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The Ins And Outs Of Olive Oil

Rabbi Yirmiyahu Kaganoff

Entering the supermarket aisle in which olive oil is stocked can be extremely confusing. There’s virgin olive oil, exra-virgin olive oil, just plain olive oil, and refined olive oil. Since extra-virgin olive oil is ostensibly pure, can we assume that it is kosher without certification? And can we use just any oil to light our Chanukah menorahs? Rabbi Yirmiyahu Kaganoff sets the record straight.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

In the days of Tanach and Chazal, olives and olive oil had many uses. The fruit was pickled and eaten. The oil was the first choice when one wanted clear, bright light; it was used extensively for sicha, as a massage or rubdown oil, which people smeared on their bodies on a regular basis; and it was even used as a depilatory. And, of course, olive oil was a staple in cuisine, used as salad oil, as a dip for one’s bread, and as cooking oil.

Today, olives are grown primarily for salad oil and for healthful cooking oil, although some varieties are cultivated primarily for their value as table fruit. Olives are much lauded for their healthful properties. Numerous studies show that olive oil consumption reduces cholesterol, lowers blood pressure, helps prevent heart disease, and even reduces the risk of developing certain cancers. Olives contain many vitamins, essential fatty acids, antioxidants, and other nutrients.

I once had the occasion to ask a prominent nutritionist how much olive oil he recommends one consume daily. His response: “As much as you can get yourself to eat.” When I pointed out that oil is fattening, he responded that the health benefits from consuming olive oil far offset any harm that may result from eating too much. He further noted that the body requires a certain amount of fat, and he contended that no harm would come to someone whose fat intake was predominantly olive oil.

This nutritionist’s advice is currently being followed by an increasing number of people, which has created a tremendous increase in olive oil demand.

The vast majority of the world’s olive crop grows in the countries bordering on the Mediterranean Sea. Italy is widely reputed to be the world’s leading olive grower, and indeed it is the world’s leading exporter of olive oil (although in fact, Spain is a larger producer of olive oil). Italians themselves consume so much olive oil that the country actually imports more olive oil than it exports. Nevertheless, quality olive oil production is often associated with Italy, and many brand names reflect this. Certainly, Italian cuisine often makes use of premium olive oil; and the cultivation and production of quality olive oil is an important part of the Italian economy.

It should be noted that the product label indicates only where the oil was bottled, not where the olives were grown and crushed. Thus, olive oil produced in Tunisia or Greece is often labeled — completely legally — as “product of Italy.” This happens when an Italian firm purchases oil in bulk from one of its Mediterranean neighbors and bottles the product in its own facility in Italy. But it would be illegal for this company to bottle the product on site outside Italy and sell it as “product of Italy.”


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