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Should Americans be Buying Olive Oil Made in the U.S.?: Part 1

Recently, I’ve noticed a new trend in recipe ingredients. When newer recipes, especially those on foodie recipe websites, call for olive oil, they don’t just call for “2 tbsp. olive oil.” The recipes now frequently call for “2 tbsp. of the best olive oil you can get.” I don’t know about you, but when I think of best quality olive oil, I always think it must come from Italy. So I make sure my olive oil comes from Italy.

I know that olive oil is a healthier choice, and I use it frequently. I buy the supermarket brand (which is a product of Italy) because, honestly, I understand that some of the more expensive brands may taste better, but I’m not willing to put out the money for expensive oil. But maybe I should be. Or maybe I should be buying it from a source closer to me than Italy – like the U.S.

Here’s why I’m questioning my olive oil choices. I recently came across an article written last August in the U.K. Telegraph titled Olive Oil Consumption Leading to ‘Serious Environmental Problem.’ According to the article, Ecologist magazine reports that in Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal

trees are densely packed, planted in massive irrigated lowland plains and harvested by machines that shake the trunks, which uses more water and chemicals than traditional farms on upland terraces.

It says: “To meet this new appetite mass-market brands are produced intensively, so supermarkets can sell it in high volumes at lower prices.

“Demand for cheap, mass-produced oil is making it a struggle for the smaller, traditional farms to be economically viable.”

So it seems that my demand for the best quality olive oil at a low price could possibly be damaging the environment and harming the small, traditional farms in Italy. In fact, the article goes on to say that Guy Beaufoy, a consultant on agricultural and environmental policies in Europe, calls the situation “an environmental catastrophe” because

the more intensive plantations are of “little or no conservation value, and create environmental problems – desertification, pollution from agrichemicals, depletion of water resources.

So, what am I to do? Well, first of, I’m not going to beat myself up for something I was unaware of. But, now that I am aware, I’m going to look into finding out where I can get more local, more environmentally friendly sources of olive oil. I live on the east coast, so I doubt truly local olive oil is available. But, I’m going to see what I can find out about that and other olive oil that is produced in the U.S. On Wednesday, I’ll get back to you with my findings in Part 2.

In the meantime, if you buy U.S. produced olive oil, let me know where you get it from and what you think of it in the comments. And, if you get it from a producer near the east coast, please tell me where.

Image courtesy of flickr.

9 comments
  1. Carla

    Very interesting! I never thought much about location though I know some people who prefer Italian olive oil. I figured that its best for me to stick to Californian olive oil since it is local to where I live. I usually buy an unnamed brand from a local health food store that sells it in bulk (thus, unnamed). It’s organic, extra virgin and has a really good flavor. Sometimes I buy this brand http://www.barianioliveoil.com/ which is Californian too. In terms of price, its not the most expensive (IMO) or the least. I don’t know of any producers on the East Coast yet.

  2. Msphillyorganic

    Oh, good point. I look forward to your next posts! I *generally* do not make the lowest price my guiding factor because lowering the price usually means less savory production practices.

    Maybe we should switch to sunflower oil?

    “Sunflower oil production has been on a sharp rise since 1960, and is fast becoming a replacement for other oils in the United States. Among the polyunsaturated vegetable oils, sunflower oil and the related safflower oil are better for human consumption than either corn or soybean oil because there are more double bonds present in each triglyceride molecule…As a salad oil, it is tasteless and equal in quality to olive oil, which is mostly composed of saturated oils; however, researchers have discovered that olive oil has some healthful properties.” http://eatdrinkbetter.com/2008/10/06/should-americans-be-buying-olive-oil-made-in-the-us-part-1/

  3. Miranda

    Thank you for such an great post. It seems as though a lot of people are making the switch to olive oil for health reasons and I think information like this would be interesting to many of them.

    Like Carla, I live on the west coast and am unaware of any companies back east. There is a local grower/producer whose oil I really do enjoy though, http://www.luceroolive.com/... it is locally grown and a very grass roots family company.

  4. Michael Padnos

    I live in the South of France and produce a tiny quantity (about 7 gallons a year) of olive oil.
    Here are some olive oil facts:
    1. “Extra virgin” means not heated (heat destroys flavor) and not otherwise processed. “Extra virgin” is more expensive oil because it is more costly to produce; it also tastes better.
    2. Italy mostly does not shake trees to harvest olives (just drive around Italy and you’ll see the nets on the ground, which means harvesting by hand); tree-shaking, however, is wide=spread in Spain, but not in Italy –and never in France.
    3. Olive trees either are or are not irrigated. Here in the south of France, the summers are bone-dry; in August, almost all growers do some irrigation.
    If you don’t irrigate and you don’t gete rain, you don’t have olives–period.
    3. The “best” olive oil is a matter of taste. Within the category of “extras virgin,” some oils are fruitier than others, some are more acetic; some are “greasier”-tasting; some are watery and flat-tasting.
    4. The rules that govern oil production vary widely from country to country. “Italian olive oil” may be all or mostly oil from other countries, it may include oil from countries in North Africa; it often includes oil that doesn’t even come from olives. (Spain, for example, ships millions of gallons of oil to Italy in huge tank-trucks every year; that oil is then bottled in Italy and sold as “Italian” oil.)
    How should you buy oil?
    1. If you want flavor, buy only extra virgin. And then TASTE the oil, preferably on a small bit of bread. Buy what you like, not what someone tells you you SHOULD like. Watch out for too much acid, which you will taste in the back of your throat.
    2. Look for French oil (highly regulated and quite expensive; labels on our oil are TRUE!) Unfortunately you won’t find much of it in the US, because it is so good that we consume it all ourselves!
    3. If you are NOT looking for rich and fruity –i.e, if you want BLAND — don’t pay the premium for extra virgin.
    4. Try 2 or 4 different brands, and taste them together.
    5. Never store olive oil in the fridge; keep it out of the light (a dark bottle is good); don’t keep it too long (it can go rancid, especially if kept in the heat or light.)
    6. Use it on salads; here in the south of France, we ALWAYS sprinkle it on grilled fish (yum!); use it instead of butter on steamed veggies: it is better for you, and if you find a nice, fruity oil, you’ll never use butter again! It is NOT worth buying expensive extra virgin for cooking: use a less expensive oil, for example colza, which is an excellent, healthy oil for cooking.

    Bon apetit!

  5. Robin Shreeves

    Wow, Michael – that’s a blog post all in itself. Thanks for all the really great info. Very interesting that olive oil from Italy may not be from olives grown in Italy, although I suppose not surprising. Things like that happen in the U.S. all the time.

  6. Keith Voight

    Hi Robin,

    I read your column and I thought I would respond.

    I am a Maryland retailer (farmers market) of California olive oils. I am also a member of the California Olive Oil Council. I would be happy to give you more information on why buying California oil is good for recipes and for you.

    Thanks,

    Keith

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