The Story of Olives and Olive Oil
Styles and tastes seem to come in cycles. Foods that have been with us for centuries wax and wane in their popularity, emerging from relative obscurity of yesterday to become the epicurean’s delight of today. Olives were once the food for all seasons, serving as source of food, cooking fat, illumination—even as a depilatory . The olive is deeply rooted in history.
However, just as ancient foods reappear on the gastronomic forefront, new Kosher certification issues that relate to them can be similarly intriguing. The purpose of this article is to explore the Kosher certification concerns this age-old food can present.
Types of Olives
Olives are sold in many forms—green, black, stuffed with pimento, and pickled in vinegar. Each can pose distinct Kosher certification concerns. However, to understand these issues, we must first understand something about the olive itself. Both green and black olives are the same fruit; the difference is based on their level of ripeness when they are picked. Green olives are essentially unripe fruit, their higher acidity giving them their characteristic piquant flavor. Black olives are allowed to mature on the tree and have a more mellow flavor. Green olives are grown in many parts of the world, such as California, Greece, Italy, or Israel.
Olives from Israel pose special concerns of T’rumos u’Ma’asros (tithes) and Sh’mitah (the Sabbatical Year). However, even olives from other countries can raise Kosher certification concerns. Olives are generally not eaten as a fresh fruit; they are usually sold in jars or cans.
To preserve the fruit until eaten, various chemicals are added to the olives. Green olives are usually packed in brine, which can be made with salt, acetic acid, or vinegar. Vinegar has historically been made from non-Kosher wine and is sometimes used in the production of olives to impart a specific flavor.
In some countries, low-grade wine vinegar is preferred because it is far cheaper than other chemicals. In addition, a number of specialty olives have recently gained popularity, generally known by the locale from whence they hail. Kalamata olives, for example, come from a particular area in Greece and are often packed in vinegar. Unfortunately, much of the vinegar used in Greece is wine vinegar, and even white vinegar may be produced from wine alcohol, creating significant Kosher certification concerns.
Even white vinegar can pose a problem because in many parts of the world the ethanol from which the vinegar is produced can be derived from wine (not Kosher) or, in more recent years, lactose (dairy). Acetic acid may also suffer from the same concern. Although acetic acid is the active component in vinegar (vinegar is defined as acetic acid derived through fermentation), when acetic acid is used as an ingredient it generally refers to glacial acetic acid that is derived from petroleum. This distinction is not universal, however, and an ingredient declaration of acetic acid does not guarantee that it is actually not vinegar.
To compound the concern, olives imported from other countries are shipped in brine blended overseas, which is then replaced with different brine when subsequently packaged. Ensuring that the initial brine, not just the brine to make the finished product, is Kosher is critical.
Several other ingredients may also be used in the processing of olives. Lactic acid is often added to green olives. Etymological connotations notwithstanding, this ingredient is produced through the fermentation of sugar or corn syrup and is generally of concern only for Pesach (Passover). (One commercial attempt in the United States to produce lactic acid from lactose was a technological success but failed in the marketplace, in no small measure because of the fact that the food industry did not need a dairy lactic acid!)
Ferrous gluconate is an iron salt of gluconic acid and is added to black olives to maintain their firmness and color. Gluconic acid is produced by the fermentation of sugars and requires a Kosher certification.
Olives, however, are not just “green” and “black.” Green olives are often stuffed with pimento. The word pimento is Spanish for pepper and was generally a small piece of a particular type of red pepper. Today, this condiment is often prepared from minced pimento, to which a gelling agent is added to form a solid stuffing. Although this ingredient may be an alginate derived from sea-weed, it may also be non-Kosher gelatin.
The versatility of olives is not limited to the fruit itself. Indeed, its use to produce olive oil has historically been one of its most important applications. In the era before today’s common vegetable oils (such as soybean, canola, and corn) were available, olive oil served as the primary Kosher oil. Olive oil, however, differs significantly from other cooking oils. Although other cooking oils are designed to have as little flavor as possible, high-quality olive oil is prized for a particular flavor. In that respect, olive oil is treated somewhat as a fruit juice instead of a source of fat, which is why olive oil is divided into three major grades—extra virgin, virgin, and pomace.
Extra-virgin olive oil comes from the first pressing of the olive, contains the lowest level of free fatty acids, and has the lightest color and flavor. Virgin oil comes from additional pressings of the olives but has a higher level of free fatty acids and thus a stronger taste. Both of these types of oil are generally not refined. Pomace oil is extracted from the olive “cake” that is left after the initial pressings. The oil is removed from the cake by pressing or with petroleum solvents, and is the lowest quality olive oil.
Because of the impurities and flavors inherent in this grade, it is generally refined. Refining, a process used in the production of most vegetable, marine, and animal oils, involves heating and filtering the oil to purify and standardize it. Unfortunately, vegetable oils (including olive oil) are often refined in the same equipment as non-Kosher animal and marine oils, rendering otherwise Kosher vegetable oils to be non-Kosher.
Today, olive oil has enjoyed a resurgence in the market, owing both to its perceived health value as a highly monounsaturated oil and to its unique flavor profile. This newfound popularity—and higher price— has not been without its pitfalls. Although it had been assumed that all extra-virgin olive oil was free of refining and contamination concerns, recent research has indicated that olive oil—including extra-virgin—is susceptible to adulteration. The outlying areas in the many countries where it is produced further complicates our ability to monitor the purity of the product. Extreme vigilance is therefore required of the Kosher certification agencies to ensure that Kosher olive oil is indeed exactly that.
Olive oil has always enjoyed a special place in Pesach foods. It has historically been the vegetable oil universally accepted as being free of any concerns of Kitniyos. (Many otherwise Kosher oils, such as soy, canola, and corn, are avoided by Ashkenazic Jews during Passover.) In addition to concerns of possible adulteration with less expensive non-Passover oils, modern technology has created complications for this erstwhile paradigm of Kosher for Passover oils.
Olives (as do many fruit) yield the greatest amount of juice when they overripe. During the ripening process, certain enzymes are produced naturally that break down the pulp of the olive, allowing the oil that is entrapped to come out more easily during pressing.
Today, these enzymes (cellulases and pectinases) are produced commercially and added to ground olives, allowing olives to be pressed without such a delay. Many of these enzymes may be considered Chometz (leaven). Verifying that any enzymes used are indeed Kosher for Passover is therefore important.
Another Pesach concern involves the use of citric acid. Minute amounts of metal ions occur naturally in all vegetable oils, which can affect the color and flavor of the oil. Citric acid is often added to bind to these ions and render them harmless (chelation), and the Passover status of the citric acid must be verified if it is used. It has also been reported that chlorophyll preparations have been added to fortify an “olive green” color, the Kosher status of which should also be verified.
Advances in food technology are an ever-present challenge to Kosher food. Even products that have been with us for thousands of years can and do change.
The Bottom Line
– Black and green olives are essentially the same fruit, differing only in their level of ripeness.
– Olives, as well as all other produce, grown in Israel are subject to special laws unique to the Holy Land. Unprocessed olives from all other countries are inherently Kosher.
– Most olives, however, are soaked in a brine to preserve them. This brine may contain vinegar or acetic acid. Vinegar may be produced from non-Kosher wine and must therefore be carefully monitored.
– Even if a product lists acetic acid as an ingredient, it may first be soaked in non-Kosher vinegar and then in acetic acid. Lactic acid is often added to green olives, and may pose a Passover concern. Ferrous gluconate is often added to black olives to maintain their firmness.
– As with all fermentation products, the gluconic acid used in its production requires a reliable Kosher certification.
– Green olives are often stuffed with pimento. Although the original version of this material was a strip of red pepper, this product is now generally prepared from minced pimento and a gelling agent.
Although this gelling agent often used is carrageenan, it may also be non-Kosher gelatin.
– Olives are also the source of olive oil, one of the most ancient sources of oil for both food and fuel. Olive oil is prized for its flavor and is graded for quality according to the freshness of its taste. Extra-virgin and virgin oil refer to oil that is squeezed from ripe fruit. This grade of olive oil is typically processed without refining or other heat treatment, and many authorities permit its use without Kosher certification.
– However, concerns of adulteration or storage with non-Kosher oils remain a concern. Pomace grade refers to oil that is extracted from squeezed olives, in much the same manner as oil is extracted from soybeans. Such oil is typically refined and may be processed on equipment that is also used for non-Kosher oils. Kosher certification of this grade of oil is certainly required.
– Olive oil is acceptable for use on Passover according to all opinions.
However, Chometz pectinase and cellulase enzymes are often added to increase the yield during pressing. Citric acid may also be added to olive, all of which may pose a Passover concern.