Ebrahim Moosa – Cii News | 16 October 2012
All over the world, the Mediterranean diet is famed for the substantial protection it offers against heart disease, cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and the general improvement it tenders in improving the overall quality of life. The traditional regimen inspired by the dietary patterns of Portugal, Spain, Greece and parts of the Middle East may conjure up images of the leisurely dining of meals rich in fish, vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts and cheeses. But for the picturesque setting to be complete, it would almost always have to be accompanied by generous garnishings of olive oil. In fact – as numerous scientific and medical studies have borne witness to – the benefits of the heart-healthy Mediterranean lifestyle may be attributable in large measure chiefly to its admittance of this famed oil, whose constituents have been proven to hold innumerable benefits for general health and well being.
It should then come as disturbing news to those hinging their lifestyle makeovers on the boons of this nourishing liquid, the findings of an American investigative journalist who has worked tirelessly to expose the slipperiness of the contemporary olive oil industry. Having recently concluded a visit to South Africa, author of the groundbreaking book Extra Viginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, Tom Mueller, is on an offensive to reveal that much of the oil that gets passed off as extra virgin olive oil in supermarkets across the world is actually adulterated versions of the real thing, mixed with low-grade vegetable oils and artificial colouring.
After an extensive tour of South African mills and producers, Mueller is glowing in his praise for local olive oil offerings which he anoints as possessing a very high quality. His impression of imported olive oils however is markedly different, with the author alleging that many imported oils are sub-standard, thereby deceiving consumers and undercutting the efforts of honest producers.
“Some of the greatest olive oils are Italian, Greek and Spanish in origin,” Mueller told Sabahul Khair this week. “(The problem is that) some big companies really cut corners. Extra virgin olive oil is freshly pressed olive juice made from fresh fruit, using good equipment, and should be sold within a year.”
Other stuff – as he contemptuously refers to lower grade products “is industrial fat made from olives picked off the ground, and simply doesn’t have the same taste or health benefits. ” He believes this to be the ultimate scam, with unscrupulous people making enormous amounts of money selling very low grade products and labelling them to be the highest grade.
“It is the oldest way in the book to make money – ‘buy low and sell high’ – typically buy very low grade olive oil or even other seed oils like sunflower and soybean oil and doctor it so that it smells a bit like olive oil, and then market the product as extra virgin olive oil – 100% Italian, cold pressed etc. Not only do consumers suffer, but honest producers are also driven out of work because of these shady operators.”
With the global demand for olive oil growing, and interest from consumers peaking due to the liquid’s unquestionable health benefits, Mueller is outspoken on the urgent need to re-educate the public on the true nature of some of the olive oil products adorning their supermarket shelves. “People want olive oil for the health benefits, but if they’re getting the fake stuff, they really are not getting the health benefits at all.”
He advocates a careful scrutiny of mainly imported products, but warns that labels are often an ambiguous source for consumer information. In the absence of a properly regulated statutory environment, Mueller says the best bet for consumers is to rely on certain tell-tale signs. “The colour of the oil is not important,” he advises, “but consumers need to be looking for information like the harvest date – not the bottling or best buy date.”
“Dark bottles are a must as they protect the oil from harmful UV rays. You also need to be able to determine a specific country of origin and a specific producer, not merely some annonymous trading company.”
According to Mueller, pricing can also offer valuable hints on the quality of the product. “A price say, of R29 should be a big red flag. You should be paying double or triple that amount if you’re looking for the good stuff.” However, he cautions that price alone should not be the main determinant. “European oil producers are subsidised by the government, so they can afford to charge less. In South Africa and many consumer nations the subsidies are not there, so the Europeans can be a bit lower priced and still be honest, but sooner or later that subsidy is going to come back to haunt them.”
In Mueller’s assessment, the single most important safety net for the South African consumer is the South African Olive industry sticker. “SA Olive takes care to check the (local)olive oil they certify, unlike other countries where no such frameworks exist.” The expert also lauded the South African government for its commitment to promote local olive oil and for showing a willingness to maintain quality standards for both local and imported oils.
He also noted the existence of “superb” olive oil from Palestine, Syria and parts of North Africa, but observed that these were mostly consumed in their places of origin and were seldom exported.
Now back in Italy, Mueller said his revelations around the olive oil industry were merely part of a larger campaign to promote vigilance amongst consumers. “Through my book and website, I’m trying to help the quality revolution along. The questions that we’re asking about olive oil – the truth about its labelling origins, whose making it and who controls our food supply – are true about a lot of different foods, and I think understanding the questions raised about olive oil, could also get people asking the right questions about a lot of other things they eat.”
LISTEN to the full interview with Tom HERE:Cii, Ebrahim Gangat, Ebrahim Moosa, Extra Virginity, fake, Mediterranean diet, Olive Oil, Olive SA, Sabahul Khair, Tom Mueller