Choosing Quality Olive Oil with Jeff Conarko of Con’ Olio

Stacy Fisher and Jeff Conarko at Con Olio in Austin, TX during a Suppositions Tasting Club event

Con’ Olio is a specialty olive oil store based in Austin, TX, that offers workshops and a wide variety of high quality olive oils. Olive oil has garnered quite a bit of media attention recently — and not in a good way. In January, 60 Minutes featured a story highlighting the industry’s questionable practices: mixing products with other (non-olive) oils, not meeting product quality standards, and adding artificial flavoring and coloring. The reality is that what we find on most grocery shelves today is poor quality oil, even the ones depicting Tuscan countryside images and carrying “made in Italy” labels. This has led to the emergence of boutique olive oil shops like Con’ Olio.

Jeff Conarko and his wife, Tabitha, founded the company in 2009, and it has grown quite a bit since that time. There are now three locations in the Austin area, and the company also hosts a wide variety of tasting events. Like most wellness topics, there are conflicting opinions within the scientific community about the role of olive oil and health. But it’s clear that the benefits of replacing saturated fats alone are enough to warrant paying attention.

Here’s Jeff’s take:

Q: Can you give an overview of how olive oils vary around the globe?

Jeff: Olive trees were originally native to the region around Syria and Lebanon many thousands of years ago. Thanks to the Romans and Greeks who took cuttings of olive trees and replanted them all over their spreading empires, the olive found its way all across Europe and eventually to the New World. After many years, the olives evolved into different species or varietals based on climate and geography.  Today there are close to 1000 different olive varietals that have adapted to living in different climates around the world. Unlike wine, terrior (the soil) does not influence to a large degree the overall taste of olive oils. Therefore, you can take a cutting of an olive tree in one region of the world and plant it in a similar climate somewhere else in the world and produce a similar tasting olive oil if produced correctly. The three biggest influencers of taste quality in olive oil is number 1, Freshness! Olive oil is the fruit juice of an olive and it breaks down with time like any other fruit juice and eventually goes rancid. Therefore it must be eaten within the first 12-14 months for optimal taste. Second is the quality of the method of producing the olive oil. And Third is the varietal or type of olive oil like Picual, Arbequina, Coratina, Frantoio, Koroneiki, etc. For instance, the “Coratina” varietal of olive was originally a Tuscan variety from Italy, but now you can find Coratina varietals from places like Australia, Chile, California, South Africa, and more. In order to have the Freshest EVOOs in the world, we offer a dual-hemisphere model of sourcing. There are two harvests of olives, one is the Northern Hemisphere harvest which coincides with the Fall season in America (these are European and North American harvests), and the second is the Southern Hemisphere (from Australia and South America) harvest which is in the Summer time for us here in America. So every six months we rotate our EVOO offerings with the freshest made olive oil from around the world based on what is currently in season.

Q: How are olives processed to makes them “extra-virgin” or “virgin?”

Jeff: As I mentioned above, the second most important characteristic of olive oil is How it was produced or processed. Olive oil is one of a few oils in the world that can be extracted without any refining required which is very important for health and taste considerations. Extra Virgin is a standard in most of the world that must be tested for and certified in order to achieve, but these tests and certifications are not required in the United States. Therefore the good ol’ US of A is the easiest place in the world to sell cheap fraudulent oil and call it Extra Virgin Olive Oil. These practices have been so deceptive that most people in America believe that “Extra Virgin” means that it was Cold-pressed or First-pressed olive oil. This is absolutely false and misleading. In fact, according to the IOOC who regulates the testing and certification of olive oil around the world defines “Extra Virgin” as olive oil that has been extracted using purely mechanical means of separation using a centrifuge. This means that there is NO pressing going on here. Centrifugation separates olive oil into its components by spinning it at very high speeds. Because of this, the term “Extra Virgin” did not even exist before the invention of the modern milling machine (which uses centrifugation) in the 1950s. Prior to this time, the highest quality olive oil that could be produced was “Virgin” olive oil which was the first pressing of olive oil at less than 80 degrees F (cold-pressed). The way to determine the difference between “Extra Virgin” and “Virgin” olive oil is to test it using a set of chemical tests and by tasting it by a panel of experts trained to spot defects in the oil. “Extra Virgin” olive oil will be completely free of taste and smell defects and contain positive characteristics of Fruitiness, Bitterness, and Pungency (which is natural spiciness felt at the back of the throat.) “Virgin” olive oil may contain taste defects and has a higher acidity level between .8% and 2.2%. Any olive oil with an acidity over 2.2% is considered “lampante” or not fit for human consumption. Because acidity is so important to the quality of the olive oil, olives have to be picked early in the harvest when they are still green and must be made into olive oil within 24 hours in order to keep acidity low and stop the fermentation process in the olive that leads to taste defects.

Q: What is it about olive oil that makes it so healthy?

Jeff: Extra Virgin Olive Oil has been proven through clinical trials to offer many serious health benefits. First of all, EVOO has the highest content of any source for Mono-Unsaturated Fatty Acid or MUFA’s. MUFA is the only fat the can be called a “healthy” fat. EVOO has over 75% Mono-Unsaturated Fats. Compared to other supposedly high MUFA oils like coconut oil which is actually only 10% MUFA and 90% saturated (unhealthy) fat. Also, EVOO has been shown to also be different from other oils/fats because of the insanely high content of Polyphenols which are potent anti-oxidants. With these two things combined, EVOO has been shown to reduce cholesterol, protect the heart through cardiovascular benefits, reduce inflammation throughout the body, repair oxidative damage, and fight cancer. The problem is that if your olive oil is not fresh or authentic, none of these benefits will exist and you may be getting harmful chemicals instead.

Fresh, authentic Extra Virgin Olive Oil has been proven through clinical trials to be at the heart of the Mediteranean Diet and essential to the resulting health benefits. Clinical studies have proven the following properties and health benefits of Olive Oil Polyphenols (OOPs) that include the phytochemicals hydroxytyrosol, oleuropein, and oleocanthal:

-Cardiovascular protection: OOPs are significantly associated with lower circulating concentrations of oxidative stress markers and with an improvement of lipid profile, such as an increase in high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels, a decrease of the total cholesterol-to-HDL ratio, and a decrease of triglyceride levels.
– Anti-Inflammatory properties: OOPs with antioxidant activity, including hydroxytyrosol and oleuropein, significantly inhibited events connected with endothelial activation, including the expression of adhesion molecules such as VCAM-1, E-selectin, and ICAM-1. This effect was accompanied by a functional counterpart, that is, reduced monocyte or monocytoid cell adhesion to activated endothelium. Oleocanthal has also been found to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties in vitro. Similar to classical non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, it is a non-selective inhibitor of cyclooxygenase (COX).
– Antioxidant properties: Recent clinical studies showed that markers of oxidative stress , including cholesterol-conjugated dienes, hydroxy-fatty acids, and products of DNA oxidative damage, all decreased linearly with an increase in the phenolic content of olive oil. Recent studies have demonstrated that minor compounds of olive oil particularly  hydroxytyrosol and related compounds, together with monounsaturated fatty acids, help to improve plasma lipid levels and repair oxidative damage related to cardiovascular diseases.

What most people do not understand is that all of the polyphenols in olive oil (hydroxytyrosol, oleuropein, oleocanthal) decrease due to internal oxidation processes over time. OOPs exist in highest concentration immediately after crushing the olive fruit into oil. From that day onward, polyphenols decrease until they almost disappear completely, normally within 12-14 months of the original harvest/crush date depending on the oleic acid content in the oil. Therefore, after a year or so, your olive oil will give you significantly less health benefits and will begin tasting rancid.

Q: Are there ever circumstances where it’s better to use a different type of oil rather than olive? (I’m thinking about smoke points here and wondering how much of the healthy properties might be destroyed at high temperatures.)

Jeff: Absolutely not! One of the things we learned about olive oil that blew our minds before we got into this business was going to Italy and learning from Italian chefs that the only oil in their commercial kitchen is EVOO. We were told by the supposed food experts here in America on the cooking shows that we should not cook at high temperatures with EVOO. This advice turned out to be so ridiculously wrong. When EVOO is fresh (less than 12-14 months) it has the highest smoke point of any oil in the world. You can grill, bake, saute, fry, and even deep-fry with a high quality fresh olive oil. When EVOO is first crushed, it has a smoke point of over 500 degrees F. Due to natural oxidative processes in the oil, the smoke point will go down to about 400 degrees F at the end of one year. After that the smoke point really falls with age as the oil becomes rancid. Average age of grocery store olive oil (when it is authentic) is around 3 years old before you even buy it. Therefore, the smoke point will be so low you can no longer cook at high temperatures with it. As with any natural thing like vegetables, there are more nutrients available when it is raw and uncooked. So, any oil you cook with will reduce in nutrient content with temperature. But, if you cook with a high quality fresh EVOO you will retain the maximum nutrients possible.

Q: As consumers, how can we be sure we’re purchasing high-quality olive oil?

Jeff: Unfortunately in America, there are no standards testing or certification required to market a product as Extra Virgin Olive Oil. As the 60 Minutes investigation showed, there is a multi-billion dollar industry in Europe where they make fraudulent EVOO to sell in America where they will not be caught or prosecuted.

It is not impossible to find Authentic, high quality EVOO in America but you have to look for what is most important:

  1. There MUST be a “Harvest” or “Crush” date on the bottle. What you most often find on bottles of olive oil are “Best Buy” or “Expiration Date” and these mean nothing and do not tell you how old your EVOO actually is.
  2. Look for a Certification backed by independent chemical analysis and taste panel testing.
    The specific olive varietal or combination of varietals should be listed on the bottle (Arbequina, Picual, Coratina, etc)
  3. It should say where the olives where grown specifically and be traceable to a producer’s estate.
  4. There should be no generic label saying it is “Italian” or from a list of several different countries.
  5. Look for the terms “Cold Pressed” or “First Pressed” if these are on the bottle they are trying to deceive you with outdated marketing terms.

Because we understand the need for customers to know the difference, we aim to educate each customer at our stores and give them the opportunity to taste and experience our oils and vinegars before they buy so they can see for themselves how much better they taste. At all of our Con’ Olio stores we have a Certification program called Ultra-Premium (UP) Extra Virgin Olive Oil to help answer all of these questions for the consumer to give them proof that they are getting the highest quality, authentic and freshest EVOO in the world. More information about our UP program can be found at

Whether your focus is on the health benefits, culinary uses or flavor characteristics of olive oil, choosing a high quality product is critical.

My guess is that you’re probably wondering where you can find some of “the good stuff” in your area. In case you’re wondering: YES! Con’ Olio does offer online shopping–and FREE shipping with a purchase of at least $100. (Their products make great gifts too!)

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