use something more delicate and fruity. I even give 2 teaspoons to my aging dog every day, it really helps keep his coat shinier!
To learn more about the California Olive Oil Council and their mission, please visit www.cooc.com. Look for updates on the blog about happenings in our stores, where Ms. Darragh leads tastings and demonstrations for special events.