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Oil Analysis

We usually tend to identify quality with what people like. The concept is not wrong, but a little ' bit reducing.

On the whole we can say that a common consumer evaluates an olive oil considering the following factors: package, nutrition facts label, price, advertising, fame of the product and above all organoleptic properties of the oil. All these factors are closely related to the purpose of your purchase of that type of oil.

A technologist or a taster of olive oil considers these factors and other ones that determine the quality of the product. As regards the extra virgin olive oil, the Commission Regulation (EEC) No 2568/91, in addition to the parameters established to highlight the genuineness of the product, also shows some important quality standards such as acidity, spectrophotometric examination in the ultraviolet, number of peroxides and organoleptic test carried out with the panel method.

In order to find a general definition of the concept of quality we must refer to the ISO standards (UNI EN), which currently constitute the reference to the system of company certification. The ISO Regulation No 8402 (UNI EN 28402) on quality and terminology quotes: By quality we mean the set of properties and characteristics of a product or service that confer it the ability to meet the implicit or explicit needs of the consumer.

The virgin olive oil is the first food product for which a methodology has been established that evaluates and classifies the organoleptic properties. The Annex XII of the Commission Regulation EEC No 2568/91 contains the information necessary for this determination, i.e. the panel test method. A group of selected taster, a panel indeed, has the delicate task of placing the oil in a numerical scale which is established in relation with its flavour stimuli. Later on they have to decree the product group.

In order for you to better understand this, we hereby report the Commission Regulation No 796/2002. It shows some specifications about the chemical and organoleptic method (panel test) complying with the new legislation which partly amends the Commission Regulation No 2568/91.

Which substances are responsible for the aroma and flavour of the oil?

The organoleptic properties of the virgin olive oil result from the presence of compounds known as unsaponifiable substances such as polyphenols, biophenols, aldehydes, ketones, secoiridoids and aromatic or aliphatic esters. The fruit sensation (and/or other flavourings present to varying degrees depending on the cultivar of origin and other conditions of production) results from these compounds which are responsible for the infinite variety of aromatic and olfactory shades which are typical for these oils.

We start by saying that it is impossible to get a good oil from a poor quality raw material (olives harvested from unsuitable cultivars, fallen olives, olives from tardive harvest, olives harvested from cultivars which have been attacked by pathogens such as the olive fruit fly). Every defect of the olive is to be found in the oil, too. That’s why olives are cherry-picked. It is also necessary to grant their maintenance during the storage and use the extraction method.

Factors that influence the quality of a virgin olive oil, both in terms of physical-chemical components and of organoleptic properties, can be classified as resulting from: cultivated olive tree varieties (cultivars); geographical area of farming; climatic conditions; degree of ripeness of the olives; harvest technology; periods and places of storage of the olives; extraction techniques; maintenance of the oil; general hygiene and cleaning conditions; time and temperature of the kneading operation; treatment of both plant and ground.

The tasters have their own terminology that gives to every sensation a descriptor that identifies it.

These descriptors are determined mainly by: type of cultivar, ripeness of the olives, chain of production and geographical area of farming.

Based on this difference, we can highlight qualities and deficiencies, the so-called flavours, and we can go back to what that led to that particular flavour.

The senses involved in the tasting of the oil are smell, sight and taste.

The olfactory analysis calls for a deep aspiration with the two nostrils to be repeated after a certain period of time because the smell tends to a provisional addiction .

The visual analysis includes assessment of clearness, density and color.

The clearness depends on the age and filtration processes to which the oil has been subjected. Suspensions and storages may be natural without threatening quality. However, an excessive storage shows little care in processing and may damage the quality of the oil. Density depends on the place of origin: oils from Umbria/Tuscany are generally thicker than oils from Liguria (it should be noted that density does not depend on the amount of lipids contained, because all oils have a lipid content of approximately 99%). The color depends on the period of the harvest, type of olives, aging and mill employed.

The flavouranalysis of an oil recommends to take in from a small glass (you can alternatively use a closed glass) the equivalent of a teaspoon of oil. Put it in your mouth without swallowing and leave it until it becomes warm. Inhale air through your teeth to oxygenate it and then swing the oil in your mouth for a while in order to feel the aftertaste. Once you’ve done this you can expel the oil from your mouth.

As regards its organoleptic properties, a good – quality olive oil (we refer above all to extra virgin olive oil) has a pleasant aroma, just like its fruit of origin, and has a pleasant, typical taste, too. Aroma and taste are, however, highly variable depending on the type of product connected with origin, variety of the fruit, method of extraction, degree of ripeness and health status of the olives, a greater or lesser freshness that relates to the new oil or to the oil that has passed the ideal time of consumption, which is the year of production, and has faced for the second time the hot season after 18 months or more from the extraction. The overall taste of the oil, and of wines, too, is influenced by the tactile perceptions of consistency and fluidity, thermal perceptions, burning sensations or perception of something astringent. These are typical for such substances as tannins, some kinds of alcohols and hydrocarbons.

The tasting of olive oils is a rather complex and difficult art that requires specific knowledge, good memory and training. It is important to know that:

  • unlike wine, olive oil must not be agreeable and judged by itself alone, but must be imagined and appreciated just as a condiment;
  • olive oil does not contain substances which have a naturally sweet taste: it is sweet thanks to its fluidity and because of the absence of bitterness;
  • bitterness is normally to be found in many typical oils. It results from the presence of valuable substances which are by nature bitter. Some consumers may not like an excessively bitter oil. In this case the oil must further evolve;
  • free acidity, which is measured in weight of not esterified oleic acid, can’t be felt by the taste; it can be detected through a chemical examination; highly acid oils usually show organoleptic defects which are more or less evident, such as rancidity, sludge, sense of warmth and vinegar taste…