Sunday, June 24, 2012

Olive Oil Adulteration

Unripe olives.                                                             
                                                                                                         Us at La Pievuccia, in front of the olive trees.

HJ: Before coming to Italy, my experience with olive oil consisted of having it and balsamic vinegar on the table at high end Italian restaurants. Here, I've learned that surprisingly few restaurants leave it out for dipping bread in, but a large portion of the dishes we've eaten thus far have been cooked and served in olive oil. This past week in class we learned all about olives, olive oil processing/production, and the health benefits of olive oil. It has been determined that olive oil satisfies hunger and leads to consuming fewer calories, and it can also decrease bad cholesterol and rates of cardiovascular disease and cancer. With all of these things in mind, I was really excited to receive the extra virgin olive oil I had ordered from La Pievuccia, the Agriturismo we visited earlier in the trip. I have even been planning ways to incorporate olive oil into my diet upon returning home. However, a few days ago I was reading, a U.S. comedy website that I frequent when avoiding getting work done. Funnily enough, I stumbled upon an article called The Six Creepiest Lies the Food Industry is Feeding You. Number one on the list was olive oil, and the entirety of that section of the article was devoted to the theory that the majority of olive oil we get in the U.S. is greatly diluted by sunflower oil due to the machinations of the Italian mob and their olive oil piracy schemes.

Naturally, I didn't take a comedy website at their word (although the articles are known for being about weird true things) and did some research of my own. Funnily enough, the dilution of olive oil does illegally occur quite frequently in Europe, in particular in Spain and Italy, and the process is called adulteration. Researcher Tom Mueller from The New Yorker estimates that only about 40% of olive oil labeled extra virgin actually meets that specification due to adulteration. In 1981, rapeseed oil adulterated with an industrial lubricant was passed off as olive oil in Spain, resulting in the deaths of over 700 people. Fortunately, today most adulteration only passes off inferior but safe oils as extra virgin olive oil. Because of this large level of corruption, Italy attempted to pass a law in 2007 requiring olive oil claiming to be Italian to have the farm and press of origin on the label. The EU disagreed with this law, stating that such requirements should be voluntary, and today the law states that olive oil may be sold as Italian even if it only contains a fraction of olive oil produced in Italy. Although an interesting allegation, I was unable to find any information linking the Italian mob to this adulteration process.

My newfound knowledge of olive oil adulteration has complicated my idea of incorporating olive oil into my daily diet upon returning home from Italy. I want to work to be healthier, but I'm not equipped with the skills to determine what is real and what isn't, especially if companies can label their oil as Italian olive oil even if it contains only a small amount of olive oil produced in Italy. I wish I had ordered more than two small bottles from La Pievuccia.

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