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Arsenio Science: The Significance of Taste

In 2016, CBS News ran a 60 minute segment on the so-called Agromafia, an umbrella term for criminal food fraud that apparently results in $16 billion a year for organized Italian crime. Adulterated olive oil is one of their scams and the story broke after 7,000 tons of fake olive oil were impounded. The oil was from North Africa, deodorized with chemicals and rebranded as expensive Italian Extra Virgin, en route for US stores. As well as fanning the flames of the growing narrative of fraud surrounding olive oil (check out last week’s article Fake News and Fake EVOO), this news story also introduced the global public to the Italian “elite food police,” a corps of 60 trained officers, whose taste results are accepted as evidence in Italian courts.

Olive oil fraud is not a new phenomenon. Back in 1959, the United Nations created a council, now called the International Olive Council. with the specific mission of dealing with this issue. After decades of experimentation, the IOC finalized a tasting method that has formed the basis of European law since the 1980s. Both lab tests and human palates are fundamental to determine what can be labeled as extra virgin olive oil. Olive oil was actually the first food in the world where quality is legally determined in part by its sensory properties and where chemical and sensory tests have equal importance before the law.

In the European Union there are a number of chemical and sensory tests for an oil to qualify as Extra Virgin. An oil might pas the chemical test but fail on sensory analysis. The oil must show bitterness, pungency, fruitiness and there 17 official possible taste flaws. Each of those taste flaws indicates an error in the picking of the fruit, or the production of the juice, or the storage of the oil. The Italian parliament has taken that one step further and have passed a significantly more restrictive olive oil law that raises the bar of quality by increasing the legal significance of sensory tests.

Make sure to always choose oils labeled as Extra Virgin. By law these oils can have a maximum free fatty acid level of 0.8%. The median of sensory defects is zero and the median for fruity is above zero. For comparison, Virgin olive oil has a maximum FFA level of 2.% and the median of the sensory defects is under 3.5 - an entirely different story.

Look out for next week’s post about how to choose your oil.

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