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Ask Reece

posted on Thursday, May 23rd, 2019

Dear Reece,
Apparently, a lot of olive oil is adulterated. This is extremely alarming. Could you tell me if the
bulk oil at Karma is guaranteed to be what it says it is? In this vein, I have regular lunches with a
friend, where we take turns hosting. He prepares lovely meals, but often with inexpensive
ingredients. I have seen a large, cheap canister of olive oil sitting on his counter. How do I let
someone know I am not comfortable consuming any meals with potentially unknown substances
in them, specifically this so-called olive oil? I don’t want to be rude, but also am unwilling to
compromise my health.
Best,
Olives Infringing on Life

Dear OIL,
Thanks for writing. Adulterated food is concerning, but I want to assure you that at least in the
case of olive oil, all information I found pointed to harmless substances being added to the oil –
mostly less expensive vegetable oils or lower grades of olive oil. This is a case of being
swindled rather than poisoned. If you enjoy the taste of a particular oil, then it’s worth asking
yourself if it really matters whether the oil is as pure as it states. There are many articles about
olive oil tasting and on developing a palette for fine oils, and I will include one here, in case you
are interested.
Olive oil available in places without olive groves (like Ontario) is imported, mostly by bigger
companies, and after passing through many hands. The unfortunate truth about olive, coconut,
avocado and many other oils is that they are not always available from small producers, and
that the more people and companies that are involved in shipping, packaging, repacking,
refining, products, the more opportunities there are for someone to commit fraud. In other
words, the longer and more global the supply chain, the greater chance that one of those links is
connected to someone who is willing and able to adulterate the product (Esteki, 2019). There is
also a greater incentive to cheat in longer-distance supply: the profit is split into more, and often
smaller, pieces, and the consumer is a nameless, faceless mass. It may feel like there is less of
a chance of any one individual getting caught and suffering a poor reputation (Esteki, 2019).
There are some cooking oils produced in Canada; Huron Sun is a sunflower seed oil produced
in Ontario and Three Farmers has camelina oil from Saskatchewan. Both appear to be small
producers and are available at Karma. One local, zero-waste, small-scale option for anyone
who cooks meat are fats that are often a product of our home cooking and roasting practices:
schmaltz (chicken fat), duck fat, lard, and other animal fats are easily rendered at home. Though
they may not be perfect for absolutely everything, I think they are great for most things. I’ve
used them to add a savoury note to cookies and pie crusts, and use them like oil or butter for
sauces, roasting or frying vegetables, frying eggs, etc. with good results. I like tossing warm
bacon grease into a salad for dressing.
Regarding Karma’s bulk olive oil, it’s probably fine, but unfortunately, I don’t know how it would
be possible to make that guarantee for any product that travels a distance. I researched the
company and saw nothing to imply that they have been connected to any claims of fraud or
adulteration. The Three Farmers camelina oil I mentioned above will soon be available in bulk
from Quebec, as a zero-waste alternative.
As for your concern around your friend’s less expensive olive oil, there is no indication in any
news or academic papers I could find that any olive oil adulteration has contained dangerous
substances, so this is not a health issue. I would refrain from mentioning it: we can’t control
everything we eat without going to obsessive lengths. If you do feel the need to talk to him about
the oil, try to do it gently and make this request easy for him. For example, well in advance of
getting together you could give him some olive oil you feel more comfortable with and explain
your concerns, perhaps admitting that you are being a little overly cautious and appreciate him
humouring you. Unfortunately, I still think this would border on rudeness, but you know your
friend and how he would take this better than I do!
Hope this helps! Stay tuned for an upcoming member question on palm oil.
Reece

Ask Reece is the Chronicle’s advice column by Karma working member Reece Steinberg, a
health sciences librarian and food enthusiast. Reece provides advice with input from a variety
of sources including anything from traditional etiquette columns to peer-reviewed scientific
articles. He answers Karma member questions about dietary lifestyles, food science and
fermentation, eating etiquette, and anything else food-related. Please email your questions to
askreece@karmacoop.org.