Fake Olive Oil or Fake News?
There is so much talk out there now about fake olive oil, and it is really hard to decipher if this is all hype, or if there really is a problem with fake olive oil. And if so, how to know if the bottle that you are buying is in fact "real". So, we did lots of research and taste testing to break it down and simplifying it here for you.
What is Olive Oil
Olive oil is simply the oil pressed from olives, and has been consumed for centuries. The consumption of olive oil has increased drastically due to the recent discovery of the health benefits of using olive oil. Simply put, after olives are picked and washed, they’re crushed and the resulting paste is stirred to release the oil droplets in a process called maceration,
Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is an unrefined, or unaltered oil. It's extracted from olives without the use of heat, just pressure. On the other hand, regular olive oil is a blend of olive oil (refined using mechanical, thermal, and/or chemical processes) plus a small amount (usually 10%) of extra virgin olive oil. The name Extra virgin olive oil shouldn't be just marketing, it's actually a mark of purity and quality- and the contents of the bottle meet all the standards set by the Madrid-based International Olive Council.
Unfortunately, only about 30 percent of all olive oil production ends at extracting the oil from the olives. Refining involves using solvents and high heat to neutralize the tastes of the oil. This allows producers to use olives that are not in the best condition, and blend from oils from a wide variety of sources (even countries) because the bad tastes resulting from oxidized olives and the mass production process are chemically removed. When you see “Pure Olive Oil” at the store, or a bottle that says simply “Olive Oil,” these are refined.
The composition of olive oil varies with the cultivar, altitude, time of harvest and extraction process. It consists mainly of oleic acid (up to 83%), with smaller amounts of other fatty acids including linoleum acid (up to 21%) and palmitic acid (up to 20%). EVOO is required to have no more than 0.8% free acidity and is considered to have favorable flavor characteristics.
Health Benefits of Olive Oil
Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat and the cornerstone of the famous Mediterranean diet. Most people choose olive oil because of its many proven benefits to human health. Extra virgin olive oils offer even more- an amazing fruity-bitter taste and aroma that elevates dishes.
Studies of the health benefits of olive oil consumption fill the pages of medical journals around the world. Heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's and cancers are among the long list of ailments that can be avoided and conditions that can be improved by a diet that includes olive oil. That is why when I am, cooking EVOO is always my go to oil for flavor and as part of a healthy lifestyle- and it does wonders for your skin too!
Fake Olive Oil?
Those famous health benefits and the flavor of olive oil depend on many factors, and there's a lot to learn if you’re interested in olive oil quality. Unfortunately, you can’t trust what the bottle says in a quick glance, and the best way to discern good olive oil from bad, is to know what to look for and learn how to taste it.
Tasting olive oil straight is the best way to judge its quality. Pour a little in a small glass and warm the glass in one hand, while covering it with the other. Now put your nose into the glass to sense the aromas. Hopefully, it reminds you of things like fresh olives, grass, bananas and apples. Hay, cardboard, vinegar, mud and mustiness are some of the aromas that indicate an olive oil has gone bad or rancid. EVOO does have a shelf life!
Sorry, I couldn't help the pun.
If you pluck a perfect olive off a tree, it will be too bitter to eat, but the less that comes between your cupboard and that perfect, bitter olive, the better. Just as they did with chocolate and craft beer, those who want to enjoy all of the health benefits and flavors of the best extra virgin olive oils should start to love bitterness. In fact, the opposite of bitterness is the taste of rancidity.
Unfortunately, studies have shown most people actually will choose a rancid olive oil over a fresh, high-quality one, thanks to years of knowing little else.
Fake EVOO, in the worst-case is diluted with cheap soybean or seed oil, or mixed with lower-grade olive oil that has been chemically refined. Or, the more common scenario, according to Lary Olmsted, the author of Real Food Fake Food, it's mixed with olive oil that has been sitting around since the previous year's harvest or longer. While the first scenario above is illegal, this scenario is legal, however it produces a subpar bottle that has reduced flavor & color and diminished health benefits.
It is hard to decipher quite how widespread olive oil fraud actually is, however experts agree that it has been pretty pervasive for quite a while as there hasn't been enough regulation. That has changed recently, for example, within the last two years in Italy, authorities confiscated more than 2,000 tons of fake olive oil and launched an investigation into seven of the country's leading producers.
Up until last year, the FDA didn't regulate olive oil, but they have now begun testing imported olive oil (90% sales are imported), due to the concern that olive oil contained seed oils or other allergens. So, regulation is on the way, but let's arm you with some knowledge before you make your next purchase.
How to Buy Olive Oil
There are producers of outstanding olive oil in every country olives are grown, and it’s fun finding characteristics unique to the various regions oils are made. However there are things that you should know, and it starts by reading the label:
- Only buy olive oil that is labeled "Extra Virgin Olive Oil". While this isn't a guarantee that it isn't fake, anything else guarantees a lower quality.
- Look for olive oils that indicate a “harvest date” and or a "pressed date" within the last year. Ignore the "best by" (which is arbitrary and unregulated) or "bottled on" dates- who knows how long it was in the tank before it was bottled...
- Look for country of origin- there should only be one! If the olives originated in one country, they should not be processed in another- if that is the case, you are more likely to get a bottle with mixed oil. Olives should be pressed almost immediately after picking. Spain, Italy, Greece, Tunisia, and Australia are the largest producers of olive oil (listed in order by quantity), however most of the oil we see on our shelves in the US is from Italy. The specific country of origin doesn't much impact the authenticity or quality, but each of these countries produce an olive oil that has a unique flavor profile.
- If the label calls out the name of a producer or estate, or the variety of olive oil used, it is most likely genuine.
- Look for a third-party certification seal- in particular the European Union's Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), Italy's DOP, or the "COOD Certified Extra Virgin" seal from California.
- If you see EVOO made in Australia or Chile, buy it because it will be fresh and legit- in fact Australia has the most stringent standards and highly advanced testing system in the world!
- Don't fall prey to marketing or a high price tag. While surprisingly cheap is a red flag, super expensive doesn't guarantee quality. Follow steps above and below!
- Tasting before you buy a super expensive EVOO and finding a merchant you trust will enhance your chance of getting your money’s worth. Great olive oil should smell and taste green, bright, peppery, earthy, and/or grassy. NEVER rancid greasy or flavorless.
Cooking With Olive Oil
Olive oil makes an excellent choice for nearly every kind of cooking. Just remember that if you choose to heat an extra virgin olive oil, you will lose its flavors. And, it has a lower smoke point than oils such as safflower or avocado oil. That’s why some chefs choose lower grades for cooking, because some (but not all) of the value that you pay more for in an extra virgin olive oil “evaporates” once it has been heated. Still, olive oil is versatile and far healthier than other cooking oil choices for baking, frying and just about everything in your kitchen.
Storing Olive Oils
You can keep unopened olive oil in a cool, dark place for up to two years (high quality olive oil will last longer than one that wasn't great to begin with). Once you open the container, the oil begins to degrade much faster. A good rule of thumb is to use it within a few months after opening. Keep the bottle tightly capped and away from heat and direct light. The best strategy is to use olive oil often, and go through it quickly :) I tend to have a good EVOO that I use for cooking and then a great, more expensive, EVOO that I use for raw purposes such as caprese salads.