Would the Real Olive Oil Please Stand Up?

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grocery store shelves filled with olive oil bottles

“Once someone tries a real extra virgin olive oil — an adult or a child, anybody with taste buds — they’ll never go back to the fake kind. It’s distinctive, complex, the freshest thing you’ve ever eaten.”
~ Tom Mueller, author of Extra Virginity

When Labels Lie

When you start eating for your health, you begin to watch labels closely. But what happens when the labels aren’t telling the truth?

Olive oil fraud has become so rampant that an entire book has been written about it. Why has it become such a problem? Because extra virgin olive oil is big business. Touted for its health benefits in both mainstream America and the healing diets featured on this website, US consumers can’t get enough of it. And therein lies the problem. There isn’t enough to go around, yet suppliers don’t want to miss a potential profit. Although standards exist for what “extra virgin” is supposed to mean, there are no teeth behind those standards, so producers can slip other oil into the bottle, slap on the coveted label, and sell fake oil quite easily to unsuspecting consumers.

First, it might help to know what extra virgin is supposed to mean. This is the highest quality and most expensive olive oil classification. The oil is mechanically pressed from the olives, without any heat or chemistry applied. In order to claim this label, the oil is supposed to meet both a chemistry standard and a sensory one, established by the International Olive Council and the USDA. The oil should have zero defects and greater than zero fruitiness. However, neither the IOC nor the USDA enforce these standards, so basically, it’s an honor game. Oh, the world would be a wonderful place if everyone was honorable.

When a dishonorable company doesn’t have enough oil to meet this standard and wants to commit a little fraud, what do they do? The most common deception is to mix it with a lower standard olive oil, but some producers take it even further and mix in a variety of neutral-tasting refined oils, such as soy and canola. If you’re on a healing diet, you’re meant to avoid both of those oils, so it’s upsetting to realize you might be consuming them unknowingly.

Testing for Truth in Labeling

In September 2012, Consumer Reports published its results from testing 23 olive oils from Italy, Spain and California, and only 9 passed the test as actually being extra virgin olive oil, as claimed on the label. Two that failed? Bertolli and Goya. Two that passed? McEvoy Ranch and Trader Joe’s California Estate.

This isn’t the first time bottles of “extra virgin” olive oil failed such a test. The University of California at Davis have become experts in the field of olive oil testing.

  • In 2012, they tested 21 olive oil samples from vendors who supply restaurants. 60% of those labeled extra virgin failed to pass the sensory test. Chemistry analysis revealed that two of the olive oil samples were actually part canola (a much cheaper oil to produce, with none of the taste or health benefits of olive oil.)
  • In 2010 and 2011, they tested numerous samples of the most popular brands sold in grocery stores. 69% of the imported olive oil and 10% of the California olive oil failed the sensory criteria for extra virgin, and 23 percent of the imported oil failed the chemical test. Some of the brands that failed were Pompeian, Filippo Berio, Bertolli, Star, Colavita, Newman’s Own Organic and Rachael Ray. Those that passed with perfect scores on both tests? California Olive Ranch, Cobram Estate, Kirkland Organic, Corto Olive, McEvoy Ranch and Lucero.

So, how do you know if your olive oil is real?

  • You can buy the brands that passed the tests in the studies above, and avoid those that failed. The catch here is counting on those results to remain consistent over time. Most olive oil brands aren’t olive oil farmers. That means they purchase their oil from suppliers, trusting they’re getting what they pay for (a trust which is often misplaced.)
  • COOC SealUSDA SealLook for these seals on the bottles. There are voluntary inspection agencies that reputable brands can use to prove their olive oil is truly extra virgin. One such agency is the California Olive Oil Council (COOC). The USDA now offers this service as well.
  • Follow your nose. It’s true that we aren’t professional sensory testers like those used in the studies, but real olive oil smells completely different to an amateur as well. When I learned about olive oil fraud last year, I went to the COOC website and browsed the links of certified oils. I ordered a case of bottles from an award-winning orchard in California. When I opened that bottle and began the simple act of sautéeing kale, my kitchen filled with this gorgeous scent I had never smelled before. Just like the opening quote at the top of this article, I knew I would never settle for fake again. I admit I’m a bargain hunter, so in the past, I often chose the cheapest organic oil on the shelf, never questioning how such an elite product could be so inexpensive. Lesson learned! A great way to experience this yourself without committing to buying a whole case, is to attend an olive oil tasting. See if there is a specialty shop in your community. They are becoming more and more common.
  • If a specialty shop isn’t an option, here’s what to look for in the grocery store: (1) A darker bottle. EVOO is sensitive to both light and heat and can go rancid if not bottled correctly. (2) Look for a harvest date. Olive oil should be consumed within two years of harvest. Don’t trust “bottled” or “best by” dates. It is not unheard of for olive oils to be stored for years before they’re bottled, even though they deteriorate over time. (3) Expect to pay more. Making EVOO is an expensive process; the cheapest bottle on the shelf is unlikely to be the real thing. (4) California olive oils have fared better on quality testing, but some California brands actually source their oil from overseas. Look on the bottle for where the olive oil actually comes from.
  • When you get home, do your own sensory test on the olive oil. Open the bottle, close your eyes, and smell. It should smell vibrant and wonderful. Next, pour some in a little glass, and take a taste. Roll it around on your tongue. You should be able to taste the olives, there might be some bitterness or pepperiness at the back of your throat.  What you shouldn’t taste is anything greasy, moldy, rancid or reminiscent of cardboard. It also shouldn’t be a neutral tasting oil. Real extra virgin olive oil has layers upon layers of flavor.

Olive Oil Myths

  • Real olive oil is green, and the deeper the color, the higher the quality. False. According to olive oil expert Tom Mueller, “Good oils come in all shades, from vivid green to gold to pale straw, and official tasters actually use colored glasses to avoid prejudicing themselves in favor of greener oils.”
  • Real olive oil is bitter. Not always. The bitterness of the oil depends on the time of harvest. Early harvest of immature olives creates the bitterest oils. Midseason harvest creates an oil that is a blend of bitter and fruity. Late season harvest creates the mildest flavor, sometimes even called a “sweet” oil.
  • You can tell if your extra virgin olive oil is real by putting it in the fridge; if it solidifies, it’s real. False. It would simplify life if this were true, but unfortunately, it’s not a reliable test. Mono-unsaturated oils solidify in the fridge, while polyunsaturated oils don’t, but oils are not 100% one or the other. Olive oil, canola oil, and safflower oil, have similar mono to polyunsaturated ratios, which means the fridge test can’t even tell you the type of oil. I’ve heard people say, “Well, if it doesn’t solidify, you know for sure it’s fake.” That’s not true either. Some high quality EVOO won’t solidify in the fridge, which the UC Davis Olive Center discovered in their fridge experiments. I also found this to be true: a gold medal award winning, COOC certified oil stayed liquid in my fridge, while another COOC certified oil solidified. So, this test means nothing. Use the criteria earlier in the article, to discern a quality extra virgin olive oil instead.
  • If I buy EVOO from my health-food store, I can trust it’s real. Sadly, not true. All of the fake olive oil I’ve bought over the years came from health food stores, including the brands listed above in the failed studies. The brands that passed the studies, my local store didn’t even stock. I had to go to a regular grocery chain to find them.
  • Olive oil has a low smoke point and therefore shouldn’t be used in cooking. False. High quality EVOO has a correspondingly high smoke point of 375 degrees (on average), and research shows it does not oxidize during cooking. However, in its raw state it is more nutritious (holding onto 100% of its polyphenols, some of which can dissolve in cooking).

What Do I Buy?

Ad: Kasandrinos Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Buy Now

  • My Favorite Import: Currently, I love Kasandrinos Greek extra virgin olive oil. It’s a family-owned, organic orchard, where the olives are pressed within 48 hours of harvest, then stored in temperature-controlled, stainless steel tanks. They’re sold in dark glass bottles or tins (to protect the oil), with the harvest date on the bottle, and it passes my taste tests with flying colors. In addition, they get their oil tested for authenticity by independent labs in the EU and USA.
  • California EVOO: I also like to support the California COOC orchards. Each year, I see who has won the competitions and buy directly from one of those orchards. Sometimes, you can order a case at a discount, which is a great purchase to make with friends.
  • Flavored Olive Oils: I love these in salad dressings, but there’s a wide variety of quality here also. Some simply have extracts added. Others use an infusion process to add a richer flavor to the oil. But the best actually add the flavor when the oil is being made – pressing the olives and fresh produce or herbs together. My current favorite is the flavor-crushed line from Calivirgin. They are COOC-certified and have won multiple awards.
  • Easy to Find: If I’m traveling, or need a quick bottle of olive oil locally, California Olive Ranch is the most widely available, COOC certified brand. Update 2019: The line of California Olive Ranch commonly sold in grocery stores is their Everyday Destination Series. It is now a blend of olive oils from around the world (not exclusively sourced from California). For this reason, they aren’t eligible for the COOC seal. However, California Olive Ranch does use third-party lab testing to ensure all the oil they source is extra-virgin. 

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