Olive trees, native to the Mediterranean basin, were cultivated as far back as 5000 B.C., and olive oil is still collected from the fruit in the same way—by pressing the olives. As in the days of those ancient civilizations, olives are used for food and the oil is used for cooking, in ointments and cosmetics, and for burning as a source of light. In ancient times, leaves were considered a symbol of honor and were made into wreaths to adorn kings and heroes. Olive leaves were also used for medicinal purposes, and today, olive leaf extract is a popular natural ingredient in herbal medicines.

The popularity of the Mediterranean diet is attributed to its diverse and delicious flavors, and its health benefits. From Italian to Greek to Middle Eastern food, the Mediterranean diet is based on olive oil, fresh vegetables and herbs, grains, and spices. As cooking with olive oil and olive oil consumption has increased, olive oil producers have harvested more fruit to meet this demand and have increased marketing to educate consumers.

Pressing the Olives

Extra virgin olive oil is obtained from the first pressing, known as cold pressing. The olives are most often pressed by hand and the resulting oil is light in color and contains very little acid. The extracted liquid is separated into oil and vegetation water, and the oil goes through a processing technique that includes decanting and filtering.

The olives will go through several more presses, with each olive oil extraction producing oil that is darker in color. The quality of the extracted oil depends on the type of tree, the soil and climate, and the methods used to produce and harvest the fruit. For example, when the olives are pressed without the pits, a mellower, less acidic oil is extracted.

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Health Benefits of Olive Oil

The health benefits of olive oil are many. Its high amounts of monounsaturated fat help reduce the level of LDL (known as “bad” cholesterol). Although all olive oil contains polyphenols, powerful antioxidants that attack free radicals, extra virgin olive oil contains a higher density. These polyphenols help reduce the damage to blood vessels and cells and help the body absorb vitamins faster. Studies have shown that olive oil in the diet can minimize the risk of heart attack and breast cancer, benefit the digestive system, aid in bone development, reduce blood sugar levels, and may even slow the effects of aging.

Flavored Olive Oils

Although olive oil has been around for thousands of years, the past 15 years or so have catapulted olive oil into the gourmet limelight; and in the past 10 years, there has been a proliferation of specialty olive oils.

Most of these oils are in decorative bottles with eye-catching labels, and many are infused with a specific flavor. Rosemary, basil, garlic, chili peppers, curry, porcini, truffles (black and white), sun-dried tomatoes, lemons, Meyer lemons, limes, oranges, and Sicilian oranges and mandarins are some of the wonderful flavors imparted to the oils.

Olive oil can be flavored in several ways. The most common is to add ingredients to the oil after it has been processed, allowing the flavoring ingredients to steep in the oil. Another method is to press the ingredients along with the olives. This produces more of an integrated flavor, a mellow combination of flavoring and oil. Most recently, it appears that olive growers are heading back to the olive groves with an eye toward creating regional and estate olive oils. With much of the imported olive oils coming from Italy, Spain, Greece, and Turkey, and a large domestic supply from California, producers are realizing that the unique growing conditions of their geographic area are yielding olives with distinctive flavors.

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It’s best to store olive oil in a cool, dark place. Keeping it next to the stove or in the refrigerator will cause its shelf life to dramatically decrease. One thing to be aware of is that the oil will oxidize and become rancid if kept too long. To determine its freshness, either sniff the oil or taste a little bit before using it in cooking.

Popularity of Olive Oil

Olive oil’s popularity is attributed to several factors—an increasing interest in the Mediterranean diet, its health benefits, an increase in the production of imported and domestic olive oils, and consumer awareness. The flavors of basic olive oil can range from sweet to bitter, based on the growing environment; and olive oil can be flavored with various ingredients.