It's golden or bronze, silky-textured, it tastes great and it's good for you -- or at least, better for you than some alternatives. Can you guess what it is? A hint: It's positively ancient in origin. Another hint: It's No. 2 in dollar sales in its category.
If you guessed olive oil, you are most likely a savvy, health-conscious, taste-conscious consumer -- or someone who grew up in a household where olive oil is a tradition as old as the family.
"There's no question about it," says Arlene Wanderman, a dietitian who works with the International Olive Oil Council. "There's a tremendous percentage of consumers who are starting to become cognizant of how to use olive oil and what to use it in."
The idea of olive oil, which is largely a monounsaturated fat, for good health is getting some powerful backing these days. In an article in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition late last year, the authors concluded that based on research studies, monounsaturated fatty acid, "should be the major fatty acid in the diet."
And sales figures bear out olive oil's growing popularity. During the first quarter of this year, according to the industry publication Supermarket News, olive oil sales reached $59.1 million, and, with a 17 percent share of the pourable oil market, ran second only to corn oil in the category.
Many people have come to their awareness of olive oil's healthful properties through what's called "the Mediterranean diet" -- cuisine that emphasizes grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits, and is low in meat and saturated fat. People from countries where the diet is prevalent have generally been shown to have fewer of some kinds of health problems than those who live where meat and fat flavors dominate.
Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat that promotes fluidity in high-density lipoproteins, which helps eliminate cell cholesterol. Studies in many countries over the past 20 years have demonstrated the correlation between diets where the primary fat is olive oil and the lowered incidence of atherosclerosis, high blood pressure and high blood glucose.
Produce more, use more
It's no coincidence that those same countries, clustered around the Mediterranean Sea, produce the bulk of the world's olive oil -- Spain, Italy, and Greece prominent among them. Cultivation of olives for oil in this part of the world dates back at least 6,000 years.
But today, for many people, recognizing a health benefit and translating it into better eating habits may be two different things.
"There's a lot of confusion out there as regards the different types of olive oils that are available," says Michael Regina, buyer for Rockville-based Sutton Place Gourmet, whose stores routinely stock three or four dozen different olive oils. "There's an enormous proliferation of them now. There's a new one every five minutes."
Olive oils come in several varieties and every shade from pale wheat yellow to deep "olive" green. The price range is also vast: From a couple of dollars to more than $40 a bottle.
How's a poor consumer to decide?
"For practical purposes," Mr. Regina says, "there are really only two 'grades' of olive oil that matter -- pure olive oil and extra-virgin olive oil. Generally speaking, pure olive oil is a blend of mechanically produced olive oil and extra-virgin olive oil."
Extra virgin olive oil is the purest form of olive oil, made with minimal processing. Top of the line extra virgins may be "pressed" simply by the weight of the olives piled on top of each other, he says, and the resulting oil is not otherwise touched. Other extra virgins are pressed by mechanical means, and may be lightly filtered. "There are a ba-zillion variations on the theme," Mr. Regina says. "In some commercial operations, olives are pressed mechanically, sometimes under heat, down to and including pressing the pits."
The difference between pure olive oil (now called simply olive oil) and extra virgin is in the taste.
"Olive oil really is the only oil that has taste," says Luis Estupinan, vice president of marketing and sales for the Baltimore-based Pompeian, Inc., which imports a veritable lake full of olive oil and bottles it for sale in virtually every part of the United States. Forty tanks in the temperate basement of the Pulaski highway facility can store a million gallons of olive oil. "Olive oil's a natural product," Mr. Estupinan says; when groups of schoolchildren tour the plant, they're told olive oil is "a natural fruit juice."
Olive oil is very much like wine, Mr. Estupinan points out. The fruit is gathered, pressed and filtered in both cases. Unlike wine, however, olive oil is not better after years of storage; it is best used within a few months.
Consumer taste test
The taste of the oil is important for two reasons. Mr. Estupinan and Ms. Wanderman both emphasized consumers should taste a number of olive oils to determine their favorite. "The best one is the one you like," Mr. Estupinan says. Oils from various places and producers can taste quite different; if one doesn't please the palate, another should.
Color is not a reliable indicator of taste: It can be influenced by weather, soil and region of origin.
The taste is important also in determining which olive oil to use in which dish.
Nancy Longo, chef-owner of Pierpoint restaurant in Fells Point, who says she uses "a lot" of olive oil, says, "Olive oil, of all the oils I have ever used, is the most fragrant and most often misused."
Extra-virgin oils have the most intense flavor, she says, and should be used more as a main ingredient -- perhaps simply drizzled over good bread -- than simply another flavor in a recipe. The most flavorful oils are usually the most expensive as well. "You would never use it in a salad dressing," she says. "It's just too intense."
Chef Michael Gettier of M. Gettier, also in Fells Point, says he uses high-flavor olive oil in tapenade (an olive-anchovy spread), and in a coating for salmon. "Extra-virgin olive oil gives a garden XTC fruitiness to things," he says.
Not good for frying
Mr. Regina, of Sutton Place Gourmet, says, "It would be foolish to try to fry vegetables or meat or anything in very high-grade extra-virgin olive oil. It has a really low burn point -- it'll burn, it smokes, and it actually imparts an unpleasant flavor to the food." Instead, he says, "most home cooks, including my mom, use pure olive oil." It's less expensive and it comes in bigger containers. "The higher up you go [in price and quality] the less actual cooking you would do with the oil, it becomes more of a condiment."
4 Mr. Regina has a simple table for olive oil use:
Lower priced, less flavorful oils: frying.
Medium-low grades: sauteing.
Medium high grades: salads.
Highest grades: condiment.
"Grade" is not judgmental, he notes; each variety has its own best use.
"We tell people to buy 'olive oil' and use that for cooking," Ms. Wanderman says. "Save a little of the extra-virgin to 'anoint' the food."
A little goes a long way
Olive oil has a number of properties that make it perfect for food preparation, she says. "Olive oil has a very wonderful flavor. A little goes a long way -- you can greatly reduce the amount of fat and oil in recipes, because it tastes so good. Olive oil also has this wonderful spreadability, so it has wonderful coatability." When it's brushed on skinless chicken breasts, for instance, it seals in the flavor and juices. "It's excellent for quick cooking," she says, "and for barbecuing and grilling."
And, because olive oil contains a lot of anti-oxidants, it acts as an emulsifier or blender of flavors. People who don't want the pronounced taste of olives can use the so-called "light" olive oil; it's refined to be a blander product; it looks more like other vegetable oils, though it retains all the healthful properties of olive oil.
"It's also good in baking," she says. "Because it's a monounsaturated fat, it has a very small fat crystal, so it gives baked goods a very even texture. And the antioxidants mean it has anti-staling agents. Cakes, stored properly, have a longer staying power."
It seems pretty clear that olive oil is here to stay. The latest trend, Mr. Regina says, is the "newly discovered, or newly rediscovered" idea of infused oils. It's the fastest growing segment of the olive oil market, with oils flavored with such things as garlic, rosemary, basil and lemon.
Here are a couple of recipes for olive oil. The first is from the International Olive Oil Council, part of a program called "What to spread on bread instead." Combining vegetables and beans with olive oil not only eliminates the cholesterol of butter, it also adds fiber and vitamins to the diet.
with curry and cumin
Makes 32 1/2 -tablespoon servings
1/4 cup onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
4 tablespoon olive oil, divided use
1 teaspoon curry powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 cup carrot, cooked and sliced
1/3 cup canned white kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
In skillet combine onion, garlic and 2 tablespoons olive oil; cook stirring, until golden. Add curry and cumin; cook 1 minute. In food processor, puree onion mixture with carrots and kidney beans. With motor running, gradually add remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil through the feed tube; add salt. Transfer to a small bowl or ramekin, smooth top with spatula. Serve spread on crackers or thin slices of toasted crusty bread.
The next recipe is from Pompeian; the recipe was devised by Chef John Michael Marcin of King's Contrivance in Columbia.
and orange muffins
1 1/2 tablespoons minced orange zest
2/3 cup orange juice (see note)
1 cup cranberries, chopped
1 cup walnuts, chopped
2 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup extra light olive oil
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Mix berries, nuts and zest in one bowl. In another bowl, mix the flour, baking powder and 2/3 cup sugar. In a third bowl, mix the orange juice, olive oil and egg. Pour olive oil mixture into flour mixture and blend. Add berry and nut mixture and blend.
Spoon into oiled muffin cups. Sprinkle with granulated sugar and bake for 25 minutes.
Note: Two oranges should yield enough zest and juice.
OLIVE OIL HOT LINE
The International Olive Oil Council has a hot line for consumers who want to know more about which oil to use in which recipe, how to substitute olive oil for other oils in recipes, or want more information about the health aspects of olive oil in the diet. The hot line operates from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday. The number is (800) 232-6548.