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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When you're buying olive oil, you may get confused by all the different varieties and grades on the shelf, like virgin, extra-virgin or even first cold pressed. My guest Tom Mueller says some labels are authentic distinctions. Some are deceptive. Some are just fraudulent.

According to Mueller, there's actually quite a bit of deception in the way olive oil is labeled in the U.S. In his new book, "Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil," he writes about fraud in the industry, but he also writes about how olive oil is made and what makes good olive oil so delicious. He's lived in Italy for the past 20 years. Mueller is a staff writer for the New Yorker.

Tom Mueller, welcome to FRESH AIR. What are some of the things that make olive oil different from vegetable oils? Like why is olive oil worthy of tastings and categorizations of - you know, status gradings of its finement? You don't see that for corn oil or canola oil or soybean oil.

TOM MUELLER: Well, olive oil is really the only commercially important vegetable oil to be made from a fresh fruit. Everything else is made from seeds or nuts. And what that means, essentially, is that on the one hand, olive oil, you're getting fresh-squeezed fruit juice. And on the other hand, you're getting what has to be highly refined to make it edible. So soybean and sunflower and so on are always run through a refinery, whereas extra virgin olive oil should never be run through a refinery. And in...

GROSS: Well, with the vegetable oils, too, they have to use solvents, you say, in order to extract the oil.

MUELLER: That's right. It's a kind of a heavy industrial process, where the hexane or another industrial solvent is dumped on the crushed seeds or nuts, and then once the oil is out, it has to be de-solvent-ized and de-acidified and deodorized and de-gummed and all the other D's that you can imagine, which pretty heavily impacts the chemical structure of the oil.

And olive oil, you know, being fresh-squeezed fruit juice, has a remarkable range of highly beneficial ingredients that is very perishable and would disappear if you refined it.

What that gets you from a health perspective is a cocktail of 200-plus highly beneficial ingredients that explain why olive oil has been the heart of the Mediterranean diet. And at the same time, you have a huge range, since olive oil is - comes from 700 different kinds of olives, you have a huge range of cooking options that great chefs are only just beginning to understand and use.

GROSS: So explain what virgin olive oil is. Apparently, it's a relatively new distinction. What is it compared to regular olive oil?

MUELLER: It's actually pretty simple. Virgin means made with physical processes, not with chemistry. So it's essentially, you crush an olive, and out drops the oil in extreme synthesis. Extra virgin is a quality distinction among virgin oils. There are three different grades, quality grades of virgin oil.

So it's made by physical means, not by chemistry, not by high heat, and extra simply means the best. The irony is that it's actually a pretty low bar for quality because the legal definition of extra virgin simply says it has to pass certain chemical tests. And in a sensory way, it has to taste and smell vaguely of fresh olives - because it's a fruit - and have no faults.

It's not bad, so it's extra virgin. But even though that's a pretty low bar, many, many of the olive oils - extra-virgin olive oils on our shelves today in America don't clear it.

GROSS: Yes, and we'll get to that in a minute. So are there olive oils that are neither virgin nor extra virgin?

MUELLER: There are, indeed, and they are called lampante, which is Italian for lamp oil. And by law, they can't actually be sold as food. They can only be sold for fuel.

GROSS: Okay. So I won't be putting that on my salad.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MUELLER: You may be, but you just don't know it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Oh, gosh. Okay, well, we'll get to that in a second. So the whole category of extra virgin wasn't created until 1960. Why was it created then?

MUELLER: Well, that was at a time when new technological developments allowed people to make much better oil. In the past, the technologies that had been used had been used, really, by the Romans: You ground the oil with stone mills, and you crushed them in presses. And in Roman times, they used huge rocks and lever arms made of trees, and later they used hydraulic presses. But it was the same basic concept.

And in the '60s and early '70s, they started to introduce stainless steel milling instead of the old stone; introduced centrifuges to get the oil out of the paste. And all of a sudden, it was possible to make radically better oil than had been the case in the past.

Of course, when you have a brand new type of oil that's significantly better, you ought to have a new name for it. And that's kind of how the extra virgin grade was born.

GROSS: So the good news about olive oil is that it's, like, way more complex and interesting and tasty and subtle than people like me ever imagined. The bad news is that a lot of oil - a lot of olive oil is adulterated. It isn't what it says it is. What are some of the ways that olive oil is adulterated?

MUELLER: Well, essentially, people are taking lower-priced products and putting them into and blending them with or putting them neat into bottles that are labeled extra virgin. The worst or the most flagrant kinds of cases are blending with other vegetable oils.

This remains a problem particularly in the food service sector, although it does happen in retail, as well - in other words, in supermarkets. Someone's taking a soybean oil or a sunflower seed oil and coloring it with chlorophyll and flavoring it with beta-carotene or something similar and selling the result as extra virgin olive oil.

Another - a bigger problem in retail, in supermarket oils, is deodorized oil, which is essentially olive oil - oil made from olives - but the olives quite often have fallen from the trees and sat on the ground for a long time before they've been harvested and - well, before they've been swept up with street sweepers, not harvested - taken to the mill.

The resulting oil, not surprisingly, is smelly and bad-tasting. So they do a low-temperature deodorization, which essentially removes the flavors and the odors, good and bad, and you have an inert substance at the end. They goose it with a little bit of real extra virgin and sell the result as extra virgin olive oil.

Now, the problem here is that the cost to make that oil is far, far lower than the cost to make real extra virgin olive oil, which involves taking good care of your trees, having fresh, fine fruit, harvesting it quickly at the right moment, milling it and storing it properly. That's a much more expensive undertaking.

So if you can have the deodorized cheap stuff, which gravity harvests, and the really, really good stuff, which people have to work on and spend a lot of money making, under the same label, naturally, the honest people are getting terribly undercut.

And growers around the world, from the Mediterranean Basin to California to Australia to South Africa, are being - there's a huge unfair advantage in favor of the bad stuff. At the same time, of course, consumers are being defrauded of the health and culinary benefits of great olive oil.

GROSS: The health benefits, they're being defrauded of?

MUELLER: Well, yes, because if you - first of all, if you start with bad olives, you've - you know, you might well be eating something that's rancid. Rancidity is synonymous with free radicals, with peroxides, with impurities. And at the same time, you've lost that wonderful cocktail of anti-inflammatories and antioxidants and so on that you have only from the very fresh fruit, from the real extra virgin olive oil.

GROSS: What kind of - wait, let me stop you. What kind of anti-inflammatories are in extra virgin olive oil?

MUELLER: Well, there's - one of the most well-known - the fact is that scientists around the world are really only beginning to unpack the scientific underpinnings of the Mediterranean diet. We've known for hundreds of years, thousands of years, that the Mediterranean diet is a very healthy diet, but only now in places like Monell Labs and Harvard School of Public Health and so on are they beginning to unpack that.

One very good example of anti-inflammatory is oleocanthal, which is a sort of a natural ibuprofen. It's a natural COX-1 and COX-2 inhibitor. So - and there's an interesting story, actually, about how that was discovered. Gary Beauchamp, who's the head of the Monell Labs, was testing...

GROSS: And this is a laboratory in Philadelphia that studies smell and fragrance, right?

MUELLER: Right, right, right. Exactly. He was actually doing some testing of ibuprofen for a pharmaceuticals company. He was tasting it. And there's a certain characteristic, peppery bite at the back of the throat that you get from ibuprofen. In fact, the pharmaceutical company was looking for a replacement for that, because they didn't like the bite.

In any event, Mr. Beauchamp, after that, happened to go over to Sicily and taste some really, really first-rate Sicilian freshly squeezed olive juice - in other words, extra virgin olive oil - and had exactly that same bite at the back of his throat.

And he explained to me that quite often, sensory characteristics are - directly reflect the chemical underpinnings of a substance, of a food. And the light bulb went on for him. He said: I wonder, you know, what's - I wonder if there's some sort of ibuprofen-like substance in olive oil.

Sure enough, he took three or four Coke - plastic Coke bottles of oil back to his labs in Philadelphia and unpacked them until he got oleocanthal, he called it, which is a molecule that, in fact, does have very similar COX-1 and COX-2 inhibiting properties to ibuprofen.

GROSS: Okay, so when you deodorize olive oil that's come from olives that have fallen off the tree, as opposed to have been picked, when you deodorize it, you lose some of the fragrance and the taste and also some of the anti-inflammatory properties that olive oil can have. There are other ways that olive oil can be misleading. For example, you say that four out of 10 bottles that say they're Italian olive oil aren't really.

MUELLER: That's right. A lot - if you read the fine print, a lot of those oils have been packed in Italy, or they have transited through Italy just long enough to get the Italian flag on them. That's not - strictly speaking - illegal, but I find it sort of a legal fraud, if you will. And unfortunately, olive oil is full of legal frauds.

An example is extra light olive oil. Well, extra light is just as caloric as any other oil, 120 calories per tablespoon. But if you - you know, the average person looking at it would think oh, good. I'll have some of - I've heard olive oil is a fat, so I'll have some extra light olive oil.

Pure is another one. Pure, to me...

GROSS: So what is extra light, if it's not low in fat?

MUELLER: It's highly, highly refined. It has almost no flavor and no color. And it is, in fact, extra-light in the technical sense of being clear. But that's not necessarily a good thing.

GROSS: Hmm. Okay.

MUELLER: Pure, the same sort of thing. The term pure, in my mind, denotes purity, almost a virginal purity. And, in fact, it means highly refined, as well. These terms have been outlawed in Europe. I mean, they require that the producer really spells it out and says a blend of refined olive oil, blend - mixed with extra virgin to give it flavor.

But they're pushing to keep the labels in America opaque, in my view. That's not illegal, but it's, in my view, unethical.

GROSS: So if you buy olive oil that says it's from Italy, that might mean that the olives are from Italy. It might mean that the olives are from someplace else, but they were exported to Italy, where they were - where the oil was bottled, or where the olives were pressed and the oil was bottled. So as long as, like, part of the process is in Italy, it can have an Italian label. Do I have that right?

MUELLER: Right. Olives are almost never exported, because that's just going to compound your - the deterioration of your food. It's almost always made into oil at the point - near the point that it was harvested. But, yes. There's a great deal of - Italy is the number one importer, exporter and consumer of olive oil, and yet it actually doesn't produce all that much oil. It produces something like a third of what Spain produces. So there's, just on the face of it, something wrong with this picture.

GROSS: My guest is Tom Mueller. He's the author of the new book "Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Tom Mueller, and he's the author of the new book "Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil." You say that the United States is the best place to sell adulterated olive oil. What makes the U.S. so hospitable to adulterated olive oil?

MUELLER: Well, I think it's a combination of a growing fascination with olive oil - I mean it - long term, but growing fascination. Our market consumption has gone up, year on year, 10 percent a year, and we're now the third-largest consumer of olive oil in the world. We just passed Greece, which has more than 100 times more per capita consumption - at least in Crete.

So there's an enormous demand for it. There's also, in many places, an enormous ignorance of what great olive oil is through no fault of anyone's, but until you have your first taste, you won't know what it's like. And because of the regulatory environment, there's no one checking.

So you have a very fast-growing and very large market, where the police are asleep, and it's an invitation, in some cases, for people to take advantage of that.

GROSS: You ask the question at the end of your book: Are we witnessing a renaissance in olive oil or the death of an industry? What's the evidence on each side?

MUELLER: Well, the evidence is that the best olive oils in the world in history are being made right now, all around the world, in California, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, but also around the Mediterranean. Because of great new technology, this oil is far better than any other oil that's ever been made.

The bad news is that right now, labeling is so opaque that it's possible to sell two completely different products under the same extra virgin label. Now, as demand is rising around the world for great oil, the taps are beginning to turn off.

I mean, two weeks ago, the number-two producer in Australia, an extraordinarily good company, efficiently run company making fabulous oil, Kailis Organic, went into receivership. A number of other producers in Australia that I've talked with are on the ropes. And the situation goes - obtains also in the Old World.

Where I live in Liguria, many, many groves are abandoned because the people simply can't afford to pick the fruit anymore. If they could get honest labeling and they could get consumers in America and elsewhere to start appreciating the differences and the vast richness and complexity of the fine oil and distinguish it from, you know, perfectly okay but flat, refined oil - which has its uses, but isn't the same thing - they would start getting properly paid for that oil, and they would be able to stay in business and the olive oil industry would thrive.

If they aren't able, very soon, to get fair labeling and a fair price for their crop, they're going to start shutting their doors. I mean, the taps may be turning off just at the time when people are really beginning to appreciate olive oil in America.

GROSS: Let's talk about some cooking advice for olive oil. When you want to saute something or fry it, should you use olive oil, or should you use a vegetable oil?

MUELLER: Frying, even at high temperatures, from a health point of view, olive oil is wonderful. There is nothing better than olive oil. From a taste point of view, there are times when, at really, really high temperatures, an excellent extra-virgin with a great bitterness and pungency can become a little unbalanced and the bitterness can become overbearing. So - and obviously, from an economic point of view, if you're spending a lot of money for a really good extra-virgin, maybe high-heat cooking in certain circumstances isn't the best thing. But for lower heat, sauteing, every extra virgin olive oil is good. It really depends on the target, the dish you're putting together.

If you're going to be cooking sole or something delicate, you don't want to put a big, muscular, gnarly Tuscan blend or Koroneiki on there. It will make your fish taste like olives - which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it may not be what you had in mind.

On the other hand, if you have a pepper steak or roast lamb or something with a lot of character to begin with, the stronger the oil the better.

GROSS: What do you consider to be some of the best uses of olive oil?

MUELLER: Well, I mean, taking a page from the Greeks, I experimented with various skin lotions and perfume bases and...

GROSS: I was expecting, like, salad or something, drizzle it over bread.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MUELLER: You have to remember, I've been immersing myself in this for five years. So I may have gone over the top. But - and, in fact, pharmaceutical companies and skin care companies have been looking at the health properties of olive oil for a long time. But I have to say that one of the nicest things is to try to recreate American comfort foods with an olive oil, with a Mediterranean olive oil twist.

One of my very favorites is to take a really, really good potato and bake it, and then break it open with a fork and squash it around a little bit, and then dump a really big dose of first-rate, peppery, bitter olive oil on top. And the heat of the potato brings the aromas of the olive oil plus the good potato smell up into your nostrils.

And digging into that, it's just such - so much more enriching an experience than a baked potato with butter, in my view. And it could be a new American comfort food.

GROSS: And do you tend to drizzle olive oil on bread instead of using butter?

MUELLER: Yes. One of the classic - I haven't used butter in 10 years, I think. And again, I have nothing against butter, but I just really like olive oil better. And it does more for the food in many, many different ways. One of the great classic Italian foods, particularly Tuscan foods, fettunta is a peasant bread, nice, fat chunk of peasant bread that's been cooked on - grilled on a fire.

And then you pour copious quantities of good oil on it and maybe rub it with a little garlic. It doesn't get a whole lot better than that as a vehicle for great oil.

GROSS: Okay, well, Tom Mueller, thank you so much for talking with us.

MUELLER: Thank you, Terry. It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: Tom Mueller is the author of the new book "Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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