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CSI: Olive Oil

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(Sacramento, CA)
Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Elaine Corn: When Charles Shoemaker stands in an olive grove near his lab, he sees more than the makings for salad dressing.

Charles Shoemaker: As a chemist, I can imagine all the polyphenolic compounds and Vitamin E, and all the wonderful flavor and healthful aspects of the olive, and just waiting to get our hands on that fruit to extract that wonderful oil.

EC: To be extra-virgin, olive oil can't be rancid, adulterated with cheap refined olive oil or cut with lesser oils. That's where Shoemaker and his olive oil forensics come in.
Shoemaker: We have our own CSI: Olive Oil lab, here.
EC: Shoemaker is inside the 3rd floor lab in the Robert Mondavi Institute for Food and Wine Science. Windows overlook the campus's 2,000 olive trees. The room has an atmosphere of skepticism.
Shoemaker: It's become a very sophisticated practice, the adulteration of olive oil throughout the world.
EC: The lab's décor? Cement bunker with beakers and test tubes and chemistry toys.
Shoemaker: We have lots of magnetic stirring bars because there's a lot of mixing that goes on in a chemistry lab. These are pipettes to measure very exacting volumes. We use as small as milligrams of oil that go into these expensive instruments.
EC: This lab's equipment uncovers defects, degradation and dilution in olive oil.
Shoemaker: We do spectroscopic studies looking for oxidation.
EC: That means the oil's old or rancid. To be fair, any oil could suffer indignities during shipping, like a slow boat or a hot warehouse. But, there are OTHER tests. Shoemaker analyzes free fatty acids.
Shoemaker: ... to make sure the oil is all from olive, and not from soybean, sunflower or other types of oil.
EC: For the study, Davis did some of the tests. A lab in Australia did others. In all, 104 bottles of olive oil from Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Francisco got a tested. Many big name imports did not fare well. The study came immediately under fire. The researchers had used standard tests known to the olive oil world, but added a few new tests.
Bob Bauer: It's irresponsible to create the misperception that they've done based on unrecognized tests.
EC: Bob Bauer of the North American Olive Oil Association, which represents importers, disputes the Davis study.
Bauer: These results directly contradict our 20 years of more extensive sampling than what those results show.
EC: Shoemaker says the Davis lab goes beyond international standards.
Shoemaker: The level of testing here is a bit more sophisticated.
EC: One of the new tests is a pricey gizmo that sounds like this. Shoemaker revs up a vacuum. It removes solvents and isolates chlorophyll to check if tasteless refined olive oil is in the mix.
Shoemaker: It takes about 25 minutes per sample for just this one step.
EC: The number one reason people buy olive oil is for health. Patricia Darragh is with the California Olive Oil Council, which helped fund the Davis study along with two California olive oil producers. Darragh says knowing which olive oils deserve the extra-virgin label is important for consumers.  
Darragh: It's not only that people are spending good money for a fraudulently labeled product, but they're not getting the health benefits that many people want when they think they're purchasing extra-virgin.
EC: The new olive oil study may be preliminary, but it names names.  Bertolli, Mezzetta, Mazola and Pompeian oils labeled extra-virgin, were not. Shoemaker says his lab has only begun.
Shoemaker: There's some fairly sophisticated people. They seem to adapt and come up with new innovative way to find their way around the new test. So, it's going to be a long business, I think here.
EC: The goal of the lab is to make sure that the olive oil you buy is what the label says it is. Elaine Corn Capital Public Radio News.
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