The 'Greening' of Olive Oil Chemistry

Concerns about safety and the environment drive current efforts to switch to new methods that require either fewer chemicals, or that use chemicals that are less dangerous to handle and store.

Oct. 26, 2017
By Liliana Scarafia

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In a con­ver­sa­tion over lunch with some olive oil pro­duc­ers, the topic of Near Infrared (NIR) based meth­ods of analy­sis came up, as a sub­sti­tute for stan­dard wet chem­istry” lab pro­ce­dures. Folks around the table expressed dis­be­lief on NIR results. In their opin­ion, they were no sub­sti­tutes for wet bench” methods. 

It was then up to me, a man­ager of a lab not using NIR, to counter-argue that NIR ana­lyt­i­cal pro­ce­dures have value and ben­e­fits that must be rec­og­nized: expe­di­ency, cou­pled with user and envi­ron­men­tal friend­li­ness and lower costs. 

Generally speak­ing, lab cus­tomers are unaware of the waste that chem­istry lab­o­ra­to­ries gen­er­ate, and the care required for han­dling and stor­ing flam­ma­ble and dan­ger­ous chem­i­cals. This is pre­cisely what food and oil pro­cess­ing plants must avoid. By imple­ment­ing qual­ity con­trol with NIR-based meth­ods which require no chem­i­cals, these plants sub­stan­tially reduce haz­ard exposure.

Concerns about safety and the envi­ron­ment drive cur­rent efforts to switch to new meth­ods that require either fewer chem­i­cals, or that use chem­i­cals that are less dan­ger­ous to han­dle and store. 

This green­ing” of lab­o­ra­tory meth­ods was recently dis­cussed topic at the International Olive Council (IOC) chemists’ meet­ing in Madrid. Can older meth­ods using unhealthy sol­vents like hexane be updated by using less haz­ardous sol­vents such as isooc­tane? (Note that chem­i­cal waste is still being gen­er­ated, but the over­all haz­ard decreases.)

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There are numer­ous exam­ples of green­ing in the lab­o­ra­tory and diag­nos­tic world. In the 90s, mol­e­c­u­lar biol­ogy labs replaced radioac­tive iso­tope-based tech­niques with chemi­lu­mi­nes­cent detec­tion. Our den­tists now use dig­i­tal X‑rays that avoid sol­vents for film devel­op­ment. Likewise, our dig­i­tal cam­eras bypass the need for chem­i­cals in film processing. 

Moreover, with the devel­op­ment of new micro assays, oil chem­istry tests could be minia­tur­ized to a scale where instead of hun­dreds of mil­li­liters of sol­vents, a few will suf­fice. Let’s stay tuned as to how far the IOC will go on this green road. We will all ben­e­fit from their efforts.



Liliana Scarafia is a prin­ci­pal at Agbiolab, an inde­pen­dent lab­o­ra­tory help­ing olive grow­ers, millers, and han­dlers to pro­duce qual­ity olive oil.

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