Staple Ingredient: Olive Oil Isn't Always What it Seems

By Abby Langer, Foodable Contributor

I know, olive oil is so 1985, right? But you still use it, of course, and are you sure that what you’re using is actually what you think it is?

Olives and olive oil are produced in many countries around the world including the United States, but Italian olive oil is widely known to be the gold standard of olive oils. With 59% of the import market, Italy is also the largest supplier of olive oil to the USA. Annual production of olive oil in Italy is between 500,000 and 700,000 metric tons, which is a good thing, since 610,000 metric tons of olive oil were consumed in Italy alone in 2011 and 2012, according to the EU.

Right now happens to be olive picking season, which traditionally starts on November 1st each year.

Olive Oil Extraction

So how do these little gems get from the tree to your bottle? It all begins in the olive groves. Carefully, olives are ‘combed’ when they’re matured, taking care not to damage the fruits. The olives are then divided into categories according to plumpness, ripeness, and quality.

Processing begins with milling. Milling’s purpose is to break the cell walls and drain the juices from the olives, also producing olive paste. This paste is comprised of oil, water, and solids.

Next, the olive paste is kneaded, which means that it’s mixed with water, creating an emulsion. After kneading, the emulsion is put through the extraction phase, which separates the oil from the fruit’s pit and pulp.

Generally, the grades of olive oil are as follows:

  • Pure: Low nutritional value, chemical filtration, neutral flavor
  • Virgin: No chemical additives, low acidity, fair flavor
  • Organic: No synthetic fertilizers or pesticides used in olive growing process
  • Extra Virgin: High nutritional value, very low acidity, cold pressed, best flavor

According to IOOC regulations, extra-virgin olive oil must contain no more than 0.8 percent acidity. It’s stored at about 65 degrees Fahrenheit during manufacturing to prevent breakdown before it’s bottled and shipped. In 2010, the USDA established olive oil regulations for grading that you can read here.

Labeling

When a label advertises that an olive oil is ‘cold pressed’, this means that it is less refined than olive oil that is processed with heat. ‘First press’ indicates that the olives were pressed to extract the oil, versus another method. There is no second press in the production of olive oil.  A ‘first cold press’ claim can be ignored, since it’s not a regulated statement and doesn’t refer to modern olive oil production methods.

In some countries, olive oil can be labeled as ‘light’, ‘extra light’, or ‘pure’, which is the way a company can label refined olive oil without having to disclose that the oil is refined.

Adulteration

Even though consumers may think they’re getting pure olive oil, unfortunately there are a high number of olive oils that are anything but that. Many have been deodorized to mask the scent of other cheaper oils blended into them, and some oils are rancid by the time they are purchased at the store.

It has been estimated that up to 75% of olive oil sold in the United States and other countries has been adulterated in some way and does not qualify as extra virgin oil, regardless of what the label says. It’s cheap and quick to produce adulterated oil, versus the time and expense required to produce pure 100% extra virgin olive oil. Some suppliers are so good at producing adulterated product that even the most discerning palates can not tell the difference between that and real extra virgin olive oil.

In one particular case that took place in 2008, individuals were selling sunflower and soybean oil with added chlorophyll as olive oil. Another case from Italy in 2012 found that avocado, sunflower, palm, and other cheap oils were being passed off as olive oil.

For Italian olive oil, you should be able to trace your olive oil by harvest date and crop location. If you can’t locate this information on the label, the oil may not be from a credible source.

I found a very common brand of olive oil at the store that listed ‘oil of European origin’ as the ingredient. What country? Where was it grown? Not a word on the bottle told me the answers to those questions. Given the number of countries that can be classified as ‘European’, this is a cause for concern for me. By the same token, labels that state ‘product of Italy’ mean only that the oil was packed in Italy. It could have been produced in any other country.

Some states in the United States have standards for their olive oil, such as California. If you’re purchasing a California olive oil, the California Olive Oil Council certifies extra virgin oil produced in California.

How to Buy a Quality Olive Oil

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Quality always matters, and to ensure that your cooking is elevated to the level it should be, always use the finest quality olive oil that you can find and afford. A rough rule of thumb to determine if the oil you’re buying in indeed true quality extra virgin oil is that it should not cost less than about $14 per 750ml bottle.

Look for an estate name on the bottle, which indicates that the oil was produced by a small grower who presses their own oils. Another good thing to have on a bottle is an seal showing that the oil comes from a designated region that specializes in producing oils, such as PDO (the European Union’s official Protected Designation of Origin seal) or DOP (a similar seal from Italy). And the bottle should be a dark glass, as clear glass will allow the oil flavor to degrade quicker due to exposure to heat and light.