Homer described it as “liquid gold” and, for centuries, olive oil has been a staple ingredient of the Mediterranean diet. Now, as people become more aware of its nutritional benefits, olive oil is increasingly sought-after in kitchens around the world.
During the 1990s scientists were keen to discover why, despite a rich diet, the French were less likely to suffer from cardio-vascular diseases than their north European neighbors or people in the United States. The answer pointed to a high intake of fruits, vegetables, wine and olive oil.
As if to confirm this, Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997, made history as the longest-living human since records began. Born in the Provençal city of Arles, she lived for an astonishing 122 years. This sprightly woman, who took up fencing at 80 and was still riding her bike when she was 100, attributed her amazing longevity to olive oil which she added to all her food. She even used it as a moisturizer.
Olive oil is the healthiest vegetable oil because it is high in antioxidants, which strengthen the immune system, and monounsaturated fats, which help to regulate cholesterol and ward off cancer and heart disease. It is also gentle on the stomach, promoting the healing of ulcers and aiding digestion.
The heart-friendly properties of olive oil were pinpointed in 2005 by researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, who found that the naturally occuring chemical oleocanthal had similar properties to ibuprofen. However, as you would need to swallow 500 grams of olive oil to equal one dose of ibruprofen, it’s unlikely to take off as a headache cure. Nevertheless, the research helped to explain further the health advantages of the Mediterranean diet.
It is believed that olive trees were first cultivated on Crete around 3500 BC. Since then olive oil has brought great wealth, power and well-being to Mediterranean countries. As well as a myriad of culinary uses – for frying, marinades, sauces, salad dressings and preserving cheese, fish, sausage and vegetables – it’s also found in soap and provided fuel for oil lamps. In fact olive oil was the original fuel for the Olympic torch.
Jeanne Calment was not the first to appreciate the cosmetic value of extra virgin olive oil. In Greek and Roman times athletes used to rub it over their bodies. Lovers of natural beauty remedies continue to praise its versatility. As well as being an excellent moisturizer, it can be used as an eye makeup remover and as a shaving oil, especially for sensitive skin. When mixed with sea salt it makes a good natural body scrub or you can add it to melted beeswax for an effective lip balm.
Oleic Acid determines quality
There are hundreds of olive varieties, ranging from the Greek Kalamata to the French Picholine. Their color reflects the degree of ripeness. Olives harvested at the beginning of the season are green, whereas the black, or fully ripe olives are collected later. On average, a single olive tree bears around 20 kilograms of fruit a year, which is equivalent to three to four liters of oil.
Like wine the quality of olive oil is determined by the area of cultivation and climate. Oils are graded according to the content of oleic acid, a simple unsaturated fatty acid. The lower the content of oleic acid, the finer and fruitier the taste. So, for example, extra virgin, the top grade, has no more than 0.8 per cent acidity (0.8 grams of free fatty acid per 100 grams of oil).
Consumption at an all-time high
Around ninety-five per cent of the world’s 750 million olive trees are in the Mediterranean region. Spain is by far the largest producer, with more than 200 million olive trees, followed by Italy, Greece and Turkey. Olive plantations can also be found in Australia, South America, the United States, South Africa and the Middle East – and their numbers are growing.
Today global olive oil consumption is at an all-time high. According to the International Olive Council 2.9 million tonnes were consumed in 2006/7, more than double that for 1990/91. As a result the major producing countries have been under intense pressure to boost yields in an energy efficient way while improving quality. This has gone hand-in-hand with the development of new and better technology in the shape of high performance separators. With people becoming more aware of the link between what they eat and major diseases, olive oil’s important contribution to a healthy diet is assured for the foreseeable future.
Experts in oil recovery
GEA Mechanical Equipment's company GEA Westfalia Separator, one of the world leaders in providing separators and decanters for a wide range of applications and industrial sectors, has been involved in the olive oil recovery business since the 1950s.
In the 1990s the company harnessed its process and engineering know-how to develop an environmentally friendly two-phase separation process. This eliminated the need to dilute the olive paste with water, which was later wasted. It also increased yield and the quality of the product. The launch of decanters with CETEC technology in 2001 brought a further increase in yield of one to two percentage points.