The battle for the hearts and minds of the Greek olive oil culture is raging in modern Greece. The few Greek olive growers that are in a position to overcome the inherent problems of the Greek olive oil industry are succeeding. They use their own resources to update their operations, produce excellent high phenolic extra virgin olive oil, bottle and brand it themselves and sell directly to customers or retail outlets worldwide. The rest are left at the whim and fancy of the local olive oil barons who wish to continue exporting our finest olive oils in bulk at the lowest possible prices.
The large majority of the olive growers in Greece are small independent olive groves who are dependent on selling their finest olive oils immediately to the olive mills or traders because they need the money to pay their workers and cover the costs of the harvest.
Especially during these times of economic crisis and lacking the resources to market their olive oil directly they sell at the going prices which are now lower than the Tunisian olive oil. This is the success story of the Greek olive oil industry. Drop the prices and increase sales. But at whose expense?
This is the situation I encountered when I first returned to Greece 3 years ago and began writing about olive oil for oliveoiltimes.com. Over the last 3 years opportunities to elevate Greek olive oil have been not only been missed but they have deliberately obstructed.
There is a great deal of blame to go around. We had opportunities handed to us on a golden platter and we threw them away.
The first opportunity missed was the discovery of the NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) method of accurately measuring each phenolic compound in olive oil.
In 2012 a breakthrough method to measure each phenolic compound in olive oil accurately using NMR was discovered at the University of Athens by Dr. Magiatis and his team of researchers. For the first time in thousands of years Greece was again at the forefront of olive oil research and innovation. Testing on Greek olive oils confirmed the high levels of oleocanthal and oleacein in Greek olive oils. Despite the benefit the NMR method exemplified in confirming the superior health benefits of Greek olive oils the olive oil industry it was largely ignored and even attacked by other Greek scientists, who insist olive oil is not a medicine but one ingredient in the Mediterranean diet. Refusing to measure the specific health promoting compounds in olive oil is rather strange from a people who created the greatest marketing slogan for super nutritious and health promoting organic food in the history of mankind: “let food be thy medicine and let medicine be thy food” Hippocrates
The second opportunity was missed during the same eventful year in 2012 when the EU allowed a health claim on the label of olive oil that contained specific amounts of specific phenolic compounds EU regulation 432/2012. This regulation stated the following;
“Olive oil polyphenols contribute to the protection of blood lipids from oxidative stress”
A specific quantity of certain polyphenols was required to justify a health claim for EVOO.
“The claim may be used only for olive oil which contains at least 5 mg of hydroxytyrosol and its derivatives (e.g. oleuropein complex and tyrosol) per 20 g of olive oil. In order to bear the claim information shall be given to the consumer that the beneficial effect is obtained with a daily intake of 20 g of olive oil.”
In other words, 250mg of specific phenolic compounds per kg of EVOO would be needed to qualify for the health claim.
In Greece instead of embracing the NMR method of measurement and promoting the high phenolic olive oils of Greece as the healthiest, a debate emerged on which phenolic compounds to measure and by which method. The NMR method is the most accurate and the fastest way to measure accurately each individual phenolic compound in order to comply with the regulation.
Other methods of analyzing olive oil such as hydrolysis were promoted. But they could only measure the phenolic compounds by converting them back to their simple forms like hydroxytyrosol and tyrosol. This is where the debate took a turn to the dark side, because there is no hydroxytyrosol or tyrosol in olive oil. There is only one place where hydroxytyrosol and tyrosol are found in abundance; olive mill waste waters. These compounds are extracted from olive mill waste water and made into pills and lotions and added to sport drinks. They are very cheap and abundant. The phenolic compounds such as oleocanthal and oleacein contained in Greek olive oil are very complex and found in significant quantities only in early harvest olive oil.
EFET refuses to allow the implementation of EU labeling regulation 432/2012 for Greek olive oils
The hellenic Food Safety Agency (EFET) in Greece jumped in and argued the wording of the regulation meant that oleocanthal could not be measured. By this interpretation it meant most Greek olive oils could not place the health claim on their label, because the most abundant phenolic compound in Greek olive oil is also the most health promoting; oleocanthal. Research continues to confirm the health benefits of regular consumption of oleocanthal rich olive oil. Phenolic compounds in olive oil have a synergistic effect and are most effective when consumed together in their original state.
All scientists are in agreement
All scientists agree that derivatives of tyrosol should be measured. But EFET in Greece refuses to allow it. No scientific reason its semantics. Thus they insist that most Greek olive oils do not comply with the EU labeling regulation 432/2012 and therefore they are not allowed to place the health claim on the label.
The Greek government breaks their promises
Even Minister Apostolou promised to end the debate in favor of Greek olive oil before this harvest season but has done nothing.
The third opportunity arrived in 2014 when Dr. Prokopios and Dr. Melliou invented the Aristoleo™ Test Kit. It measures the health-protective properties of extra virgin olive oil by analyzing the levels of oleocanthal and oleacein using a hand held colorimetric method. This was revolutionary because for the first time the olive growers and olive mills had the means to assess the health protective properties of their olive oil at the point of production. Patent has been applied for, and manufacturing had to be done in Cyprus due to the lack of facilities here in Greece and the capital controls which stifle any business venture not only in taking money out but most importantly preventing money from being transferred into Greek banks. Regardless of the difficulties and the delays Aristoleo™ Test Kit recently went on sale in Greece and the EU. This means every small grower would have the power to analyze the health-protective properties of their olive oil at the moment of production before they choose to sell it. Knowledge of this type can be a threat to those who wish to keep the status quo. But for how long? Now the growers have the power to analyze their quality of their olive oil themselves. This will reveal the true value of their olive oil and they would be in a position to demand a higher price. The market for high phenolic olive oil is surging upward because the health conscious consumer is willing to pay a higher price for guaranteed quality.
Aristoleo™ Website Attacked
But almost immediately on October 10 2015 the www.aristoleo.com website was hacked and the servers compromised. Who did it? Was it a coincidence that the moment we begin selling Aristoleo™ Test Kit, the website is hacked?
This is the dark side of the Greek olive oil industry. They can hack into websites, pay-off politicians, judges, prosecutors or olive mills. They can unleash law suits for libel at anyone that dares to criticize them. The libel laws in Greece are a farce! You can go to jail for libel even if the person you are accused of libeling has been convicted of the crimes you accused him of in the first place.
These are the real enemies of Greek olive oil culture not the Italians, not the Spanish, and certainly not the Tunisians who have done an exemplary job at promoting their olive oil. And yet we the descendants of the ancient Hellenic culture who practically invented the 3 categories of olive oil look for scapegoats for our collective failures to foreigners and not those among us.
Ancient Hellenic Culture had 3 categories of olive oil:
- High phenolic olive oil for medicine and health, (early harvest)
- Medium phenolic olive oil for adding flavor for every day, consumed uncooked (middle harvest)
- Low phenolic olive oil for cooking. (late harvest)
Perhaps the day will arrive when we can look back to our ancestors with pride and not embarrassment.
Perhaps the day will come when we can truly embrace rational thought and heroic deeds.
Perhaps the day should come sooner than later.
It is up to all of us to make it arrive on time.