Eat Well: Like an (Extra) Virgin

The following post was written by my mom, WWW. Thanks, mom!
WWW's homemade pesto (recipe below)

I just finished Extra Virginity by Tom Mueller, given to me for Christmas by my son David. This book is a must read for anyone who uses olive oil. Mr. Mueller has not only woven an interesting tale of olive oil through the ages, but he has exposed the long-standing scandalous practices of the olive oil industry. He is kind of the Michael Pollen of olive oil.

To summarize the book, most of the olive oil industry is untrustworthy and corrupt and has been since the time of the ancient Greeks. Most of the oils on the market boasting the extra virgin label are either diluted with another type of oil—canola, linseed, grape seed, sunflower seed, peanut, vegetable oil, soy, etc.—or are made from a low grade olive oil not legally sold as food called lampante (“lamp oil”) which has been refined, deodorized, colored and flavored. And even those oils that are “pure” are often rancid or degraded, leaving very few products that are both fresh and pure and deserving of the extra virgin label.

It’s hard to believe that no laws exist to make this practice illegal. According to Mueller’s interviews, the FDA closes its eyes to the fraud because it doesn’t believe that adulterated oil is a health threat. But as Mueller points out, 800 people died and thousands more were injured in Spain in the 1980’s from olive oil cut with contaminated rapeseed oil. Without regulation, we have no way of knowing if our olive oil is safe. And, if we are eating olive oil because of its proven health benefits but are being duped by a counterfeit product, it stands to reason that such adulteration should be against the law.

One of the most serious problems addressed in the book is that legitimate and honest olive oil producers can’t compete with the cheap fake oil being falsely sold as extra virgin. Also, most people don’t know what the good stuff tastes like since they are so used to eating counterfeit oil. Mueller fears that pure olive oil will disappear altogether if consumers forget what real olive oil tastes like. Therefore, he wants to educate us about olive oil so that we don’t lose forever this miraculous food.

I’ll never forget reading Reviving Ophelia when Rebecca was a teenager and feeling disappointed that the author presented all of the problems of raising adolescent girls but gave no solutions. And although I know the book was an important tome, I find it much more helpful when exposés give us some tools to navigate through murky waters. Luckily in the case of Extra Virginity, Mueller provides solutions and important information to guide us in finding true extra virgin olive oil.

Although I recommend you read Extra Virginity, here are a few of the book’s many points:

1. If the oil is cheap, it’s probably not legitimate (under $10 a liter is not a good sign). UC Davis tested random samples of supermarket oils and found some alarming results. Most of the “extra virgin” olive oils they tested failed extra virgin olive oil standards for reasons that include one or more of the following: (a) oxidation by exposure to elevated temperatures, light, and/or aging; (b) adulteration with cheaper refined olive oil; and (c) poor quality oil made from damaged and overripe olives, processing flaws, and/or improper oil storage. These results suggest that we should stay away from name brand olive oils sold in supermarkets.

2. Try to buy olive oil at a store where you can taste it. (We Olive, Oil and Vinegar, Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Olive Press are some examples.) I buy some of my oil from a local company, Temecula Olive Oil Company, but I realize most people don’t live in an olive growing locale. Often farmer’s markets sell good quality oils that you can taste but there are also some good oils available in smaller markets. One of these is California Olive Ranch and you can find others on Mueller’s website.

3. When you have to buy oil without being able to taste it first, choose a store that performs stringent quality control in its production and selection of oils, such as the Olive Press, Zingerman’s , Beyond the Olive, or Corti Brothers. Often local specialty stores have good quality truly virgin oils.

4. Pure and fresh extra virgin olive oil tastes nutty, fruity or grassy and has a fresh air feeling to it, followed by a peppery bite in the throat, an indicator of the presence of healthful antioxidants. If you feel that “bite” or even cough after tasting a sample of oil, it’s probably extra virgin.

5. Don’t judge an oil by its color. Many adulterated oils have had colorants added to make them green and some of the best oils are yellow.

6. Olive oil keeps better when stored in large stainless steel containers so if you can buy it at a store where it is decanted at the time of purchase, all the better. Think of olive oil as fruit juice. As soon as it is squeezed, it starts deteriorating.

7. Only buy bottled oil marked with the day it was harvested. Preferably it should be bought within a year of harvest.

8. Only buy oil in dark bottles. Light causes the oils to deteriorate. And don’t buy more oil than you can use up quickly.

9. Although not always a guarantee of quality, the following labels on the bottle mean the oils have been properly made:

• Organically grown
• Olive oils certified by national and state olive oil associations (Australian Olive Association, California Olive Oil Council, Association 3E, North American Olive Oil Association, International Olive Council)

10. Look for oils that have scored well recently in olive oil contests such as:
• Sol d’Oro (italy)
• Mario Solinas
• Ercole Olivario
• Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition
• Yolo County Fair Olive Oil Competition
• The National Extra Virgin Olive Oil Show

You can go to Mueller’s website, for up-to-date information, a list of reputable oils, and where to purchase them. Mueller provides a wide range of web resources about oil, many more than I can list in this space. You can also find good information at Olive Oil Times and a list of certified oil producers at the California Olive Oil Council website .

The moral of the story is, if we want to ensure that we are cooking with pure extra virgin olive oil, we need to be diligent about researching and familiarizing ourselves with reputable brands.
And this news just in…last Thursday Mueller and other experts in the oil industry testified before the California State Senate, openly discussing olive oil fraud before a group of senators who were in “rapt attention.” The video of the proceedings is long but well worth watching if you are intrigued. Go to the hour mark if you want to watch Mike Bradley of Veronica Foods bring down the industry with examples that will blow your mind.

The best way to use olive oil is in recipes where the oil isn’t cooked and in my opinion, there's nothing more delicious than a chunk of bread dipped in generous amounts of pure extra virgin oil—so much better than butter and no guilt attached since the oil is so good for you. A great oil enhances the flavors of a salad, vegetables, or a pasta sauce, and different oils bring out different flavors so you can have fun experimenting. (Olive oil is very much like wine except more fragile as it is fresh, not fermented.) If you can find one in your area, a great way to learn more about oil is to go to an olive oil tasting bar or a store that specializes in olive oil. They often let you taste the oils tell you which oils are best as an accompaniment for which foods.


A great olive oil rich food is pesto and you don’t have to wait till summer’s abundant basil harvest to make it. (I find hothouse grown basil tasteless and not good for pesto.) Although basil is traditional, any soft-leafed herb will work. You can experiment with your own combinations. Arugula, cilantro, mint, or flat leafed parsley make great pestos, or you can use a combination of these. Instead of traditional pine nuts or walnuts, you could use any nuts of your liking or substitute seeds for the nuts. And if you are vegan, substitute nutritional yeast for the Parmesan cheese.

Yesterday I happened to have plethora of arugula and cilantro on hand so I came up with this pesto recipe. And I decided to use toasted pumpkin seeds to give it a winter flair. You can toss the pesto on pasta or quinoa or use it as a sandwich spread. Or add dollops of it to a sauce or soup to add extra flavor.

Wendy’s Winter Pesto
1/3 cup pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
2 cloves garlic
¼ teaspoon salt
1 packed cup cilantro leaves
1 packed cup arugula
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
(optional: a little cayenne pepper or pepper flakes if you want it spicy)
1/3 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil

1. Toast pepitas in a pan over medium high heat, stirring constantly, until they pop and start to turn brown. Take off heat and set aside.
2. Mash garlic in salt and put in food processor with cilantro and arugula. Pulse until chopped.
3. Add pumpkin seeds and Parmesan cheese (and pepper if desired) and process until finely chopped.
4. With processor running, pour in olive oil and continue processing until incorporated and smooth.
Serve over pasta, quinoa, or as a sandwich spread (it’s yummy with hummus!) This freezes great…just don’t add the cheese until it thaws out.
hello, lunch.


Enjoy! (And Viva la RevOILucion!)



Jen | 10:44 AM

Thank you for sharing this! I always felt weird about extra virgin olive oil, like it wasn't as "oooh and ahhhh" as I thought it should be. There is a tiny place across the street from me that sells olive oil from big tins, so I'll be checking that out soon!

It really disgusts me that people are ripping us off. It's oil! Can't we just have good, quality oil! I hate being lied to. So again, thank you for sharing this :D

LindaB | 11:01 AM

Really great info, thank you!! I just shared on my fb page...I think a lot of my friends will enjoy reading this. Pesto is one of my all time faves and I never thought of using pepitas...YUM-O!

Alt-Mama | 11:01 AM

This is fascinating! My son has tons of severe food allergies, but is supposed to be a-okay on olives and olive oil (it's the one oil he can have, actually). Yet, I bought some organic extra virgin olive oil at Costco, and he seems to be reacting to it. Has left me mystified until now. Yet another reason to keep it local (I love love love our farmer's market sold, totally pure Texas Olive Ranch brand, but of course have sometimes given in to the price tag appeal of other brands... No longer). Thank you for this post! (So scary that some "olive" oils may contain peanut oils, too; that could totally kill people...)

Anonymous | 11:47 AM

Hey, I have a quick question- how do they get away with not having to list things like other oils and colouring etc on he ingredients? Are they in such small amounts? Thanks for the post!

Wendy Woolf | 11:52 AM

Anon....It is LARGE amounts...most of the oils have 0% extra virgin oil in them. No one is regulating it so they can get away with it, a very good argument for how important government regulations are. And this is happening all over the world, not just in the US. If you read the book, you can learn all of the gory details....lots of corruption, lots of gangster involvement, quite a story.

Ashley | 12:05 PM

I just read an article about this same thing but it said that the olive oil should NOT hava a peppery after taste. It mentioned that that means it's probably rancid. Hmm. I wonder which is right?!

Elena | 12:18 PM

hey, funny to be reading this.. My husband is a mechanical engineer and a producer of olive oil. He lost his engineering job because of the crisis (we live in Greece) and he is looking to export olive oil that he and his family are producing in his small village near Corinth in Greece. If he ever makes it I 'll send you his website:). Because what happens in America sounds strange to us! We are so used to good quality olive oil that we take it for granted. The trees were planted by my husband's grandparents and his family has been harvesting and producing olive oil in their own olive press. Make a wish for us and our attempt:)

Wendy Woolf | 12:19 PM

Ashley...Where did you read that article? Their information is wrong. The peppery after taste that hurts your throat means it IS extra virgin. You can check out any of the websites I listed and the info will be there. You can taste the rancid flavor right away. Here is a discussion of the peppery aftertaste from the food channel.

Wendy Woolf | 12:24 PM

Elena...good luck to you and your olive oil business. What is happening here is also happening in Europe...especially Spain and Italy and to some extent in Greece. No one is immune to it. But that doesn't mean their aren't reputable companies like yours. One just has to find them. By the way, my best friend's mother is from Corinth...last name Panayaitopoulos. They are also in the olive business.

Bethany | 12:44 PM

Thank you so much for passing on such fascinating information! I recently started buying California Olive Ranch olive oil as just a random selection at my grocery store, having no idea about any of this, and I was so happy when reading your post to see that California Olive Ranch is a reliable one.

amanda | 12:45 PM

Wendy, thank you so much for this information! I had no idea the olive oil industry was so corrupt. Have you read Tomatoland? The author exposes the tomato industry in a similar manner. Very interesting.

Can't wait to try your pesto recipe! My favorite winter pesto is this pea pesto recipe:

I like to add a little lemon juice, and it's delicious on bread or pasta! I always rely on it when I need a quick meal from pantry/freezer staples.

marlo noël | 1:23 PM

Great information! We use olive oil and balsamics from Baker and Olive in Encinitas- I believe near you. Besides being delicious, I now have a few more reasons to add to the list whenever people balk at the amount of money we spend on these ingredients. I will share this article with everyone I know!

Janette | 1:41 PM

So Excited about this! I had been looking for a good pesto recipe sans the pine nuts, and this looks like it fits the bill. Thanks!

Anonymous | 1:45 PM

Great post! I just listened to a program on NPR this past weekend and they were talking about the olive oil industry.

chesapeake | 1:51 PM

A great reminder to make Gooey Thomas again soon (we totally call it that around here).

Wondering if there's a recipe for that delicious looking sandwich bread? Assuming it's GF of course.


Love love love these posts!

JosiePosie | 1:55 PM

Did you know it says "rapeseed" oil in the second paragraph? What that a Freudian slip?

Wendy Woolf | 2:06 PM

I'm loving all of your comments!

JosiePosie, rapeseed is a plant that produces oil and is used in Canola oil. There is a lot of controversy concerning using rapeseed. The people who died in Spain died of pesticide poisoning from contaminated rapeseed.

Chesapeake...the bread is YUMMY and is GF (good eye!)'s Glutino fiber bread.

Amanda...Tomatoland is on my list of must reads, a future post I am sure. I heard the author on NPR and was riveted. Thanks for the pea pesto idea. I can't wait to try it!

caitlin | 4:40 PM

What a great post, Wendy. I heard the author interviewed on the Splendid Table, what a wake-up call. I was actually reminded about another scary thing by this post- have you heard of "pine mouth"? It's a nasty thing people are getting from pine nuts, they believe it's caused by non-edible varieties of pine nuts being imported from China. It causes all food to taste horrible and bitter for 1-4 weeks. I got it right before the holidays, and it was AWFUL. I couldn't enjoy any yummy holiday treats :(
I saw the picture of pesto at the top of your post and immediately thought DANGER! I was excited to see you used pepitas instead of pine nuts, because I lovelove pesto, but I am too afraid to eat pine nuts anymore. Can't wait to try it! Anyway, thanks for the great info and recipes, I always love them. And beware Chinese pine nuts, they can ruin your LIFE!!! ;)

Michaela | 5:05 PM

Australia has strict laws about oil production (of all the things, right?), so realistically other countries could follow.

The Print Blog | 5:30 PM

I can not believe the oil we are being fed is for the most part low grade and rancid. Then again I should not be too surprised, after all look at the supposed meat used to make chicknen McNuggets.

Lauren Knight | 7:10 PM

Thank you so much for this information! I have been hearing so much about this olive oil problem, but kind of feel overwhelmed whenever I go to buy it because there are soooooooooo many different kinds and I feel so unschooled. This was helpful.

Also, pumpkin seeds and arugula in pesto?! Awesome use of seasonal stuff. I will have to try.

Whittles Wobble | 8:33 PM

I heard about this on NPR, and Mueller was actually interviewed about his book. If you'd like to give it a listen, here ya go! I quite enjoyed the interview. :)

Anonymous | 9:09 PM

California Olive Ranch...I die. Best olive oil ever. Found it in a small grocery near me in Dallas and we have a bottle in the house at all times ever since. Makes me sad because I am pretty sure I was using gnarly adulterated oils before that because when I tasted COR oil it was immediately and distinctly superior...delish!
- Liz

Anonymous | 12:45 AM

Loved the post!
This is probably not the right place to put this BUT....
I have request for you and Rebecca..
Can you and Rebecca write some tips , a guide, anything about how to maintain and build a loving sustainable mother daughter relationship.

You guys would be the best people to do it i think!! You really do seem to have such a special bond :)
I am also VERY close to my mom , BUT! we had a period there. from 14 till at least 19 were it was ROUGH. And subsequently since then ( im 30 now) were close , but its just still so unsteady , its a work in progress still.

I gave birth to my first child 6 months ago...a daughter...and im terrified of having a loving close relationship and then losing it all when she turns 14.

PopCosmo | 2:39 AM

Wow, this is amazing information. Thank you for sharing!

Becca | 5:00 AM

I have no idea that it is easy to make a pesto.
I will definitely try this.thanks for sharing.

Anonymous | 7:34 AM

hi! i add the cheese and freeze it. I also use walnuts since pine nuts are so expenses. basil has become part of my summer garden. and i spend hours making pesto, just like i spend hours canning salsa. i love having it in the freezer during the long winter months.

Casey | 8:46 AM

Love this information and recipe! I am totally on board with a previous commenter's idea about a WWW cookbook. I am constantly saving these posts. Thank you - you are so inspiring, as is your daughter!

Anonymous | 9:55 AM

Thanks so much for such an informative post. I loved reading what you shared and will pay more attention to what I'm buying. We have one Whole Foods in Oklahoma City and a few other natural food stores in the area, so convenient shopping for quality food is limited. I am hopeful I can source pure olive oil in my area now that I know what to look for!

Elena | 10:03 AM

what a small world! Panayiotopoulos is a common name here.My husband is from a village called Klenia. Yes, there are lots of olive trees and a lot of good olive oil, probably because many people here make their own olive oil. My father is a teacher but he does have 13 olive trees in his garden which give my family plenty of olive oil for the whole year. And people can actually see the olives they have harvested themselves being pressed in the olive press. If we ever make that business after all I will send you a bottle. I loved your post by the way. Your relationship with Rebecca reminds me of my relationship with my mum:)

Anonymous | 10:57 AM

oh no! i am mom of 4 little ones and buy and use TONS of (admittedly cheap!) trader joes extra virgin olive oil- is this actually bad for us or just not gourmet ( as good tasting as it could be) with a limited budget, a full house etc i just need buy what is convenient on the olive oil front and have trusted trader joes not to sell me a rancid/corrupted product! as you know mom of 4 littles doesn't have time (or income) to go to speciality gourmet shop for weekly bottle of olive oil to make salad dressing/cook etc what do you recommend- i hate feeling ripped off like this- makes consumer feel so helpless

ap | 11:06 AM

I feel like I'm constantly learning that the products I've been using, thinking I was making the right choices, are in actuality HORRIBLE choices. You said
"The best way to use olive oil is in recipes where the oil isn’t cooked, as cooking not only changes the flavor but ruins most of the health benefits."
I've been using olive oil as my go to oil for cooking. Not for baking, but for cooking. Now I know I need to get the good olive oil for things like pesto and salad dressings. But what oil is good for cooking? And what do you use for baking?

Wendy Woolf | 11:53 AM

Anon and Ap...There are reputable brands out there and as I said, go to the website for up to date info. Mueller recently said that Corto and Kirkland brands from Costco are good and they aren't too expensive. And as for cooking with olive oil, it is great to cook with's just that if you are looking for reaping the benefits of the antioxidants, then eating it raw will give you the most benefits.

Stef | 11:05 PM

Wow, I had no idea. When I think about how so much of our food systems are corrupt and unhealthy today, I feel disgusted and angry, but knowledge is power. So, thanks for this info.

spokeit | 6:49 PM

For the life of me I can't make hummus!! I've tried and tried- care to share some WWW wisdom (WWWW I guess it'd be)?

Also- I LOVE your recipes- I'm vegan and it's so hard to find anything decent out there....yours are awesome and I don't have to tweak much!

Anonymous | 1:41 AM

If you give me your postal address I'll send you pure extra virgin oil to taste from Spain :-). The italians have better marketing but we down here have a wonderful oil which italians frecuently buy and bottle as their own ;-)

Wendy Woolf | 4:11 PM

Spokeit...Here is a link to my hummus:
You need a food processor or a really good blender. Hopefully that helps!

Expat Mom | 5:36 PM

I love that you make pesto with pepitas . . . I do, too, even the traditional basil kind. :) Cheaper and yummy!

Rebecca | 1:52 PM

This pesto was delicious. My toddler ate it straight with a spoon! Thanks for another great recipe.