Thomas Jefferson wrote “The olive tree is surely the richest gift of Heaven. I can scarcely expect bread.” Olive oil is an important part of the Mediterranean diet, which benefits cardiovascular health. The least processed type of olive oil, extra virgin, is the purest kind available. However, there are so many alleged “virgin” olive oils, as well as over-processed and highly diluted oils, how can the savvy consumer know which is best? Below is a comprehensive summary of various nuggets of truth regarding this majestic oil.
Price: “If it seems too cheap to be extra virgin, it probably isn’t. Genuine extra virgin olive oil costs more to produce, so it should cost more to buy. If an oil labeled ‘extra virgin’ is, say, $4.99 per liter, there’s a good chance it is ‘virgin’ grade, with some minor flavor faults. It’s okay to use virgin grade olive oil for cooking or for when you don’t need or want olive flavor, but many people prefer extra virgin for salads and other non-cooking uses.”
“Best before” or “harvest date”: “Olive oil is at its best when it’s fresh during the first year after harvest, but a well-made, well-conserved extra virgin olive oil should have a two-year shelf life before opening (so don’t automatically reject oils from a previous harvest). Once opened, use it within a few months. “Best before” dates are most often two years from bottling.”
Brands from actual olive oil producers or Estate Production: “If an olive oil is labeled ‘Estate Production,’ it should have been milled (the term for processing of olives into olive oil) and bottled on the farm where the olives were grown. The understanding and regulation of this term with respect to olive oil is generally based on its use in the wine industry, but enforcement depends on the region. Extra virgin olive oil brands that belong to the people who grew the olives and made the oil, or who worked closely with the farmers and processors to control quality, are more likely to be of higher quality (and higher price). You can sometimes learn more about the people behind the brand by visiting the company’s website, but be skeptical of gimmicky marketing stories.”
Three types of virgin olive oils:
Extra-virgin olive oil: “This is the highest grade of virgin olive oil. Industry standards stipulate that extra-virgin olive oil must meet numerous chemical parameters including a free fatty acid content ≤ 0.08%. To earn the extra-virgin grade, the oil must also meet a sensory (organoleptic) standard. In a test by a trained taste panel using official protocols, an extra-virgin olive oil will have no defects of aroma or flavor, and some positive flavor of green or ripe olives.”
Virgin olive oil: “Confusingly designated as ‘virgin,’ this grade of virgin olive oil has slight defects of aroma or flavor and meets a lower chemical standard including higher free fatty acid levels. Virgin olive oil is starting to appear in the American market as a healthy but less expensive cooking oil.”
Cold-pressed or first cold press olive oil: “This is archaic terminology from the era of actual olive presses; today almost all olive oil is extracted using a centrifuge. The terms are also redundant: All genuine extra-virgin olive oil will be from the first extraction and no excessive heat is used. The terms still appear on labels because consumers sometimes seek it out, but they are virtually meaningless except under European Community law, where it does indicate the use of a traditional press.”
Two Taste Rules: “While those are the general rules, it is important to consider that not all extra virgin olive oils are created equal. There are two taste rules for a virgin olive oil to be considered ‘extra virgin.’ First, extra virgin olive oils must be pristine in taste with no off-flavors at all. Second, the oil must have some fruitiness. This means that among extra virgin olive oils, you will find some with a slight fruitiness, and some that will knock your socks off. And sometimes it is not easy to know the difference. Some extra virgin labels may indicate whether the oil is ‘delicate’ or ‘robust.’ Extra virgin olive oils that identify the varieties in the bottle may also be helpful: olive oil from arbequina olives, for instance, will be less flavorful than oil from coratina olives. Another indication may be price. Extra virgin olives oils tend to have higher polyphenol content when the olives are harvested early, before they are fully ripe. Early harvesting yields less oil, and therefore these flavorful oils will be more expensive to produce.”
Italy, Spain, and Greece - does it matter?
“There are a bevy of different terms—‘made in,’ ‘product of,’ ‘imported by,’ ‘packed in’—that can indicate the origin of a bottle of olive oil. Single-source olive oils are pressed, packed, and exported from the same country. Olive oils that are a mix of olives from multiple countries or pressed and packed in different places will list all of the countries of origin. These don’t necessarily result in a lower-quality olive oil, but generally speaking the ones packed in a different country than the olives were harvested in tend to be less fresh than single-source oils.
“Which country makes the best olive oil? Italy, Spain, and Greece are probably the three most well-known, though Croatia and Turkey have also produced some of the highest rated oils in recent years. In the United States, California churns out some great olive oils, though states like Texas, Arizona, and Georgia are also growing suppliers.
“Generally speaking, pure Spanish olive oil tends to be more ‘fruity,’ while pure Italian oil leans towards ‘grassy.’ Oils from Greece are more flavorful and peppery. However, even within these categories, there’s large variation based on the ripeness of the olives, the types used, and so on. Plus, as noted, lots of olive oils are combinations from different places. Use these basic profiles as a starting point, but don’t shy away from trying a selection.”
Storage: “For longer shelf life, olive oil should be protected from light, air, and heat. The single most important thing is to store the oil in a cool, dark cabinet. There’s no need to refrigerate it if you use it within a reasonable time. A year-long study published in the Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society in 2019 found that olive oil in dark glass bottles retained quality best, compared to olive oil stored in clear glass or plastic bottles (oxygen can pass through plastic but not glass). Another good option is olive oil packed in cans. Best of all is bag-in-box because the bag collapses as you use the oil, preventing oxygen exposure, plus the box is a perfect barrier to light.”
The Extra Virgin Alliance (EVA) “is a trade association representing producers of genuine extra virgin olive oil from around the world. EVA’s approach is straightforward. Restore trust in the marketplace by providing an assurance to the buyer through product testing and supply chain education, and provide consumer assurance through the EVA Mark of Quality and Authenticity.”
California olive oil is produced under a program of mandatory government sampling and testing to verify it meets strict quality standards. Under this program:
--A designated number of olive oil samples are collected by California Department of Food and Agriculture officials.
--Samples are sent to accredited third-party laboratories for sensory and chemical analysis.
--Results of the third-party analysis are provided back to the producers.
--In addition to the government sampling program, producers are responsible for having all of their remaining olive oil lots tested by a private laboratory of their choosing. The verified grade must be accurately reflected on product labels for California olive oil.
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