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Olive oil may come to you in a bottle, but its source (the olive) is a fruit; and just like any other fruit, it has a season. Late winter is the peak of the olive harvest season, which means that there is no better time than right now to get fresh extra virgin olive oil. Read on to learn why fresh olive oil matters, and how to get your hands on some.

What Is Olive Oil?

Olive oil is essentially olive juice. It just happens to be very oily juice. But those fats inside olive oil aren’t bad for you; quite the contrary, in fact. The fats in olive oil are heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, and they’ve been proven to protect against heart disease and various other inflammation-related diseases. But there’s more to this fruit juice than just incredibly heart-healthy fat. There’s a load of antioxidants inside that juice, antioxidants which not only prevent against disease, but also slow down the aging process. It’s thought that some of these antioxidants, such as polyphenols, are just as responsible for the heart-protective benefits as the very unsaturated fats themselves.

Defining “Extra Virgin”

But, you won’t find these antioxidants in just any old olive oil. You’ll find them in extra virgin olive oils. Technically speaking, an olive oil is extra virgin if it is the first pressing of fresh, disease-free olives. It must also meet strict chemical guidelines tested in a laboratory, such as its level of free fatty acids (which must not exceed .8% acidity). It is these specific extra virgin olive oils that contain high amounts of potent polyphenols and antioxidants—not to mention great flavor, aroma, and character—not found in regular olive oils or other culinary oils.

Why Freshness Matters

And that’s precisely why freshness matters. Just like a freshly cut apple, or a glass of just-pressed carrot juice, as soon as olives are harvested and pressed, they begin to oxidize. During oxidation, color weakens, flavors are diminished, and concentration of nutrients like antioxidants are lost. You wouldn’t want to eat that sliced apple in two weeks or drink that pure carrot juice next month. And just the same, extra virgin olive oil has a life span. Depending on the exact olive pressed, its oil will last anywhere from about six months to two years tops. An average of one year for an extra virgin olive oil is a safe bet (provided you are keeping your oil out of direct sunlight and heat).

‘Tis the Season

Olives in the United States are harvested between November through early January, which means that right now, those freshly harvested olives are being pressed into extra virgin olive oil. Theoretically speaking, if you can get your hands on locally-produced olive oil, straight from the olive mill, you’ll find the freshest, ripest olive oil you can imagine. The flavor of a fresh olive oil—intensely grassy, spicy and peppery, with wholesome olive notes. The color—ranging from mild to deep green, with streaks of gold or yellow. The antioxidants—in higher concentrations than ever. This is ripe olive juice, freshly squeezed, if you will, and it’s in season right now.

The state of California is producing some of the finest extra virgin olive oil in the world today, and it’s a great place to start to get your hands on some of the first pressing, or olio nuovo, as it’s called in the industry. To learn more about olive oil and to locate a retailer or producer, check out the California Olive Oil Council.

Image: Flavio@Flickr