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Like a Virgin?

How can you tell if the olive oil on your shelf is reallyextra-virgin? Check the bottle for a label from the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA), a trade group that tests olive oils to see if they measure up to the manufacturer’s claims. The trade group tests olive oils to determine if they are what the labels say they are -- and not adulterated or a mislabeled product. The International Olive Council (IOC) is the worldwide body that sets quality standards for the olive oil industry.

Chefs and culinary experts, however, say the best bet is to do a little testing of your own."Pour a few tablespoons of olive oil on a white dish," says Stella Metsovas, a Los Angeles nutritionist. “Look for consistencies that are smooth, although far thicker than corn or vegetable oil. Your olive oil should also smell like olives.

"When the oil hits your palette, look for a smooth finish on the tongue. When the oil hits the back of your throat, look for a slight burn. The burn is actually the polyphenols [a type of antioxidant] found in fresh oils.”

Harlan has some preferences of his own. "I prefer Spanish oils because they will have a grassy and sharper flavor (they are often slightly more acidic). They are often the more reasonably priced choice," he says. "Greek and Italian oils are great. I look for extra-virgin oils that are labeled 'cold pressed' with labels that indicate the origin -- usually a family company or farm."

How to Cook With Olive Oil

When the recipe calls for olive oil, keep this in mind:

  • Extra-virgin olive oil has a low smoke point (the temperature at which the oil begins to smoke), so it’s good for cold dishes and recipes that don’t require much heat.
  • Virgin olive oil is good for lower-temperature cooking. "[It has] great flavor with a higher smoke point," Harlan says.
  • And remember: The healthy phenols found in olive oil are severely compromised by heat, Metsovas says.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Even if you're using the best-quality oils, you can get too much of a good thing. Olive oil may be one of the more healthful oils out there, but it's still a fat and should still be used in moderation.

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