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Originally published in Spanish in Olimerca 2016

Extra virgin olive oil is a food ingredient to be used in the preparation of food and to add flavour. The most enlightening demonstration of the influence the oil has on the taste and texture of food is the comparison of different varietal extra virgin olive oils used in the same dishes.

Why then do we use highly technical terms in the official tasting format when describing the flavour of olive oil? The tasting laboratory should reflect the consumer’s kitchen not the producer’s mill. 

The scoring sheet of the world’s most rigorous competition for extra virgin olive oils, the Mario Solinas Award, reflects the gap between the simple language used to describe extra virgin olive oils to consumers and that of the technicians who are the competition judges.

The heading ‘sensory assessment sheet’ could simply be ‘flavour assessment’. Olfactory sensations could change to ‘aroma’ and gustatory-retronasal sensations to ‘taste’. The sum of aroma and taste would be better described as ‘flavour’ rather than ‘olfactory-gustatory sensations’.

Originally published in Spanish in Mercacei in November 2016.

Olive trees were brought to Australia and New Zealand by some of the first European migrants and scattered groves and individual trees persist from these plantings. In Western Australia in 1846 two Spanish Benedictine monks established a mission with an olive grove at New Norcia which exists to this day. In 1835 in New Zealand the explorer Charles Darwin mentioned olive trees planted at Waimate North on the northern tip of the North Island.

Some of Australia’s oldest olive trees at New Norcia, north-east of Perth,
Western Australia.

Approximately 150 years later, driven by nurseries promoting the establishment of commercial olive groves, the olive industry in both countries started the current resurgence. There was a small number of commercial groves which persisted from previous planting cycles with a few local brands of olive oil and table olives available through specialty food stores. In Australia there was one brand produced in South Australia which continued to be available in supermarkets. Ironically the brand name was Viva.

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Cooking and Health Attributes of Olive Oil Compared with Other Vegetable Oils

Often when asking consumers about the use of other vegetable oils in preference to olive oil they justify their choice by repeating advertising claims of well promoted oils such as rice bran oil. 

Analysis of comparative smoke points and health benefits shows that some of these claims are questionable, if not downright wrong.

The Savantes programme, while concentrating on the taste and flavour of olive oil, has important sessions discussing the health attributes. Many of the taste and flavour characteristics are good indicators of the level of the ‘health chemistry’ of extra virgin olive oils.

‘You are what you eat’ goes the saying. Perhaps this is better stated as ‘You are what you ingest’.

The human body is a complex organism which is kept alive by what we ingest. Some of this is voluntary through eating and drinking, some of it involuntary like the intake of air and the absorption of the sun’s rays and other compounds through the skin.

Pretty well everything we ingest has an impact on our health.

Those of us who are involved with olive oil need to know the basics of health benefits of olive oil and how to encourage consumers to gain the benefits by using olive oil. We need this information in a form we can pass on to consumers who in general have less scientific knowledge than we do.

Health attributes of olive oil

There are thousands of technical papers on the influence that olive oil has on the human body. Almost every day there are more as scientists unravel the genetic control of our physiological activities.

The chemistry of extra virgin olive oil is complex, however its components can be divided into the saponifiable fraction and the insaponifiable fraction. Basically this means that the saponifiable fraction turns into soap if treated with sodium hydroxide, and the rest (insaponifiable) doesn’t.

The saponifiable fraction comprises 97-99% of olive oil, and is made up of triglycerides and a small amount of other compounds such as free fatty acids (FFA). The latter we measure to give us an indication of the acidity of the oil.

The insaponifiable fraction, 1-3% of olive oil, is made up of many important compounds which determine the flavour, quality and stability of the oil. In this fraction many vegetal phenols have been identified. During refining 88% of the phenolic compounds are lost.

Both the saponifiable and insaponifiable fraction have dietary and health benefits.

An important element of the Savantes programme is about describing taste and flavour of extra virgin olive oils from all over the world. To do this we need to understand the biological basis and process of tasting.