“This [generic supermarket olive oil] is what nearly everyone in the world thinks is extra virgin olive oil! This stuff is killing quality oil, and putting honest oil-makers out of business. In wine, you can trust the label: if it says ‘Dom Perignon 1964’ then that’s what’s in the bottle, not last month’s Beaujolais Nouveau. But olive oil labels all say the same thing, whether the bottle contains a magnificent oil or this. It says what every olive oil says: 100% Italian, cold-pressed, stone-ground, extra virgin…
…Extra virgin? What’s this oil got to do with virginity? This is a whore.”
-Flavio Zaramella, president of Mastri Oleari (qoute from the book Extra Virginity)
(photo credit goes to a site that I can no longer find from google images)
Last month I opened up a Rodale.com newsletter titled “Food Fraud.” I was intrigued. As I read, my jaw dropped.
With a combination of my findings from the article and the book “Extra Virginity,” here begins a brief look into the incredibly interesting and scandalous world of olive oil.
What is food fraud?
“Food fraud attempts to cheat the market by selling a substandard product and trying to get away with it,” says Markus Lipp.
Sheesh….can’t catch a break in this crazy food world.
The article discusses 8 different foods that have been known to be “fraudulent.” Click here to read about all of the foods. Apparently, if interested, there is also a website where you can report “food fraud.”
The olive oil article caught my eye since coconut and olive are really my only “go to” oils.
According to the article “Olive oil is one of the most adulterated foods, says Lipp, particularly extra-virgin olive oil. According to the USP database, products being sold as olive oil have been shown to instead be soybean, corn, sunflower, safflower, canola, or palm oil, and in one case, even lard.”
Some “olive oils” were thinned out with cheaper oils; others didn’t have olive oil in them at all!
Before I get into more detail, lets start with the basics…
What is olive oil?
The oil pressed from the fruit (olives) of olive trees.
Most oils come from the seeds of plants and go through a lot of processing.
What’s the difference between olive oil and seed oil?
“Extracting the oil from seeds generally requires the use of industrial solvents, typically hexane. To remove this solvent from seed oils, as well as to eliminate the unpleasant tastes and odors they normally have, they must be processed in a refinery, where they undergo high-temperature desolventization, neutralization, deodorization, bleaching, and degumming. The end result is a tasteless, odorless, colorless liquid fat…
…Olive oil, instead, can simply be pressed or spun out of the olive pulp, yielding a fresh-squeezed fruit juice with all of its natural tastes, aromas, and health-enhancing ingredients intact.” -Extra Virginity, pg. 19
What does extra virgin mean?
The “virgin” refers to the “mechanical” process in which the olive is squeezed (no chemicals, solvents, etc. can be used).
The “extra” part means it is close to flawless, very little defects. Specifically, it must be less than 1% of free oleoic acid.
So why am I writing a whole post about olive oil?
If I throw down a few (sometimes more than a few!) extra bucks for a bottle of ‘extra virgin’ olive oil…I expect it to be the purest form of olive oil available.
I also expect it to be made from olives!!
As mentioned previously, this isn’t always the case.
Here is a graphic from the groundbreaking 2010 study that revealed “69% of 19 popular olive oil brands sold in the states failed a chemical and taste test based on international and USDA standards for extra virgin olive oil.” Read more here. The full study can be found here.
This eventually caused the olive oil system in America to be revamped (on Oct. 24, 2010).
Now there are 5 distinguished grades of olive oils. Click here to read about the specific qualifications for each oil.
- U.S. Extra Virgin Olive Oil (the most nutrient-rich form and the rawest)
- U.S. Virgin Olive Oil
- U.S. Olive Oil
- Refined Olive Oil
- U.S. Olive-Pomace Oil
Despite the new grades, the FDA still doesn’t require rigid guidelines as the low-grade olive oil doesn’t pose any real health “risks.”
Luckily, some state and international organizations have stepped up to the plate. They are committed to identifying the quality of olive oils. There are many different labels that can confirm the quality (scroll down to see the labels).
A few scandalous stories from “Extra Virginity”
In 2012, four executives of Azienda Olearia Valpesana (one of the biggest oil traders in Italy), were arrested on charges including fraud and forming a criminal network. There were handwritten notes found explaining how to mix oils of various qualities and origins, including lampante oil (olive oil not suitable for food), to produce “extra virgin” oils.
In 2008, three million liters of olive oil from the Azienda Olearia Basile, was falsely marked as organis or as “100% Italian” when it was imported from North Africa.
So why should you care?
1. Real, certified, extra virgin oil tastes a hell of a lot better than the low grade stuff.
I have yet to hone my olive oil identification skills.
However, I have tasted damn good olive oils. Our friends recently sent us a couple from Divine Olive Oil & Vinegars in Sedona, AZ (Shout out to Josh and Meagan!!).
I have heard some say “A fine olive oil is like a fine wine, beer, or cheese. You won’t know the difference until you taste the GOOD stuff.”
Well, I did just that.
And now I’m sold.
And I’m never looking back.
I highly recommend going into a specialty shop and tasting different olive oils!
Just be ready to be transformed during the process 🙂
However, taste isn’t the only reason you should care about the grade of your olive oil.
2. A good extra virgin olive oil has the nutrient-rich properties (especially antioxidants!!) desired.
3. There are MANY other known healthy benefits of olive oil. I will save that for another post.
4. You are supporting people that bleed olive oil; families that have made olive oil since the beginning of time; local businesses instead of mass-producing companies.
The De Carlos family owns a large olive grove in Italy. According to Tom Mueller (Author of Extra Virginity), the De Carlo family turns these groves into beautiful, deliciously decadent olive oils.
When Mueller visited the family, they began discussing Chefs in Naples who were running top-flight restaurants and were using cut-rate extra virgin oils in their kitchens and tables. “They had been using bad oils so long they didn’t even know what a good oil tasted like.”
Mueller then wrote a comment from Grazia, the wife, that really stuck out to me.
“Then we’ve got to teach them. The road we’ve got to follow is la cultura: educating people about good oil is the only way out of this crisis. Because once someone tries a real extra virgin- 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 eating. It makes you realize how rotten the other stuff is, literally rotten. But there has to be a first time. Somehow we have to get those first drops of real extra virgin oil into their mouths, to break them free from the habituation to bad oil, and from the brainwashing of advertising. There has to be some good oil left int he world for people to taste.”
Mueller concluded with something profound…”If the economics of oil-making don’t change soon, no one will be left to make real extra virgin oil. Not even the De Carlos.”
We’ve got to teach them.
I hope that quote brings you to a different bottle of olive oil next time you are in the grocery store.
Maybe investing a few extra dollars; double check the label, look for the ones below, and support those who are pouring their blood, sweat, and tears into their product. Those who are honest and really know what they are doing.
So how do you know what olive oil to buy?
Here are a few tips to help buy a good olive oil:
- Make sure the label reads “extra virgin” (although, as seen, this doesn’t guarantee it will be).
- Any EVOO sold for less than $10-$14 for <750 ml is probably not high quality.
- “Light” EVOO is not a good substitute for nutrient and processing reasons.
- Choose an oil in dark glass so it is better protected against light.
- Buy a quantity that you will use quickly.
- Keep it tightly sealed in a cool, dark place ( heat, light, and oxygen are olive oils nemesis).
- Try to choose oils that have the “mill” listed on the label.
- The most important thing (yet most difficult option) that I could find was to look for the “harvest date” (olive oils are their very best within 1 year of harvesting). This is different then the “best buy” date, as olive oil can sit around in a barrel after being harvested for X amount of time (see “harvest date” below).
- Look for labels/seals that help determine a good oil (also seen below):
- PDO and PGI certification: “Protected Designation of Origin” (“DOP” in Italian); (PGI, or “Protected Geographical Indication” (“IGP” in Italian) is a similar though less stringent designation.
- Olive oils certified by national and state olive oil associations. The labels below ensure “extra virgin.
here is an example of a harvest date shown on the label:
Here is a really cool list of places to purchase oils in North America:
Some recommended olive oil brands:
Trader Joe’s California Estate
Kirkland Signature Select Toscano (Costco)
Corto Olive (Costco, occassionally)
365 Everyday Valu, 100 Percent Californian Unfiltered from Whole Foods
Cobram Estate (available at World Markets)
Places that ship olive oils:
while I was perusing the site and reading comments, I found this quote that I loved…
I have heard that EVOO is not good to cook with, is this true?
“High-quality, low-FFA extra virgin olive oil actually has a higher smoke point than lower-grade oils, and than nearly all seed oils. ” -Tom Mueller
The key is in the quality of the oil. A high-quality oil is just fine to cook with.
For more info:
There is an entire website dedicated to “truth in olive oil.” Tom Mueller, author of the site, began writing because of his concerns (and eternal love) for olive oil. He also published a book titled “Extra Virginity” mentioned several times throughout this post.
Happy olive oil shopping!
Cheers and happy evolving!