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Quality olive oil isn’t just delicious—it’s healthy too. To find out more about this flavorful oil, we talked to San Franciscan Fran Gage—author of The New American Olive Oil, a member of the tasting panel for the California Olive Oil Council and an olive oil competition judge.

Q: Why is olive oil so healthy?
A: About 80 percent of olive oil is oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat that is known to decrease the amount of LDLs in the body—the bad cholesterol—without decreasing the good cholesterol. So it’s beneficial for people who have atherosclerosis and other coronary problems. Extra-virgin olive oil also contains antioxidants that help keep us healthy. Research suggests that these antioxidants can help guard against heart disease as well as colon, breast and skin cancer.

Q: What is the difference between a garden-variety supermarket olive oil and quality extra-virgin olive oil?
A: A lot of the oil on supermarket shelves has defects like rancidity and fustiness [decay], which happens when the olives ferment somehow before they get pressed.
Extra-virgin olive oil is made only with olives and no other oils. It’s produced with little or no heat, and no solvents or chemicals are used. It’s very fresh, very healthy, and doesn’t have defects. 
When we taste for the California Olive Oil Council, we taste the oil blind. If an oil has no defects and has certain characteristics—like fruitiness, bitterness and pungency—then the maker gets a seal for their bottles that says it’s extra-virgin olive oil. 

Q: The labels on oils made outside of California can be misleading. How can someone distinguish a quality olive oil?
A: If a label says “Product of Italy,” it isn’t necessarily made from olives that came from Italy. On the back, it might say something like “may have olives from other EU countries.” That kind of oil generally has been mixed together, mass produced and then bottled in Italy. The regulations are very loose. This is probably not extra-virgin olive oil, even though the bottle may say that. If an olive oil has won an award, that will be displayed on the bottle. It means that a group of people tasted it and found it distinctive. The award year should match the year the oil was made. 
Also, look for the harvest date, which should be within the last year. Some makers put “use by” dates on instead, and that should be no more than two years out. Good olive oil should be in dark glass or a box. This helps protect the oil from oxidation. Heat and light are not good for olive oil. They make it degrade.

Q: Most people use olive oil on a salad or with bread. But you encourage people to think more broadly. What are some of your favorite uses? 
A: I saute food in it, and I think it’s really fun to bake with it instead of butter. I’ve made lots of chocolate things with very robust olive oil. If the chocolate is really good and has a strong flavor, it can be interesting.

Q: Any other tips?
A: Olive oil does not age like wine. Sometimes people buy a nice bottle of olive oil and they save it for special occasions. But once it’s exposed to oxygen, it starts to oxidize. So when you open a bottle of oil, use it within six months. And keep it in a closet or a cupboard, not on a windowsill or by the stove, where it’s hot. 

Exploring for Oil 

Visit these local olive oil shops, recommended by the California Olive Oil Council, to taste-test and get advice from well-versed staff. 

Olive This Olive That 
San Francisco,
This independent shop develops personal relationships with growers. Find extra-virgin olive oils from California, the Mediterranean, and even Chile and Australia. Drop in for its BYOB (Bring Your Own Bread) happy hour.

The Pasta Shop
Berkeley and Oakland,
This shop—which is highly selective about which oils it carries and gets to know growers—offers quality extra-virgin oils from California, France, Greece, Italy and Spain.

The Olive Press
The first olive mill in Sonoma, The Olive Press produces many award-winning extra-virgin olive oils. Visit its Old World-style tasting room, or schedule a tour to learn how olive oil is made and bottled.