Book Review: “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil” by Tom Mueller


Author Tom Mueller begins this wonderful tale by documenting the rich and fascinating history of extra virgin olive oil through the millennia. According to Greek legend, the goddess Athena bestowed a gift onto the people when she struck her spear on the ground and it turned into an olive tree.

The people were thankful, indeed. In addition to using olive oil for food and cooking, the ancients burned it in their lamps for lighting, anointed themselves in it during religious ceremonies and concocted healing ointments with it. Olive oil was so much a part of ancient life that it was one of the earliest forms of widely accepted currency. How’s that for liquidity?

The health benefits of extra virgin olive oil have buoyed the popularity of this magical elixir to this day. The centerpiece of the Mediterranean diet, extra virgin olive oil is chock full of polyphenols, which have been shown have both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Good fat, indeed.

But what’s on the label may not match what’s inside the bottle. The centerpiece of Mueller’s tome is the light he shines on a shadowy underworld big oil, big money and big fraud. The author’s thorough and detailed research reveals a worldwide conspiracy of food fraud that boggles the mind in its scope and scandalous nature.

Because of rampant fraud, supermarket shelves are festooned with counterfeit extra virgin. Lesser-grade oil is blatantly passed off as extra virgin, and sometimes olive oil is illegally diluted with canola, soy or other oils. Studies have shown nearly two-thirds of oil on USA supermarket shelves labeled “extra virgin” failed to meet the international and U.S. standards for the extra virgin grade. Sadly, the counterfeit oils are typically devoid of the tremendous health benefits of authentic extra virgin.

Amidst all the corruption there is a glimmer of hope. Ever-increasing numbers of smaller, artisanal olive oil producers are popping up to fill the demand for the real thing. Mueller provides tips on what to look for when shopping for extra virgin so that you have a fighting chance of getting the real thing. The author’s website is also a fertile source of information.

[Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Bicycle Times issue #28, published in April 2014.]


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