Ah, olive oil. It’s healthy, it’s delicious – just opening a bottle puts our cooking ability on par with that of a professional chef. Some people take shots of it every morning. Two women who lived to be over 120 years old both said drinking it was the key to a long life (along with wine and chocolate – now that’s some health advice I’m happy to take!). But if you’ve purchased olive oil from a grocery store, the chances are very high that you aren’t buying what you think you are. And certainly not the good stuff that could help you live longer.
In fact, consumers in the U.S. are so familiar with rancid, low-quality olive oil that they will pick it out of line during a taste test because it’s what they’re used to. Instead of a fresh, grassy, fragrant, buttery, or even peppery smell with hints of fruitiness, we are used to oils that are musty, greasy, and thin.
If you’re not sure you know what good olive oil tastes like, visit a specialty olive oil store. They often offer tastings of their products, and can show you what to look for. We’ll go into more depth later about what to look for in olive oils, since even some of these stores lack good, fresh options.
On a personal note, if you take away one thing from this article, I hope it’s to learn what olive oil is supposed to taste like and how to pick out a good bottle. Do it for me. I personally have shed a tear over a roommate using my fancy olive oil to season a pan, and I’m not ashamed… Okay, maybe I am a little. But I digress – please go find a specialty olive oil store near you and go taste some. Your life will never be the same.
Let’s start with some basics about olive oil.
Olives are picked and crushed into a paste by stones, or more commonly by steel blades. The paste is then stirred to release droplets of olive oil before being spun around at high speeds in a centrifuge to remove the oil and water from the olives. Finally, water is removed until just the oil remains.
If the end oil is unrefined, such as extra virgin and virgin oils, the process ends there and the oil is bottled and shipped. Only the best olives are used for unrefined oils. If the olives are of lesser quality, more processing is required. This oil is further refined using chemicals and heat to neutralize the taste of the oils, as lesser quality olives produce a more bitter and less desirable taste. These oils are often labeled as “Pure Olive Oil” or simply “olive oil.”
So if Pure Oil and Olive Oil mean it’s bad stuff, what about the good stuff? That’s from Italy, right?
It’s a common misconception that only good olive oil comes from Italy. The reality is that Italy is just the biggest importer and exporter of it. Both good and bad olive oils can come from Italy, and there’s also amazing oils that come from countries like Spain, Greece, Tunisia, and (my personal favorite) Australia. Italy just happens to bottle and ship the vast majority of it, which feeds the misconception.
The best and highest quality olive oils are labeled “extra virgin,” which means that they contain pure, cold-pressed olive oils instead of a blend of lower quality, processed oils. That’s why the taste of extra virgin olive oil is stronger and more pronounced than regular olive oil. It’s also the only label that requires any sort of inspection, and must pass lab analysis and testing conducted by the International Olive Council in Madrid.
Neat, so just look for “extra virgin” olive oil and I’m good to go?
Nope, sorry! Nothing can ever be simple when it comes to food. Unfortunately, seeing extra virgin on the label isn’t a guarantee of quality. According to a study in 2010, 69% of imported extra virgin olive oils that were tested failed to meet USDA standards. Often, companies pass off lower quality olive oil as extra virgin – and there’s plenty of room in the supply chain for mixups.
Remember how Italy imports, bottles, and exports most of the olive oil? In November of 2015, seven of Italy’s best-known olive oil companies (does the name Bertolli ring a bell?) were investigated for passing off low quality oils from other countries as extra virgin Italian olive oil. This multi-million dollar systemic fraud case was busted by an investigation codenamed (no joke) Operation “Mamma Mia.” There are even ties to mafia involvement within the Italian olive oil industry. The price tag for extra virgin olive oil rings up at around 30-40% more than the cost of regular oil, which is more than enough for fraudsters to want a taste.
Okay, so sometimes olive oil isn’t totally pure and extra virgin. Kinda crummy, but not exactly unsafe. Why should I care?
In the best cases, “fake” olive oil is labeled incorrectly as extra virgin, or has been mixed with oils that have been sitting around from the previous years’ harvest (or longer). This is totally legal, but completely defeats the main purpose of buying olive oil – that it’s healthy. When mixed with old and often rancid oil, by the time the oil reaches the consumer it’s often lost a good chunk of its health benefits.
In the worst cases, the oil has been illegally diluted (or “cut”) with other, cheaper oils. One way to do this is to add chemically refined, low-quality olive oils. Other popular diluters are sunflower, soybean, and canola oils. Which, if you have food allergies, is VERY bad news.
That sounds not great. So how do I make sure I’m buying good olive oil?
If you can, hit up a specialty olive oil store – they’re popping up more frequently in the U.S. and often pride themselves on letting you test their products. If it tastes good, it’s probably good.
Don’t trust labels. (This seems to be a recurring theme – check out our guides to eggs and coffee certifications and why transparency could be the solution.)
Don’t fall for terms like “natural,” “pure,” “premium,” “virgin,”or “light.” They are all marketing terms for oil that is heavily processed and lacking in the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil – though they are fine for baking or other kitchen needs where flavor doesn’t matter. And as I’m sure you learned above, even “made in Italy” doesn’t mean much. Even the bottled by dates aren’t good to go by – oil can sit in a tank for a year before it’s bottled.
So if olive oil labels aren’t any good, what do I look for?
Check for a stamp of approval.
There’s a council called the California Olive Oil Council, or COOC, that verifies, tests, and analyzes olive oils to meet high standards. If you see their seal, it means that oil has met their criteria – here’s a list of the brands they’ve approved.
Additionally, the USDA has a voluntary quality monitoring program for olive oils, though only two companies participate. If you see the USDA seal, it means the oil meets these standards.
You can also check for the European Union’s Protected of Designated Origin or Italy’s DOP.
Brush up on your geography.
If you have nothing to go off of besides the country of origin, choose Chile or Australia. These two countries scored the highest average qualities on the U.S. International Trade Commission report on conditions of major olive oil imports in the U.S.
Additionally, Australia has the best testing systems and the highest standards of all olive-oil producing countries. Both Chile and Australia have never been found to mix oils from old harvests.
Know your seasons.
Buy olive oils from regions where olives are in season. This means don’t buy from the Northern Hemisphere in the fall and winter, and don’t buy from places like Chile, Australia, or South Africa during the spring and summer.
Olive oil’s worst enemies are light, heat, and oxygen – they cause oil to deteriorate rapidly. Stay away from oils that are kept in clear bottles or near windows. Good olive oil is often kept in a dark tinted bottle or in a can to prevent degradation of quality. If you can’t see the color, that’s fine! High quality olive oils can come in all colors, from buttery yellow to dark green to nearly clear.
Awesome! Now I have a great bottle of oil – what do I do with it?
Store it in a dark place that’s temperature-stable and not too hot. An unopened bottle can be kept in a cool, dark place for a year or two, but after it’s open make sure to use it within a few months before oxidation causes it to go rancid.
But don’t worry too much – once you have a fragrant, grassy, buttery olive oil at your cooking disposal, it probably won’t make it more than a few months before it’s all gone!