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Olive Oil Basics

Olive oil offers a vast range in quality - here are a few tips on choosing the right kind

Even when choices are limited, choosing the right olive oil to do the job can be confusing. Labeling isn't always clear. For instance, if it says "light," that does not mean calories are reduced. Here are a few basics that may be helpful when shopping for olive oil.

Olive oil comes from green olives only. Italy is the highest consumer while Spain is the largest producer. Other producing countries include Greece, Turkey, France, and the U.S., with most crops centered in California.

Oils are graded according to the processing method. First is the number of pressings. The first pressing is usually "cold," which produces the finest oils. Additional pressings - or any part of the process that involves heat (creating a faster oil flow) reduces the quality, the color, and the flavor. Add to this the use of chemicals for extraction and you have the bottom of the barrel, so to speak. These oils are also called "refined."

Extra-Virgin Olive Oil. This is the finest and most flavorful. It is a result of the first (cold) pressing and will be the most expensive. It is used mainly for table service rather than cooking as the taste will diminish with heat. It is the least acidic oil.

Virgin Olive Oil. May not be readily available in all markets. This oil is produced from olives that are riper than those used for Extra-Virgin oil. The acidic level is higher (around 2%), but this is still a cold-pressed, unrefined oil.

Olive Oil/Extra Light/Light. These terms are interchangeable and are indicative of the least flavorful oils. The processing may involve heat, bleaching, and additives. Quite often, lower-grade virgin oils are mixed in to improve the taste. This is the oil to use for cooking as it has a high smoke point (up to 410 degrees).

If the label states "100% Pure Olive Oil," that is merely indicative of the lowest grade. A label stating "refined" will typically have a chemical infusion. Even more misleading is the statement "imported from." This could mean the origination of the olives or simply the processing location.

Regardless of whether purchasing for use fresh or for cooking, olive oil is a heart-healthy choice. It is loaded with monounsaturated fats that work to lower "bad" cholesterol. Calorie counts don't change with processing.

Olive oils are often compared to wines. The taste is based on the type of olives used, their growing conditions, and the climate for that particular season. They'll vary among producers as well.

Always keep the container tightly capped as oxygen will turn the oil rancid. Store in a dark, cool place - not near the stove or in sunlight. Use within six months, if at all possible, for best results. If refrigerated, the oil may turn cloudy. It will clear when returned to room temperature.

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