Europe

Chemical Authentication Process Can Verify Olive Oil Origins

A three-year research project from Italy's University of Salento has yielded a new chemical imaging process that could certify the origins of olive oil blends.

Jun. 14, 2018
By Ivy Pepin

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With its widely extolled health ben­e­fits and beloved pres­ence in dishes around the globe, extra virgin olive oil’s com­mer­cial heft is on the rise. But as the liquid gold of cook­ing increases in value, so does the risk of dis­trib­u­tors dilut­ing pure EVOO with refined seed oils — mean­ing your oil blend might not be exactly what its label says.

Currently, no offi­cial sci­en­tific process can cer­tify the authen­tic­ity and geo­graphic ori­gins of a batch. And since 2009, when EU Regulation 182 man­dated dis­trib­u­tors in all European coun­tries to label their olive oils with the olives’ geo­graph­i­cal origin, the need for an offi­cial ver­i­fi­ca­tion method­ol­ogy has only become more urgent. But thanks to a three-year research project con­ducted by Francesco Paolo Fanizzi from the University of Salento in Lecce, Italy, a new chem­i­cal authen­ti­ca­tion pro­ce­dure could pro­vide a solu­tion.

Southeast Italy’s Apulia region is the fore­most EVOO pro­ducer in the coun­try. It’s also the site of the University of Salento, where Fanizzi is a pro­fes­sor of gen­eral and inor­ganic chem­istry. “Some years ago,” he said, “I real­ized that geo­graph­i­cal origin assess­ment is a key factor to pro­vide cus­tomers with a fully trace­able prod­uct, and at the same time to improve the local econ­omy.”

Over three years of research, Fanizzi devel­oped a pro­ce­dure that uses Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) to take images of EVOO sam­ples from var­i­ous regions of south­ern Italy. These images pro­vide ref­er­ence models, which can later be com­pared to EVOO blends to val­i­date, or revoke, their authen­tic­ity.

Fanizzi com­pares the approach to taking an “olive oil fin­ger­print,” cre­at­ing a snap­shot of all the mol­e­cules con­tained in a sample of oil. This snap­shot includes both the genetic fac­tors (olive cul­ti­vars) and the exter­nal fac­tors (such as soil and cli­mate of a spe­cific geo­graph­i­cal area) where the oil orig­i­nated. This data can be entered into ref­er­ence data­bases, which can then be used to assess the ori­gins of EVOOs.

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The methodology’s future appli­ca­tions are promis­ing. “There are com­mit­ments at national (Italy) and inter­na­tional levels for exten­sive use of these data­bases, but a huge amount of work is required for a com­pre­hen­sive map­ping of the most rel­e­vant cul­ti­vars and geo­graph­i­cal areas where EVOOs orig­i­nate,” said Fanizzi. “On the other hand, at the moment, we can easily put a sort of fence around a spe­cific EVOO to but­tress with a data­base the label-declared geo­graph­i­cal area of pro­duc­tion. We have sev­eral ongo­ing col­lab­o­ra­tions with com­pa­nies, such as Certified Origins, aimed at this goal.”

As olive oil pro­duc­tion becomes increas­ingly com­mer­cial­ized, the inte­gra­tion of sophis­ti­cated NMR authen­ti­ca­tion might seem like a depar­ture from tra­di­tion. But it could ulti­mately safe­guard the integrity of grow­ers, sup­pli­ers, and con­sumers, ensur­ing that olive oil is held to the high­est stan­dard every step of the way. That’s as tra­di­tional as it gets.

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