Health

Mushrooms, Pepperoni and Benzopyrene

Aug. 25, 2011
By Curtis Cord

Recent News

Americans love pizza. There are 70,000 pizze­rias in the States crank­ing out over 15 mil­lion slices every day with annual sales of more than $35 Billion.

A Department of Agriculture study found that in a three-day period, 42 per­cent of chil­dren between the ages of 6 and 11 had eaten pizza. How long has it been since you (or your child) has had a slice?

Pepperoni is the most pop­u­lar top­ping, fol­lowed by mush­rooms and “extra cheese.” Some people ask for “extra tomato sauce,” or a “thin crust” (espe­cially here in New York). In Chicago, a thick crust is stan­dard.

There’s one more com­po­nent that no one orders, nor even knows about, yet it’s an ingre­di­ent most pizza makers use lib­er­ally: oil. Notice I didn’t say “olive oil,” because what goes on a lot of our favorite pizza can’t legally be called olive oil.

At the side door of my local pizze­ria each morn­ing there is a huge pile of fire­wood to be burned that day in wood-fired ovens that impart a deli­cious, smokey flavor on the pies.

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Behind the counter the dough is hand-stretched and laid out on a marble slab pow­dered with flour. Then the cook dips a large ladel into a bowl and swirls what might be three-quar­ters of a cup of oil around the big, uncooked shell before another ladel of tomato sauce fol­lows.

I asked the man what kind of oil he used. He looked back and relayed the ques­tion in Arabic to his col­league who shrugged and replied “the same that we use in the deep fryer.” I asked to see the tin.

It was olive pomace oil.

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The International Olive Council, the inter­gov­ern­men­tal olive oil orga­ni­za­tion respon­si­ble for out­lin­ing qual­ity stan­dards and mon­i­tor­ing olive oil authen­tic­ity, defines olive oil as “oil obtained solely from the fruit of the olive tree, to the exclu­sion of oils obtained using sol­vents or re-ester­i­fi­ca­tion processes.”

After press­ing olives into oil, what’s left is the residue called pomace: the solid remains of the olive includ­ing skins, pulp, seeds, and stems. There is such a little amount of oil left in the pomace that it cannot be extracted by press­ing, but only through indus­trial refin­ing includ­ing the use of chem­i­cal sol­vents (like hexane), extremely high heat and deodor­iza­tion.

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They are the same high-heat processes used in refin­ing canola, sun­flower, and other veg­etable oils, and they are why unreg­u­lated olive pomace oil some­times con­tains harm­ful com­po­nents known as poly­cyclic aro­matic hydro­car­bons (PAHs) like ben­zopy­rene, which research has shown to be highly car­cino­genic and muta­genic. In 2001, after extremely high levels of PAHs were detected, olive pomace oil was banned in sev­eral coun­tries for a while until “accept­able” limits were estab­lished.

On the web­site of the food­ser­vice com­pany Pastorelli, you can see why pizze­ria owners might choose olive pomace oil over other grades: “Our Italian Chef Pomace Oil is a fla­vor­ful oil whose fruit­ful­ness is derived from select Mediterranean olives. Appetizing to the palate and excel­lent for use on salads, cook­ing or in your favorite recipes.”

The con­fus­ing infor­ma­tion is in turn pro­vided to con­sumers. On the web­site of the University of California at Berkeley there’s a list­ing of the ingre­di­ents in the Italian sausage pizza served to stu­dents in the cafe­te­rias. “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” is listed, but notice how it’s defined:

That’s like saying: Fresh-squeezed orange juice (a blend of juice extracted from left­over pulp, rinds and pits with the use of chem­i­cals and sol­vents, with fresh squeezed orange juice). Of course extra virgin olive oil cannot con­tain any pomace oil at all accord­ing to the USDA and every olive oil stan­dard ever writ­ten.

A restau­rant food­ser­vice pro­fes­sional con­firmed that the oil he sells the most to pizza restau­rants was olive pomace oil, and you can find plenty of web­sites that list olive pomace oil as a pizza ingre­di­ent, like this one in Raleigh, North Carolina.

It could be worse. If you order a pizza from one of the 9,000 Dominoes stores, your oil will be hydro­genated soy­bean (though only within the crust, not poured on top).

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It could be better. If you watch an arti­sanal pizza being crafted in the South of France, Italy, or Greece you’ll see a thin dough coated with a green extra virgin olive oil, and a few other fresh ingre­di­ents.

Olive oil, in all its forms is a food most Americans don’t yet under­stand. Pizza makers aren’t out to cut cor­ners, they simply don’t know the dif­fer­ence and nei­ther do their cus­tomers. Of course that’s how low-grade oil pro­duc­ers and mar­keters like it.

On the Santini food­ser­vice web­site the mes­sage is clear: “The high impact ‘old coun­try’ graph­ics on our tins make our oil a great choice for kitchens in the back of the restau­rant or up front where your clien­tele can see the qual­ity ingre­di­ents you’re using to make their dishes.”

Pizza should be a healthy food. In America it is too often made from low-grade or unhealthy ingre­di­ents — includ­ing olive pomace oil. The next time you order out, or head down to your corner pizze­ria, ask what kind of oil they use.

See also:

Only Extra Virgin Olive Oil at Rome’s Forno Campo de’ Fiori
Forno Bravo Pizza Ovens: Olive Oil for Pizza
Olive Pomace Oil: Not What You Might Think