As producers of extra virgin olive oil, it seems a convenient part of our marketing strategy to denigrate refined olive oils which are sold as ‘extra light’, or when blended with extra virgin olive oil as ‘pure’ olive oil.
Consumers who buy these refined products are already using olive oil so ‘upgrading’ their purchasing behaviour to buying extra virgin makes sense.
Refining plays an important part in any olive industry as it removes lampante olive oil from the market. Lampante olive oil is the classification for oils which have high free fatty acid or peroxide levels or have organoleptic faults such as rancidity. Apart from soap making or sale for biofuels there are few practical ways of stopping this oil from being sold as extra virgin.
There are also consumers who do not like the strong flavours of extra virgin olive oil and are looking for a flavourless vegetable oil. Many of these are in the foodservice and manufacturing industries which require consistent and flavourless oil.
With the push to sell olive oil into the countries where much of the cooking takes place at high temperatures, for example in a wok, the higher smoke point of refined olive oil (242°C ) over that of extra virgin olive oil (190°C to 210°C, depending on quality) is another selling point.
It is important to note that during refining most (around 88%) of the anti-oxidants (insaponifiable fraction) are removed from extra virgin olive oil along with the free fatty acids. However, the fat or oil (saponifiable fraction) is relatively unchanged. Therefore refined olive oil still has many of the health benefits attributed to monounsaturated fats and sterols.
During the deodorising and bleaching phases of refining, which often take place at high temperatures, there may the formation of a low level of trans fats which are absent in the unrefined olive oil. This transformation takes place in refining processes used for all vegetable oils commonly available in supermarkets..
So maintaining its high ratio of monounsaturated fatty acids makes refined olive oil better than the other mainstream vegetable oils, many of which are solvent extracted and all of which are refined.
As an industry it should be our objective to persuade consumers to shift from other vegetable oils to olive oil. This would then give us an increased number of converts to upgrade to extra virgin olive oil.
Much of the present publicity denigrating refined olive oils will have the opposite effect – make customers lose confidence in the quality of all olive oils, extra virgin or refined. They will then switch to the cheaper vegetable oils such as canola/rapeseed oil which also has a high level of monounsaturated fatty acids – but still lower than refined olive oil