In Olive Oil We Trust
and an interview with the founder of Brightland
While dietary fat can be controversial, there is one that is almost universally regarded as a superfood, and even safe to indulge - olive oil. The worst-kept secret of the Mediterranean, extra virgin olive oil is extolled for its anti-inflammatory properties that reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and even Alzheimer’s. The olive branch is used as a symbol of peace all over the world. But did you know that the majority of imported olive oil sold in the United States fails to meet international standards and is subject to rampant fraud?
I had the privilege of speaking with Aishwarya Iyer, the founder of Brightland, an artisanal olive oil company that has disrupted the olive oil market with its high-quality product and beautiful branding. This is not a sponsored post and she was kind enough to provide her insight as I researched this piece. While my interview was conducted in a Q&A format, I have taken the editorial liberty to paraphrase Aishwarya’s answers and weave it into this article.
Brightland was born out of a desire for high-quality food production and a deep belief in the land and what it can provide.
Coming from a family of passionate home cooks, Aishwarya and her partner had several bad experiences when cooking at home in NYC. They started to eliminate likely culprits from their diet - cheese, bread and even some spices, ultimately isolating it to their cooking oil with the help of a nutritionist friend. Research revealed that the olive oil industry has had a long history of issues - including mislabeling, adulteration with inferior refined oils and failing to meet minimum sensory standards. It can also go bad during a variety of commercial production processes - get moldy when the olives have been crushed with dirt and mud, or contaminated by larva from olive flies. This was a problem. But let’s back up a little bit.
Olive oil 101
Olive oil is the greenish-golden juice of the olive fruit, with the water separated. The olive was likely first domesticated around 4000 BC in the Mediterranean and grew to be well-integrated into civilized life in the region - in food, for moisturization, as medicine, as a preservative, and even as a base for perfume. Spanish missionaries introduced olive trees and olive oil to California, and the fruit has thrived in the climate which is similar to the Mediterranean.
The term “virgin” indicates that the olive oil has been produced by mechanical means: it is made from the first press of crushed olives - this must be a cold-press and not refined in any way by chemicals or heat. The highest quality virgin olive oil with lower acidity and richer flavor that meets specific standards is called “extra virgin” olive oil (EVOO). Refining results in cheaper versions - including “light”, “extra light” or “pure” olive oil that sometimes has small quantities of extra virgin and virgin olive oils added in. These may be more shelf-stable than EVOO but have also been stripped of most of their nutrients. In the paragraphs below, when I refer to olive oil and related benefits, I mean extra virgin.
A brief history of the dietary fat debate
There are 3 main types of fatty acids that make up our dietary fats, classified by their degree of saturation - saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
The turning point in the modern history of olive oil came in the 1960s, when the researcher Ancel Keys found from his Seven Countries Study, that a Mediterranean-style diet low in saturated fat was associated with lower risk of heart disease. From the study findings- “A high intake of bread, legumes, vegetables, fruit and fats rich in unsaturated fatty acids, a moderate intake of fish and a low intake of dairy and meat was characteristic of a Mediterranean diet.“ The main source of fat in the Mediterranean diet was olive oil.
This study has its critics - it is accused of cherry-picking data to fit its hypothesis, and the resulting focus on unsaturated fats also spawned the mass production of highly processed industrial seed oils like soybean, corn and canola that have now been found highly inflammatory and linked to chronic disease.
Nevertheless, the spotlight had shone on olive oil and there was no looking back from there.
(My primary reference for this section was The Olive Oil Diet, as indicated in the Recommended Resources)
So, what is it about olive oil that makes it so nutrient-dense? Its main component is oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid (the same type of fat found in avocados and certain nuts, like macadamia), that has been found to have beneficial properties in many studies. It also contains smaller amounts of Omega-6 fatty acids and saturated fat.
In addition to (and possibly more important than) the type of fat, the polyphenols found in olive oil have been identified as powerful antioxidants that reduce chronic inflammation and repair oxidative stress by stabilizing free radicals in our bodies. Inflammation and oxidative stress are found to be major contributors to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s and the consumption of olive oil has been linked to their reduced risk and increased insulin sensitivity. Levels of polyphenols can vary across olive oil and are highest in extra virgin olive oils, as they largely get stripped out in the refining process.
Olive oil has been found to have similar anti-inflammatory and pain-reduction properties as ibuprofen, due to the compound oleocanthal, that may contribute to lower rates of arthritis, amongst other illnesses. The presence of Vitamin E and squalene (a hydrocarbon) also increases its antioxidant power while being beneficial for the skin.
Compared to industrial seed oils such as corn, soybean and canola oil, olive oil has a much more optimal ratio of Omega-6 fatty acids to Omega-3’s, and is a rich source of Omega-3’s particularly for plant-based diets.
This cocktail of nutrients and associated benefits make a powerful case for the use of olive oil in our diets, as illustrated by the PREDIMED study.
Sublime and Scandalous - olive oil fraud
The label ‘extra virgin’ no longer means that’s what you get. In Tom Mueller’s book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, he narrates how adulteration is rampant. Scams range from the legal - where coveted stamps of ‘Made in Italy’ or ‘Packed in Italy’ land on bottles of oil that have barely transited through the country, to the illegal - blended with low-grade vegetable oils and added flavors and artificial coloring to mimic extra virgin qualities. Often times, the the quality of olive oil in these bottles is what the experts call lampante, oil that is unfit for consumption, and should be used to light lamps.
Organized crime is present in the food industry, too, as profit margins can be comparable to cocaine trafficking. The mafia presence in the olive oil industry is known as the Agromafia and is responsible for creating knockoffs, much of it bound for the US, where the average consumer is unable to tell the difference.
The International Olive Council (IOC) was set up by the UN in 1959 to safeguard olive oil standards and provide support to growers and millers, amongst other goals. IOC methodologies for sensory testing and certification of extra virgin grade oil have been adopted in Europe. In California, bottles certified by California Olive Oil Council have to pass stringent chemical and sensory tests.
The Brightland Opportunity
Aishwarya was no stranger to the model of disruption, working at a startup at the time. But she was an outsider when it came to the food industry. Nimble and scrappy, she moved to California and learned as much as she could about olive oil and its production. She took classes at the UC Davis Olive Center, visited dozens of olive farms and spoke to others in the consumer product industry. What she found was that small family farms making high-quality olive oil could barely sustain a living, as there wasn’t consumer demand for the product. In addition, small farms usually didn’t get the subsidies that large-scale agriculture did. Thus, a lot of farmers were pivoting to avocado or almond farming, which is actually much more water-intensive and worse for the environment.
She set out to find a partner farm - “whoever would take my calls at first” - and then based on quality standards, including organic farming without the use of synthetic pesticides, olives milled within 90 minutes of harvest, high polyphenol count at the time of harvest, amongst others. Over two months of taste tests at her home, with forty of her friends participating and over a dozen olive oils in the running, she found a launch partner.
Aishwarya also saw this as a unique branding opportunity - “People love olive oil. There is product-market fit but there may not be a brand-market fit.” This rings true to me - while olive oil is universally loved, there is no brand recognition - hardly anyone (including myself) can name a brand of olive oil that they love.
Brightland has given olive oil the wine experience, which I think is genius. I am building up a small collection of the glass bottles which are simply gorgeous - they celebrate brightness and color which is a deep part of Aishwarya’s South Asian heritage. They are coated with a white UV-resistant coating and feature beautiful labels including some special artist edition designs. They have names like Awake and Alive, and their labels reveal tasting notes. When I cook with a bottle of Brightland, or drizzle it on my vegetables, it gives me a little high of self-indulgence, the same that I get when I pour a glass of wine, or grind up coffee beans - I’m doing something that feels good. And this one is good for me.
Olive oil can range anywhere from under $10 to $50 per bottle, on average, with premium brands like Brightland usually only found at specialty stores or online. Quality does come with a price, and given the health benefits to be reaped (that I found even from my limited research for this article), higher quality appears to be worthy of the investment. As consumer demand grows for quality olive oil and farmers make a fair wage, there is hope that this category becomes more accessible to a wider consumer base.
How to find quality olive oil at the supermarket
First of all, look for a tin or an opaque, coated or dark-colored glass bottle, says Aishwarya. Olive oil’s biggest enemies are light, heat and air, making the oil in clear or tinted plastic bottles more susceptible to degradation.
Check the date of production (harvest date). If there isn’t one on the bottle, that’s a red flag. Best-by dates don’t cut it, the oil could be 3 or 4 years old. In this, olives are the opposite of wine in that younger is better - olive oil degrades with age. So don’t save that expensive bottle for a special occasion!
Traceability is important. Make sure the label says specifically where it’s from - which country and which region.
"Buy a couple of bottles, take them home and try them straight. Not dipped in bread, or in your food. Take a spoon and taste the oil. At the end of the day, olives are a fruit. It should taste alive, taste real. Different olive oils based on where they’re from, how they grow and which olive varietals they use - and this is where it’s similar to wine - can have very different flavor profiles and nuances, which is just beautiful.”
What to make with olive oil
Contrary to popular belief, young extra virgin olive oils do have a high smoke point (my bottle of Brightland says 410F). In addition, olive oil is extremely stable when heated and is less susceptible to oxidation when compared to other oils, due to its fatty acid composition as well as its high concentration of antioxidants. So you can use olive oil for sauteing, poaching, baking and frying too, not just drizzling. But be aware that the smoke point tends to get lower as the oil ages (and is lower for lower-quality and refined oils).
Brightland has a treasure trove of recipes on their website, ranging from pastas to salads to even desserts, made with olive oil. Some of Aishwarya’s favorite recipes are
Heirloom Tomato Salad with Za'atar Coated Feta by Noreen Wasti
Summer Zucchini Pasta by Noreen Wasti
Green Rice by Bryant Terry
My conversation with Aishwarya and subsequent research for this article have made me more intentional about incorporating olive oil in my meals, and picky about quality. I look forward to honing my palate and learning to appreciate the flavor nuances in different varietals with experience. Meanwhile, I’m going to be generous with that drizzle and I hope you will be, too!
Brightland makes locally-sourced olive oils, vinegars, and honeys. Their products are available at a handful of larger retailers in California, including Bristol Farms, Erewhon Market and Good Eggs, as well as hundreds of independent grocers and specialty retailers across the US. Shop their website here.
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References and Recommended Resources
Dr Simon Poole and Judy Ridgway. 2016. The Olive Oil Diet - Nutritional Secrets of the Original Superfood. Great Britain: Robinson.
Tom Mueller. 2011. Extra Virginity - The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company
Gastropod (podcast). 2017. Green Gold: Our Love Affair with Olive Oil