How Virgin Is Your Olive Oil?

Olive oil is good for your health, right? Well, as long as it’s the real deal, that is… Here’s a quick run-down of the olive oil scandal, and some tips for protecting yourself at the grocery store.

Olive oil has long been touted as a healthy form of fat, and is one of the reasons why the Mediterranean diet is supposed to be so good for you. Extra-virgin olive oil contains healthy polyphenols and other antioxidants that reduce inflammation, reduce heart disease risk, and promote overall good health.

However, like with any popular health trend, there are those companies who have tried to exploit the popularity of olive oil for their own gain. Olive oil has been in the news in recent years due to misleading labeling and downright fraudulent practices that have tainted the healthy benefits of this unique oil.

Below are some of the most common types of fraud involved in the olive oil scandal:

Fraud breaks down into a few broad categories. The most troubling and, thankfully, least common takes place when producers blend cheap nut, seed, or other vegetable oils with just enough olive oil to lend the look, taste, and aroma of the real thing—a potential nightmare for anyone with food allergies. Other perpetrators perform a similar sleight of hand,  diluting extra-virgin olive oil with lower-grade olive oil, or simply mislabeling lesser olive oil as extra-virgin. Last, though not nearly as appalling, packers intentionally mislabel the country of origin. Despite the negative media blitz, “Italian” oil still exerts the strongest pull for consumers. Browse supermarket shelves and you’ll find a sea of bottles claiming that heritage, yet the country produces less than one-fifth of the world’s supply, half the output of Spain.

Then there is the “virgin” issue. What does “extra-virgin” mean, anyway, and how can you tell you are getting the real stuff?

Simply put, “virgin” refers to olive oil that has been extracted through purely physical means—pressing, crushing, spinning—unaltered by chemicals and/or heat. The Madrid-based International Olive Council (IOC), which sets widely accepted standards for quality, further defines the category according to three edible grades: “ordinary virgin,” “virgin,” and “extra virgin.”

To achieve the IOC’s highest designation, extra-virgin, olive oil must pass approximately two dozen lab tests that gauge everything from oxidation (a sign the oil’s been heated or otherwise mishandled) to fatty acidity (a rough indication of olive freshness prior to pressing).

The next hurdle involves a panel of highly trained tasters. These experts perform sensory evaluations, sipping the oil and noting whether recognized defects, such as rancid, fusty, or musty notes, are present.

Like most food products, olive oil falls under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration. While the agency has essentially adopted the IOC standards, it hasn’t devoted resources to enforce them. As a result, regulation has been more or less taken up by a handful of trade associations funded by the industry itself…

Infighting and competition between various olive oil producers and importers have further muddied the waters, leaving it up to the consumer to some degree to determine the true quality of the olive oil we are buying. Here are a few tips to protect yourself and make sure you are truly getting what you think you’re getting when you buy olive oil:

A search for the real thing in grocery stores begins with knowing what to look for and requires an understanding of the subtleties of good oil, which is why the IOC standards pair laboratory testing with sensory evaluations conducted by panels of highly trained testers.

Rome native Orietta Gianjorio, one of those experts now working in Northern California, says extra-virgin oil should have a combination of fruity, bitter, and pungent (think peppery) flavors, with no hint of rancidity or any of the other defects recognized by the IOC, such as “fusty” (smells like sweaty socks), “frozen/wet wood” (rotten sawdust), and “muddy sediment” (manure-like).


Even within the premium extra-virgin category, you can’t count on the veracity of manufacturer claims. Keep an eye out for the following indicators of quality:

Harvest dates This information, increasingly listed on artisanal bottles, empowers consumers to choose a fresh product (i.e., less than a year old), unlike “best before” dates, which are unregulated and chosen at the company’s whim.

Third-party seals First, look for ones specific to olive oil. When members sign on to the Extra Virgin Alliance, for example, they agree to uphold a variety of high standards in order to print the nonprofit’s logo on their goods. Though not directly tied to olive oil, other outside verification labels—certified organic, fair trade—indicate a producer’s responsible intentions.

Origin details Language like “packed in” or “imported from” conveys only that, say, the olive oil passed through a given port. Instead, look for data about the individual farm, region, or varieties of olives grown.

Protective packaging Bypass clear bottles entirely. Dark glass or opaque containers, such as stainless steel or innovative bags and boxes, block UV rays and extend shelf life.




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