I was fortunate enough to spend time in Southern Spain, in a small city called Carmona. It was about 30km (25 miles) from Sevilla.
Between Carmona and Sevilla was a stretch of roadway that would take you past the Sevilla airport, but it would also take you through some of the finest olive oil and prettiest sunflower fields you could imagine.
I remember there were mornings when the air was hot and there would be a breeze that would bring the aromas of olives growing on trees.
While this does seem romantic, you’d be surprised to learn that it kinda smelled like horse manure. Yet, you knew that the olive trees were at work, getting ready to produce the most amazing olives and olive oils in the world.
Olive oil is a huge part of Mediterranean cultures and life. In Andalucia, it’s life. It’s livelihoods, it’s essentially liquid gold.
There’s so much to learn about olive oil and the Mediterranean diet, we’re going to uncover what you need to know about how it’s produced and how to tell if you have quality olive oil or not.
Why is Olive Oil So Good For You?
Much like Mediterranean cultures, olive oil is at the center of the Mediterrranean Diet. Olive oil is included in most recipes. It’s a diet the encourages you to consume fat, which is contrarty to a lot of other diets.
What is it about olive oil that’s so good for you?
If you read The Mediterranean Wine Guide, you learned about polyphenols. These are chemical compounds that serve as antioxidants in the body.
These antioxidants help protect the body from inflammation, hypertension, and even cancer. Polyphenols occur naturally in plants, including olive trees. The polyphenols then appear in olive oil.
The amount of polyphenols in olive oil depends on the production and extraction methods. The more refined an olive oil is, the fewer polyphenols it will have.
The type of fat that’s in olive oil is also indicative of the healthy nature of olive oil. I’m sure you’ve heard of good fats and bad fats.
Like with everything on the Mediterranean Diet, there can be too much of a good thing. You want to use olive oil, but do so moderately.
A few tablespoons of olive oil a day is fine. If you have too much, you can wind up doing more harm than good.
How Olive Oil is Produced
You’ll find that there are many types of olive oils on the market. Similar to wines, the type of olive species, the climate, weather, and the olive oil producer have to be in harmony to create a flavorful olive oil.
The key to the flavor of olive oil is when the olives are harvested. Black olives are when the olives reach full ripeness. However, that’s when they’re not picked for olive oil. Oilve oil is made with green, unripened olives.
Olive producers have to balance the flavor of the olives with the yield the olive trees produce. Olive trees produce the most fruit later in the growing season. Yet, the flavors are the best earlier in the growing season.
That’s part of the reason why the most flavorful olive oils are so expensive. You have to sacrifice quantity to get high-quality.
The olives are harvested in a few ways. One is by hand, where the olives are picked right from the trees. It’s also common for a large sheet or tarp to be placed under the olive tree, where it’s then beaten with sticks for the olives to fall to the ground.
For large farms, producers will use specialized trucks that shake the olive trees to get the olives to fall to the ground.
The olives are then taken to the plant for processing, which is done within 24 hours of harvesting the fruit. This video from Sterna Olive Oil in Greece takes you behind the scenes of their production methods.
The Types of Olive Oil
There are a few key types of olive oils that you need to know about: extra virgin olive oil, virgin, and refined. There are standards of olive oil quality that producers have to meet. They’re governed by the International Olive Council, which is a part of the United Nations.
In the U.S., we have our own standards, which are a bit different than the IOC standards.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Extra virgin olive oil, or EVOO is the gold-standard of olive oils. It’s produced using cold-pressed methods (below 28 degrees Celsius) and without chemicals. According the IOC standards, this olive oil has no more than .8% acidity.
It also must be free of defects, which will give you the best flavors and aromas.
Virgin Olive Oil
Virgin olive oil is also produced at the first press. The flavors and aromas tend to be weaker than extra-virgin olive oil. The acidity level of virgin olive oil is 1.5%.
Refined Olive Oil
This takes the virgin and extra virgin olive oil that’s not fit for consumption and applies heat and chemicals for further refinement.
Refined olive oil is usually used in conserved goods, like fish and other products canned in olive oil.
What Is Light Olive Oil?
On the supermarket shelves, you’ll see light or extra light olive oil. That doesn’t mean that it has less fat content.
It’s lighter in color and flavor because it’s actually refined olive oil. It may be used for frying or cooking, but you’re really not getting the full benefits of extra virgin olive oil. You’re also not getting the full flavor.
Light olive oil is a way for producers to sell lower quality olive oils. It’s actually nothing more than a slick marketing tactic.
How to Shop for Olive Oil
Shopping for olive oil can be as daunting as shopping for wine. You’re just looking at a shelf full of labels and go for either the one that’s the least expensive or the one that has the prettiest label. Here’s what you should look for when you’re shopping for olive oil.
The Type of Olive Oil
The first thing is the type of olive oil. As we’ve already learned, we want to stay away from light and extra light olive oils. You want to stick with the extra-virgin types of olive oil. The Mediterranean Diet emphasizes quality ingredients, and that includes olive oil.
The Place of Production
Olive oil producers may source olives from a variety of farms and countries. That’s how mass producers are able to get the same flavor of olive oil year after year. It also allows them to produce olive oil for less.
Ideally, you want to stay away from blends from different regions because the quality won’t be a good as with a single source producer.
Of course, a single source producer will cost more, so if you’re trying to balance budgets with quality, at least get the olive oil that has been sourced from the same country.
Olive oil that’s exposed to light doesn’t help the shelf life of the oil. By its very nature, olive oil can go bad fast.
You want to purchase olive oils that are packaged in containers (tins or glass bottles) that protect the oil from light and heat.
Shopping for Olive Oil on a Budget
Olive oil can be pricey, and it can be limiting to find a good bottle on a budget. What I do is that I have two bottles of olive oil. One that’s less expensive and used for general purposes, like frying or cooking. I then keep a smaller bottle of a higher quality olive oil that has more flavor.
That one is used in recipes where the flavor matters, like in dips or in salads. That helps me keep things on a budget without sacrificing the quality of flavors.
Two that I can recommend without reservation are Betis Olive Oil and Nunex de Prado.
Betis Olive oil is produced in Dos Hermanas, Spain just outside of sevilla. The flavors are strong with a surprising peppery finish. I love using this on fresh-baked breads.
You may be able to get this at your local Spanish grocery store and it’s frequently on sale. I was able to pick up a 24oz container for about $7.
Nunez de Prado is a seventh-generation olive oil producer just outside of Cordoba, Spain. The family sticks to the old traditions of olive oil production, resulting in
Exploring the World of Olive Oil and the Mediterranean Diet
The olive tree has been a part of civilization dating back thousands of years. It symbolizes much in your culture, from peace to prosperity. Today, the olive tree also represents a connection to our ancestors.
There’s much to be said about olive oil. When you use it for your Mediterranean Diet recipes, it’s best to stick with extra virgin olive oil. You’ll know that you’re getting the highest quality olive oils.
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