Olive oil is truly wonderful. I’ve been using it in many recipes since I was a kid. I can’t think of many dishes that I make that don’t have some olive oil and garlic in them in some amount. The flavor of a good olive oil can be different than what some people are used to. My grandma recalled to me once a story in which she was on a date with my Italian grandpa and he brought some chicken prepared by my great grandma. It had been cooked with olive oil and garlic. My grandma thought it had gone bad because “the flavor was strange to the uninitiated”. I initiated my palate many years ago and have never turned back.
Olive oil has definitely gained popularity here in the USA and I think part of that is due to the “Mediterranean Diet”. I put that in quotes because some aspects of what is preached about it here in the states is true and other parts are off. That’s a post in and of itself. Anyhow the oil is popular and lots of people use it. There has been lots of news over the past few years about the quality of the oil and I wanted to address this.
Terms like “Pure”, “Extra Virgin”, “Virgin”, and others are tossed around and can be complicated for a person who is buying olive oil. Lets sum these up shall we.
Extra Virgin: Mechanically pressed, not chemically treated, excellent odor and flavor, and has an acidity of less than 0.8% (acidity measures the amount of free oleic acid, in this case as less than 0.8gm/100ml)
Virgin: Mechanically pressed, not chemically treated, good odor and flavor, and acidity of less than 2%
Olive Oil: Mix of non-refined and refined oils.
Pure: Mix of virgin and extra virgin that have been chemically refined.
Olive Pomace: After the press of the olive, around 5-8% of the oil is still in the pulp and must be extracted using chemicals. This is olive pomace oil.
Light: Super low grade from chemical processing. Same amount of calories as any other oil. Remember fat is 9kcal/gm and light oil is fat.
So the term “Pure” is misleading. Anytime you buy pure olive oil, you’re getting a product that has been refined down and is likely missing many chemicals that make olive oil oh so wonderful. If you’re interested in a good quality oil, don’t purchase anything labeled pure.
Light oil is not light on calories as it has just as many as any other oil out there. Pomace may sound interesting and it would be if we could extract it without chemicals and heat. Virgin is ok but is a second tier to extra virgin. Extra virgin is the best quality there is. So that should be case closed right?
To make this seemingly simple thing a bit more complicated is the fact that what might be on the label might not be what goes down your gullet. There have been plenty of reports out of Italy where the mob was involved in tainting oil with other oils. Here is one interesting read;
One Australian report found that many oils weren’t passing quality standards. That can be found here:
Another report from NPR discusses how authorities on the east coast have found olive oil labeled as extra virgin being adulterated with peanut, soy and hazelnut oils.
I’ve seen other sites where they’ve claimed that canola oil has also been mixed in with olive oil which doesn’t surprise me since it doesn’t have any real flavor and would be hard to detect by the simple consumer.
UC Davis has done some testing on various brands to assess quality a couple of different times. From the study they showed that many brands that were labeled as extra virgin were really just virgin oils. From the study,
“73 percent (66 of 90 samples) of the five top-selling imported brands failed international sensory standards for extra virgin olive oil by failing two International Olive Council-accredited taste panels. The samples had objectionable sensory attributes such as rancidity and “fustiness,” a fermentation defect.”1
Some of the brands that failed; Pompeian, Filippo Berio, Bertolli, Star, Colavita, Newman’s Own Organic and Rachael Ray.
Some that passed both sensory tests and chemical testing; California Olive Ranch, Cobram Estate, Kirkland Organic, Corto Olive, McEvoy Ranch Organic and Lucero
Not so extra virgin after all.
The gist here is that if you go to WalMart to buy some olive oil you probably aren’t going to purchase a quality product, although I did manage to find some California Olive Ranch at my local Walmart so you never know unless you look. Fortunately there is also Costco nearby so I can grab some Kirkland Organic. It’s interesting to note that Australian tests found that australian oils were the best and that California tests found California oils the best. I don’t think this is bias but rather the fact that local generally is much better and they don’t have to go through the shipment process.
So what do you look for? Look for a dark bottle. This of course doesn’t ensure anything but dark bottle lets less light pass through. Olive oil is sensitive to light and can oxidize in it’s presence.
Look for a harvest date, not a use by date. The harvest date lets you know when they were harvested (no brainer) and gives you an idea of when the oil is no longer good. According to Selena Wang of the UC Davis team, the oil is no good after 4-6 months after opening.2 I’ve read about 2 years after bottling is all you’ll get out of it if it isn’t opened, but I wouldn’t wait that long.
Here is a website for award winning olive oils
You can pretty reliably choose any one of these for quality.
Another thing to look for is the California Olive Oil Council Seal on the bottle. If it is a domestic product, especially from California, this is an oil that has passed testing and quality controls.
Taste is a big indicator. If it has a “peppery” and/or fruity flavor it is probably good. It doesn’t need to be smooth going down to be quality and in fact many have some strong pungent burning in the back of the mouth flavors. Those are polyphenols (antioxidants) that are beneficial.
Another thing to look for is if the producer posts the acidity level of the oil on the label. While this just like everything else can be fudged, it will give you a better idea of what quality you’re looking at. I’ve noted the inferior brands don’t post it at all.