The Industrial Side of Olive Oil
After a morning in the orchards we drove to the other side of Sfax to visit a very large producer. The filling lines were running and we observed both 500 ml bottles and 3 liter tins being filled and packed for shipping. This was a complete inline system with auto-cartoners, bottle-inverter/air rinse system, a rotary overflow filler, ROPP capper, and pressure sensitive label application.
We spent time in the lab where a chemist demonstrated some of the tests she performs to determine if an olive oil meets International Olive Council (IOC) standards for the grade “extra virgin”. It is easy for marketing people to get hung up on the metrics, and we frequently see articles in the press about an oil being “acidic”. More accurately, what chemists are looking for is something referred to as “free acidity” expressed as oleic acid. Different governing bodies have different standards. A very clear description these standards can be found here.
Additionally, the company we visited maintains a tasting panel to judge the organoleptic characteristics of an oil: they identify faults — such as musty, fusty, rancid — and look for a harmonious balance of three positive attributes. To be certified as an extra virgin olive oil the product must not only pass the chemical analysis, but must be free of defects and demonstrate characteristics of fruity, pungent and bitter. To learn more, see Nancy Ash’s Tasting Advice, which conveys the system and methods of a professional olive oil taster in a friendly and accessible way, and Richard Gawel’s tasting resources, which provide many insights and considerations.
Both conventional and organic EVOO are produced here, and we were also able to see an olive oil refinery for the production of what is known in the marketplace as “pure olive oil”. If an olive oil has defects — perhaps the olives were not able to be milled immediately — they would not pass the chemical analysis or the rigors of the taste panel. These oils are refined with heat and chemicals to remove all aroma and flavor, and unfortunately all of the nutrients, too. The result of this refined olive oil is called “pure” olive oil, sometimes marketed as light or “lite”, and is a very large percentage of what is produced and consumed worldwide.