On one of his many research adventures around the city, a friend (Mr R) was roaming through the aisle of cooking oils at Al Fatah. There he encountered a family member, who was deliberating which oil to buy. After an audible exchange, a gentleman who overheard them said, “Koi sa bhee utha lo yaar (Buy any oil, friend),” turning away with a shrug, he added, “Oil toh oil hay”.
While this left Mr R – a connoisseur of fine olive oils – severely downcast, to me it reflected the prevalent oversight regarding matters of health in affluent Pakistani circles.
One of the more obvious examples of this outlook is the widespread use and availability of olive pomace oil, commonly found alongside olive oils in shops. Most people are not aware that in several countries in the EU, including Spain and Germany, olive pomace oil has been labelled a health hazard and its distribution has been banned altogether.
Types of olive oil
• Extra virgin
This is the finest kind of olive oil, extracted through a process of ‘cold pressing’ which is chemical free and in which the olives are not heated beyond low temperatures. It retains the most aroma, flavour and nutrients of all olive oils and is also known to have anti-breast cancer properties.
It is a slightly more inferior type of olive oil, which is also produced by cold pressing but with ripe olives which produce oil of higher acidity. Low acidity is a marker of quality, as it allows for the oil to retain a higher ‘smoke point’, which is the temperature beyond which oil will break down and turn rancid. This then adds a ‘burnt’ smell and taste in food.
This type of olive oil is produced by the ‘second pressing’ method and lacks both the colour and flavour of virgin olive oils. This type of olive oil provides an economical substitute when you don’t need the oil to contribute to the flavour of a dish.
Olive pomace oil is made from the leftover of olives after first and second pressing. The pulp or ‘pomace’ is then subjected to chemical solvents and progressively high levels of heat in an effort to extract any remaining oil. In an article, the Olive Oil Times reports that this method eventually produces a compound in the oil known as benzopyrene, which is a known carcinogen (cancer-causing substance). After having attained notoriety for conveniently being passed off as ‘olive oil’, several countries in the EU have made the aforementioned classification of pomace as illegal.
For the connoisseur
• Only buy olive oil that is labelled 100% extra virgin.
• Exposure to air, heat and light reduces the smoking point of olive oil. Purchase olive oil in a container of dark glass, steel or tin; avoid transparent containers and never use plastic. Also, store in a cool place such as a pantry.
• The flavour, texture and nutritional value of olive oils fall with time. Do not purchase large amounts unless you intend to use all of it at once.
For the more compromising though, it may suffice to know that the process by which pomace oil is extracted because of which it acquires its hazardous properties is the same process used in the production of cheap vegetable oils. However, pomace still retains the structural profile of olive oil and thus includes a high proportion of healthy Omega-9 fats or ‘oleic acid’ instead of the more harmful Omega-6 fats that vegetable oils contain, including: Sunflower, Corn and Canola. So while pomace is not exactly the best value for your money, in all fairness, it is not at the bottom end either.
In conclusion, next time you’re asked whether you’d like to have ‘olive oil’ poured on your sandwich at your favourite fast-food chain, remember to be careful and not simply assume, “Oil toh oil hay” because you could be in for a surprise!
The authors are involved in a project called Scholars By Profession which intends to pioneer introducing graduate-level research to Pakistan. Please visit their Facebook page for further details.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 6th, 2012.