First things first, unfiltered olive oil is not going to cure disease or add years to your life. Unfiltered olive oil simply has more tiny pieces of olive in it that hasn’t been filtered out, which explains its cloudiness.
But there’s a lot more to it than the manufacturer leaving out a final step. Unfiltered oil tastes differently, and many experts relish that difference. The problem is unfiltered oil doesn’t last as long – the tiny olive fruit particles give bacteria more to chew on and therefore speed up spoilage. Unfiltered oil still lasts for at least a year and a half, but filtered oil lasts for far longer. The massive olive oil industry prefers filtered for that reason – they make more money with longer shelf lives.
In the old days, all olive oil would have been considered “unfiltered”. Producers may have let the oil settle for a few months so particles sank to the bottom, but the clear and clean olive oil that you mostly see today has been heavily processed to remove any traces of olive fruit.
The Italians even have a name for the flavor of unfiltered oil – pizzicante. “Olive-y and peppery oils are the Clark Kents of the olive world. They start off in the mouth tasting lusciously like olives, but then can catch your throat with a pungent finish, called pizzicante. It’s considered extremely desirable by Tuscan producers and consumers.” (“The Flavors of Oilve Oil: A Tasting Guide and Cookbook.”) The Paesanol brand of unfiltered olive oil says on the label, “… bottled immediately after the first pressing… is undecanted, therefore appearing even cloudier and greener, more herbaceous, and pizzicante in flavor.”
If you tend to leave oil for years in a cupboard, stick with filtered. But if you can keep an eye on the expiration dates, unfiltered can open up a nice nuance of flavor you may not know.
Unfiltered oil has another basic characteristic that keeps coming up as an advantage in foods: less processing. Filtering oil means passing it through cotton or even cardboard filters. What else gets filtered out?
Unprocessed foods, especially organic ones, do tend to spoil faster, but if you can catch them while they are young and delicious, you get all the material nature intended for us and none of the possibly dangerous ones that humans decided to add for flavor or stability.
Photo credit: John Sundlof, submitted.