Ninety eight percent of olive oil in America is imported, but only 30% of these so-called “extra virgin” oils actually are, and it’s an easy test to pass. So if you want to be sure you’re getting real extra virgin olive oil, 90% of olive oil from California passes the test, and you can be certain it’s extra virgin if it has the California Olive Oil Council stamp, yet another good reason to buy local.
I got interested in this topic after hearing an interview of Tom Mueller, author of “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil“. I was outraged that most people spend extra but get musty fusty olive oil, because nobody’s watching the quality.
Why Buy Olive Oil?
It’s probably a little healthier than other oils. Olive oil is the only oil that’s also a fruit juice, with over 200 healthy compounds, including some anti-inflammatory ones similar to the cox inhibitors in ibuprofin. The best olive oil is pressed within hours of being hand-picked. But like all other oil, there are almost no vitamins and minerals, though olive oil will give you 10% of your daily value of vitamins E & K per tablespoon (and 119 calories
Most other oils are made from seeds or nuts and drenched in solvents at high heat and pressure to get the oil out, lowering nutrition and giving you a greater risk of being exposed to chemicals if the solvents aren’t completely removed (though read Wikipedia for each type of oil and solvent for details). Some research shows that a number of diseases may be caused by a high Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio in our diet. Corn oil has a 49:1 ratio. Olive oil can displace Omega-6, and many other health benefits.
Shopping for Olive Oil
The Los Angeles County Fair has the world’s most important contest for extra virgin olive oil. As anyone who’s been to a county fair knows, just about everyone wins a ribbon because there are so many categories. It’s also a marketing tool, so there are many good olive oil companies that don’t enter anymore once they’ve become successful. I’ve put links to the winners at the bottom. Any of the companies that have ever won a medal are going to have good olive oil. The very best have won the “Best in Show” category.
But you don’t need to go do that level of research. The #1 way to know that an olive oil is good is to look for the California Olive Oil Council (COOC). To earn the seal, the olive oil must pass the various chemical analysis standards and be taste tested by the highly trained taste panel.
Other things to look for:
1) The harvest or pressing date – freshly pressed oil appears in stores starting late December after the fall harvest. Buy an oil less than a year old, and it’s best to use it up within a year so you can buy next year’s fresh oil (at most keep olive oil around for 2 years).
2) Expiration date.
3) Color won’t help – it is green at first, but all turn gold in the bottle.
4) The best olive oil labels state were the olives were grown and milled.
5) Estate olive oils are often of good quality.
6) Light shortens shelf life, so a dark bottle that’s not exposed to light is the best choice.
7) The very best olive oil is sold in upscale markets, like Market Hall in Oakland, but expect to pay a lot more for it than elsewhere. Unless you have a super-sensitive palate (lucky you, unless it makes you so fussy nothing is good enough), I’d stick with getting California Olive Oil that has a COOC seal that’s as fresh as possible.
8) Price – not necessarily. Some of the fake oil charges a lot of money for extra virgin olive oil that isn’t olive oil at all, or is mostly some other oil with a bit of the real thing, or is olive oil but made from weeks old, rotten dirt-encrusted olives that fell on the ground.
Especially olive oil from Italy, where olives from Spain and other countries are routed to get the “Made in Italy” seal. But by the time they get to Italy, the olives aren’t fresh any more.
UC Davis tested the brands below to see if they really were extra virgin (3 bottles of each from different locations).
EV Brand EV Brand
50 Bariani 100 McEvoy Ranch Organic
0 Bertolli 0 Mezzetta
100 California Olive Ranch 33 Newmans
0 Carapelli 0 Pompeian
33 Colavita 33 Rachael Ray
100 Corto Olive 33 Safeway Select
33 Filippo Berio 66 Star
66 Great Value 66 365100% Italian
100 Kirkland Organic
100 Lucero (Ascolano)
Source: Frankel, E. N., et al. July 2010. Tests indicate that imported “extra virgin” olive oil often fails international and USDA standards. University of California, Davis.
The New York Times said professional tasters in blind taste tests picked out the expensive oils by their flavors.
Qualities and flavors of good olive oil (many sources)
Professionals eat tart green apples between tasting oils to cut the richness.
- Pungency. A pleasant burning sensation in the mouth or throat. Sipped neat, good olive oil might make you cough (tasters call them a 1, 2, or 3 cough oil).
- Tingly acidity that balances the richness of the oil.
- Complex flavor.
- Good flavors: aromatic, buttery, floral, artichoke, almond, green tomato and fresh-cut grass
Bad flavors in oil
Musty, fusty, cucumber, grubby, banana, mushroom, bubble gum.
Dan Flynn, the executive director of the UC Davis Olive Center, said rancidity tastes like crayons or a catcher’s mitt.
Classic Defects That Can Lower an Olive Oil’s Grade
• Zero Fruity Flavor, almost tasteless.
• Fusty: flavor of oil obtained from olives stored in piles, which have undergone anaerobic fermentation breakdown. Oil made from rotting fruit.
• Winey-Vinegary:flavor reminiscent of wine or vinegar (acetic acid, ethyl acetate, and ethanol), due to aerobic fermentation of olives.
• Musty: flavor of oils obtained from moldy fruit.
• Muddy Sediment: flavor caused by contact with tank sediments.
• Rancid: flavor of oils that have undergone oxidative decomposition forming disagreeable odors like varnish, putty, wax, or old salami.
Olives are picked at the moment they start to go from green to black and milled within hours to minimize oxidation and enzymatic reactions (which can give oil unpleasant tastes and odors). Terroir is not as important, like it is in wine. What really matters is tree management, timing of the harvest, and milling practices.
About 700 different kinds of olive cultivars, each with a distinctive taste and aroma, just like grape varietals.
European olive oil
The European Union also recognizes several inferior grades, including virgin and lampante, or “lamp oil,” which is made from olives that have spoiled and fallen from trees, and cannot legally be sold as food.) In Italy, where most olive oil is labeled “extra-virgin,” competitions, public tastings, and “oil bars” have proliferated.
Extra-virgin oil must be made exclusively by physical means (by a press or a centrifuge) and meet 32 chemical requirements, including having “free acidity” of no more than 0.8 per cent. (In olive oil, free acidity is an indicator of decomposition.) Virgin oil, the next grade lower, must have free acidity of no more than 2%. Oil that has a greater percentage of free acidity is classified as lampante.
Most olive-oil frauds are easy to detect using chemical tests. In February, 2005, the N.A.S. Carabinieri broke up a criminal ring operating in several regions of Italy, and confiscated a hundred thousand liters of fake olive oil, with a street value of 8 million dollars. The ring is accused of coloring low-grade soy oil and canola oil with industrial chlorophyll, flavoring it with beta-carotene, and packaging it as extra-virgin olive oil in tins and bottles emblazoned with pictures of Italian flags or Mt. Vesuvius, and with folksy names of imaginary producers—the Farmhouse, the Ancient Millstones
More sophisticated scams take place at high-tech refineries, where the oil is doctored with substances like hazelnut oil and deodorized lampante olive oil, which are extremely difficult to detect by chemical analysis
Even oils that start out robust and peppery quickly flatten out, especially if stored in clear containers and above 65 degrees.
Organic olive growers avoid pesticides by counting the number of fruit flies caught in traps and then applying small amounts of organic pesticide as needed. They also build bat and swallow houses to get rid of fruit flies. To minimize soil erosion and encourage growth, cover crops like clover and vetch are planted.
With a bottle or two of distinctive tasty extra virgin olive oils in your pantry, you’ll be prepared for anything – dressing salads, finishing soups, making and finishing sauces, coating pasta, seasoning vegetables or meats and even making pastries.
There are many styles and varieties of extra virgin olive oil, taste and figure out what you like the next time you’re in California (there are many olive oil ranches you can visit, generally in the same areas wine is grown).