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DailyTidings.com
  • The other Big Oil

  • Extra virgin olive oil is rich with culinary, health and even utilitarian benefits, but the business of creating and selling olive oil is slick with lies. Be it black or green, oil is liquid gold, capable of inspiring greed and criminal activity.
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  • Extra virgin olive oil is rich with culinary, health and even utilitarian benefits, but the business of creating and selling olive oil is slick with lies. Be it black or green, oil is liquid gold, capable of inspiring greed and criminal activity.
    In "Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil," author Tom Mueller celebrates olive oil while exposing the brazen fraud that surrounds it. Many mass-produced olive oils are not the pure products described on the bottle, but often cheap, chemically extracted oil, or even soybean or canola oil colored with industrial chlorophyl and flavored with beta carotene. The book suggests that 50 percent of the olive oil sold in America is, to some degree, fraudulent, made up of oils from various other vegetables and/or poor quality olive oil.
    The book opens with Mueller observing and later participating in an olive oil tasting in Milan, Italy, where experts from the Corporazione Mastri Oleari, a respected private olive oil association, compare several products. Much like a wine tasting, they sniff, sip and slurp the oil from fluted glasses, describing it in terms like "fresh-cut grass," "green-tomato" and "full-bodied." The author admits that this initially sounds like pretentious nonsense, but after a short lesson and trying several well-regarded oils from various regions, he begins to recognize variations in taste and quality. Good extra virgin oil should have a fresh, fruity aroma balanced with a little pepperiness.
    When the tasting experts move to a low-end brand labeled "extra virgin" they quickly spot a fake, noting the unpleasant aroma, the thickness of the oil on their tongues and describing the taste as "musty" and "grubby." The president of Oleari, a man who has made it his lifelong ambition to squash out fraud in the industry, expresses outrage over the fake virgin oils being passed off as the real thing. He says of one brand, "Extra virgin? What's this oil got to do with virginity? This is a whore."
    While international regulations exist, there is little enforcement. Olive farmers, oil producers, and health activists are working to promote tougher regulations, but the process is slow. In fairness, the FDA, faced with tainted meats, poisoned peanut butter and e-coli on fruits, understandably hasn't made olive oil purity a priority.
    Mueller spends time with olive growers, chemists, chefs and even a few crooks. Quoting history books, Greek poets, and Shakespeare, he describes how olive oil has been cherished by European cultures for millennia, where it was used for fuel, food, beauty, medicine and currency, among other things. He writes that Thomas Jefferson loved the stuff and insisted "that an olive branch, heavy with fruit, was placed in the talons of the eagle on the Great Seal of the United States."
    He also explores this liquid gold's role in our future. Scientists are still discovering new ways the anti-oxidant rich oil can enhance our health and longevity. Mueller writes that many consider fake extra virgin olive oil to be not only a financial fraud but a crime against public health.
    "Extra Virginity" is, at times, funny. It's full of outrageous quotes, with people yelling, swearing and breaking things. Mueller, a writer for the "New Yorker," lives in northwest Italy, and his love of the region and the people is obvious. I groaned a few times when he gushingly describes both people and olives as "wondrous" and "soulful" but his research is sharp and the tone is sincere.
    The book offers practical guidance on purchasing and consuming pure oil, including a great deal of specific advice about color, labels and price. The recurring message, though, is to enjoy extra virgin olive oil often, and in large quantities.
    Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at decker4@gmail.com.
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