What are the healthiest cooking oils? Let’s discover the importance of knowing the different types of oil to use each oil for cooking correctly!
Oil is an important element of the Mediterranean diet and, in particular of the Italian diet. In fact, we are among the world’s largest producers of cooking oils. There are many seeds and fruits from which different types of cooking oils are obtained.
The composition, from a chemical and nutrient point of view, also differs considerably from one type of cooking oil to another, with some types of oils that are more suitable for direct feeding and others that are typically used for food storage or for animal nutrition.
Furthermore, specific types of oil are more suitable for some diets because they are more digestible than others. In addition, many types of oil used for cooking contribute substantially to the maintenance of the health and organic balance of those who make prolonged use of it.
Alongside olive oil, the type of oil which is the most frequently used in Italy and produced in very large quantities. We also find other cooking oil types. For example, sunflower oil and peanut oil, very common in the food preservation and frying industries.
There are also some good cooking oils from less productive seeds, but with interesting characteristics, such as pumpkin or soy, without forgetting corn oil, flaxseed oil and even grapeseed oil.
In Italy, however, the best cooking oil is olive oil. It is used as a condiment and ingredient for many recipes. There are many types of olive oil, ranging from extra virgin olive oil to pomace oil and lampante oil. Let’s find out more about the different types of cooking oils and in particular the difference between olive oil and extra virgin olive oil.
Among all types of oil, the most known and the healthiest oil used in Italy is olive oil, which is produced in very large quantities and in many regions. Each cultivation has got its own specific olive variety and olive groves often boast millennia of continuous and high-quality production. In addition, there are many certifications and awards, as well as an extremely rigid Product Specification to follow.
Olive oil, therefore, has not strictly uniform characteristics. There are significant differences between the different types of olive oil, based mainly on the geographical origin, the variety of plants and the purity of the product. In fact, in many cases, to meet customer needs, olive oil from a specific area is cut with other lighter or stronger ones, but always of high quality, so as to be more suitable for human consumption.
For example, it is known that the extra virgin olive oil produced in Puglia is much stronger than the one obtained in other regions of Italy. In some cases, it can be found mixed with other types of olive oil, especially when it is intended for large retailers.
In Italy the Product Specification provides that olive oil is obtained pressing the drupes of the olive tree (Olea Europaea). It is the same fruit that is also eaten whole, fresh or preserved in brine, pickle or olive oil.
The process for the production of olive oil must be cold pressing, with a specific mechanical treatment. It involves crushing the olives and breaking the kernels with special stone grinders or with technologically advanced materials. From the pulp, obtained by crushing the drupes, we then move on, through physical decanting, centrifugation and filtering operations, to the production of olive oil.
This always happens within a certain range of temperatures, because an excess of heat may damage the characteristics of olive oil, both in terms of flavour and composition. What is obtained in the olive oil mill, directly from the processing of olives, is called virgin olive oil, or extra virgin olive oil. It is a natural product.
The law requires that certain fixed and established parameters are respected, which provide for the classification of the different types of olive oil in some categories.
Both an instrumental and sensory evaluation must be performed on olive oil with a specialised taster. The free acidity of olive oil is taken into consideration, i.e. the percentage of oleic acid, the number of peroxides expressed in oxygen meq / kg and an organoleptic evaluation. The acidity of olive oil is based on a panel test, required by Reg. CE 2568/1991 which takes into consideration olive and pomace oil, as well as indicating the methods considered valid.
What is extra virgin olive oil? Why extra virgin olive oil is so important? By law, extra virgin olive oil is the highest category for olive oil. It is obtained from olives exclusively through mechanical processes, i.e. squeezing and that’s it.
The different types of olive oil in Italy must be processed in conditions that do not alter their characteristics, without procedures that are not washing, decanting, filtering and spinning. The free acidity, estimated on oleic acid, must be at most 8 g per 1 kg.
If, following the instrumental and organoleptic investigations, the olive oil does not appear to have optimal characteristics, that is, it has got slight defects and it has got an acidity greater than 2%, its classification changes.
In this case, it will not be sold as extra virgin olive oil, but simply as virgin olive oil.
If the characteristics do not fall within those provided for in the Product Specification, the olive oil will not be considered suitable for human consumption and for sale and it will be indicated as lampante oil, to then be reprocessed.
In this case there will be a new refining operation. It will be mixed with virgin olive oil or extra virgin olive oil, in order to be marketed as olive oil.
Then there is pomace oil, which is obtained with different processes starting from the residual pulp of olive oil processing. In essence, what cannot be removed with strictly mechanical means such as the centrifuge, still remains a useful component. It has not particularly valuable organoleptic characteristics and it is not considered the most suitable type of olive oils in food, for ordinary uses or for nutrition, although many people appreciate its lightness. It is produced in special pomace factories, which are specialised structures for the chemical and physical extraction of oil from the milling paste.
The characteristics of olive oil
Which is the best cooking oil? Virgin oil and extra virgin olive oil are considered excellent for counteracting the levels of bad cholesterol in the blood, the so-called LDL. Because the large amount of polyphenols present in olive oil significantly reduces cholesterol concentrations.
At the same time, they have a beneficial effect by introducing HDL cholesterol, which is unanimously considered an important antioxidant and an indispensable component for nutrition and human health. All this, however, provided that the olive oil is kept while milling within a certain temperature and it is not subjected to thermal stress, which can alter its composition.
However, unlike many think, olive oil is extremely resistant to temperatures because it has a smoke point at 220° C. Olive oil can be used for frying, the main deterrent to its use as frying oil is simply the high cost of the raw material.
This however refers typically to extra virgin olive oil, while secondary food products can be exploited in a very beneficial way for health, if you want to use olive oil as frying oils. The result with Italian extra virgin olive oil has a much better flavour than the one made with seed oil, because it lacks the bitter and oily aftertaste that characterises them. It also guarantees a very high degree of digestibility.
The classification of olive oil
The different types of olive oil are distinguished mainly by their composition and the processing method necessary to produce them. We therefore distinguish extra virgin olive oil, virgin oil, lampante oil and pomace oil. In addition there is organic oil with an additional degree of quality, due to the responsible approach of the producers. Let’s discover the best oils for your health!
1. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
The extra virgin olive oil, the highest quality olive oil, is regulated by the Commission Regulation (EEC) No 2568/91 which establishes its main characteristics. What is extra virgin olive oil? To understand the meaning and characteristics of extra virgin olive oil, first of all it is necessary to know that its extraction must take place only by mechanical methods, i.e. by pressing the olives – that is usually done with stone grinders. In addition, the temperature of extra virgin olive oil must not exceed 27° C in order not to alter its composition and shelf life.
It can have a maximum acidity of 0.8%. Acidity is the concentration of free fatty acids. Obviously, extra virgin olive oil must be produced exclusively with olives. Its density, estimated at 16-17° C, must be 0.916 kg/litre, while from the organoleptic point of view it must be rather spicy, a sign that the concentration of polyphenols is optimal.
Extra virgin olive oil has got important nutritional values: 100 g have a caloric intake of 899 kcal with 14.45 g of palmitic acid, 79.95 of oleic acid and 7.52 g of linoleic acid. In addition, extra virgin olive oil contains vitamins E, A, K and D, phytosterols and polyphenols. It is also a source of HDL cholesterol, the so-called good cholesterol. Extra virgin olive oil has hepatoprotective properties and beneficial properties for circulation, helping the removal of LDL, the bad cholesterol.
Being an extremely caloric food, however, extra virgin olive oil must be consumed in moderation, even in purity, always using limited dosages, but sufficient to guarantee nutritional intake. Its price on average is around 7-8 euros per kilogram, even if valuable productions of extra virgin olive oil can cost considerably more.
2. Virgin olive oil
On the other hand, virgin olive oil is obtained as the second processing of the pulp obtained during the pressing of extra virgin olive oil. In fact, not all pure olive oil is obtained directly by dripping and squeezing the drupes. Other mechanical interventions may be necessary to free it from the pasta. In fact, centrifuges and settling tanks are used to make sure that the olive oil trapped in the pulp can be extracted without altering its characteristics.
In this case, the concentration of oleic acid must be less than 2% and usually virgin olive oil has a less fruity sensation on the palate. In addition, virgin olive oil is definitely less spicy. Its density is usually the same as extra virgin olive oil, although in some cases it is less viscous. Therefore a specific gravity value of 915 g/litre at 16-17° C is almost always to be considered plausible. The chemical composition of virgin olive oil is roughly the same as that of extra virgin olive oil, although the concentration of polyphenols is much lower. This results in a less aggressive flavour.
However it should be noted that some local productions of Italian extra virgin olive oil are particularly delicate due to the olive variety. If you are not an expert olive oil taster, it is not easy to distinguish a light extra virgin olive oil from a heavy virgin olive oil without knowing its origin. For a kilogram, the price of virgin olive oil is about 5 euros, on average, with fluctuations linked to the origin.
Cooking with oil: less valuable cooking oils
3. Lampante oil and pomace oil
There is also the so-called lampante olive oil, which owes its name to the fact that in past centuries it was used to power the lamps.
It is a type of olive oil with an oil acidity greater than 0.8% and various organoleptic defects, including an unpleasant taste. Within certain limits, lampante olive oil is still edible, but it is not considered suitable for human consumption as it is, that is, in purity. Usually some chemical-physical processes are carried out to improve the quality of lampante oil. This is made by trying to eliminate the residual acid components, by filtering and purifying lampante oil with catalysts that precipitate its saponifiable components.
Although it is not a toxic type of olive oil, lampante oil is usually not recommended from food preparation, even if you can have a correction of flavour by adding appropriate quantities of other oils types such as extra virgin olive oil or virgin olive oil. Usually the process is sufficient to be able to use this type of oil as a second choice or cheap oil. The term lampante oil is usually linked not so much to the selection, but to particularly unfortunate vintages that have not given a good type of olive oil. Lampante oil costs less than virgin olive oil, with prices that can even reach 3 euros per kilogram.
4. Pomace oil
With regard to other cooking oils, pomace oil is a low-profile type of oil obtained by reprocessing the squeezing pulp, called pomace. In fact, when virgin olive oil has been obtained, there is still a fair amount of oily substance inside the solid part. This cannot be refined by simple physical and mechanical methods. When filtering and centrifugation are not sufficient, then an extraction is carried out by catalysts and chemical means.
However, we must add pomace oil to the list of cooking oils. In fact, the processing of pomace oil is compatible with human nutrition and what is obtained is included among the types of cooking oils, although not valuable, with a good calorie intake.
Unlike the most valuable types of oil, pomace oil has a low level of polyphenols, which makes it rather light on the palate. Pomace oil has got a significantly higher degree of acidity than the best olive oil types and therefore deacidification must be carried out. Usually pomace oil is precipitated with a catalyst and the flavour is corrected by adding purer types of oil, so to make it more pleasant on the palate.
Many consider pomace oil as one of the best types of cooking oil because it has got a more significant fatty acid composition than seed oil and sunflower oil. In addition, pomace oil does not introduce a bitter aftertaste and it has got a smoke point comparable to that of extra virgin olive oil. The price of this type of cooking oil is around 3 euros/kilogram.
Healthy oils: the choice of organic oil
Among the healthiest oils, a special mention must be made of organic oil.
Here we refer to the working process and cultivation. In this case, olive trees do not undergo treatments with insecticides and herbicides of any kind, except those of strictly natural origin. For example, olive trees are subjected to integrated control, using grazing animals that eliminate weeds that invade the olive groves and insects that attack any possible parasite, such as the feared midges.
Obviously an organic cultivation requires a higher degree of attention by the producers of extra virgin olive oil. In fact, they turn to a specific supply chain for the processing of these cooking oils. This guarantees that their extra virgin oils derive exclusively from mechanical and physical processing, without having to switch to chemical processes.
Organic oil follows a specific regulation and only the productions that have strictly followed the prescriptions can indicate to be organic oil on the bottles.
The price gap between productions with a biological and traditional approach is currently decreasing. There is then a greater availability of high-quality organic oil and its price is very close to that of common types of oil.
The Italian olive oil production: different cooking oils
Virtually every Italian region has its own production of high-quality extra virgin olive oil, with different characteristics related to the type of plants and the geographical position.
In fact, olive trees are heavily affected by the sun exposure and the type of soil with regard to the size of fruits, which can present a considerable variety. They range from very small ones, typical of the Tuscan hilly areas, to the huge olives that grow in Puglia, which in fact is one of the largest olive oil producers in the peninsula.
In general the expected yield of olive groves is not very huge, if compared for example with a normal orchard. This is also due to the fact that the plants grow very slowly. However, olive trees have the advantage that they have been constantly producing olives for several hundred years without losing quality and quantity.
This is because olive trees need a sufficiently warm climate.
A good sun exposure is needed for the ripening of olives, as well as soils situated not far from the sea or which in any case can be affected by its beneficial effects. Olive trees are grown both on the plain and in the hills, on terraces, with very different traditions from one area to another.
The great variety of olive cultivation in Italy involves a wide choice of flavours and intensities, also because the olives contain polyphenols in a way very dependent on the level of sun exposure. So the same olive variety, transplanted to a different area, could yield fruits with decidedly different characteristics.
Tasting healthy oils to cook with
The extra virgin olive oil tasting is a fundamental aspect while choosing among different oils, because there is a lot of difference between one area and another.
Tasting extra virgin olive oil results not only in more or less pronounced flavours, but also in the level of spiciness which can vary considerably. Some types of olive oil produced in Southern Italy are very strong and they may not be suitable for all palates.
The best areas for an olive oil tasting are of course the farms and olive oil mills, where you can enjoy many food experiences to discover the best oils in Italy, visit the olive groves and join the olive oil tasting directly with the producer. For farm lovers, however, many producers have decided to partially convert their business into holiday homes, bed & breakfasts and restaurants, specialising in afternoon snacks.
Discover and taste different types of extra virgin olive oil with Italia Delight:
It is also possible to taste different types of Italian extra virgin olive oil during agricultural fairs and food fairs, where producers allow you to taste the excellence of their area and to discover more about cooking with oils. Olive oil tastings are also organized during cultural events.
The best period to understand what makes olive oil extra virgin is autumn. The olives reach their maturity and it is possible to start buying any type of olive oil produced in the year. With a little luck, however, you can find many opportunities to taste healthier oils even in shopping malls. This happens in particular during the promotional days, which can be an excellent opportunity to buy bottles of high-quality Italian extra virgin olive oil at low prices.
Regardless of the period, participating in a visit to a local farm or an olive oil mill or participating in the olive harvest can be an excellent opportunity for foodies to taste high-quality extra virgin olive oil directly from the producer.
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