“There have been a number of off-the-shelf testing reports, including the often cited 2011 survey from UC Davis, which found that 60 to 70 percent of oils labeled as extra virgin were actually a lower grade,” says David Neuman, CEO of Gaea North America, an olive oil producer. Recently the National Consumers League performed a spot test of supermarket oils and found 54 percent did not meet the label grade. And the U.S. is not alone in this misrepresentation. “A recent survey by the Italian magazine Il Test found that 45 percent of the oils tested in Italian supermarkets weren’t actually extra virgin grade as labeled either,” he says.
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So what’s happening here? Much of the bottles of olive oil you see on the shelves are composed mostly of low-grade olive oil that has been industrially refined with chemicals and heat. A little bit of extra virgin olive oil is added at the end for flavor, aroma and color, according to Neuman.
Adulteration with refined or deodorized olive oil is also common, especially in food-service settings, such as restaurants and casual dining chains.
“Some refined olive oils or blends of olive and seed oils are even colored with chlorophyll and beta-carotene to turn them a convincingly golden-green,” says Neuman.
As Neuman describes it, “Very low-grade olive oil, called lampante, is considered unfit for human consumption because of its bad flavor and color, is neutralized with caustic soda, washed, degummed, heated, and filtered to remove all odors, flavors, and color. It’s a way to salvage this highly defective grade of olive oil and make it edible. A large amount of olive oil sold in the U.S. as extra virgin is actually virgin-grade or even lampante-grade,” he says.
“It’s technically still olive oil, but it’s not the extra virgin oil as nature intends it,” says Lisa Howard, author of The Big Book of Healthy Cooking Oils.
The process isn’t necessarily about saving people money, but catering to perceived biases and shopping habits of consumers. A lesser quality product than extra virgin olive oil is the byproduct of all this adulteration, and can be sold at a lower price that’s more attractive to an uneducated consumer.
So how can you tell whether you have an imposter on your shelf? Here is Neuman’s advice on how to read the labels.
Extra Virgin: The highest classification goes to olive oil that is 100 percent mechanically extracted, without chemicals or excessive heat. A sensory test should reveal no defects; the flavor should be redolent of fresh olives.
First Cold-Pressed: This term is “both redundant and inaccurate,” says Neuman. “It’s an outdated classification that doesn’t mean anything on a U.S. label; it refers to a traditional process that’s not typically used anymore.” Chalk this misrepresentation up to sneaky marketing.
Extra Light: This does not refer to calories; it means it’s a refined olive oil blend, stripped of its color, aroma, and flavor and blended with 10 percent extra virgin or virgin olive oil. “It’s got more of a waxy, crayon-like mouth feel,” says Neuman.
Virgin: Refined oil that exhibits slight defects of flavor, such as rancidity or fermentation.
Pure: Bottles labeled “100 percent olive oil” are often the lowest quality and most refined. “Pure actually means purified,” says Neuman.
100 Percent Italian: “Don’t be suckered by the pastoral scenes you often see on bottles of Italian olive oil,” says Howard. Many of those oils are traded through Italy, but the oils originate from all over the Mediterranean, including Greece and Spain. “Today, this kind will usually say ‘Packed in Italy’ and must legally list the countries of origin. Italy is cracking down on this deceptive practice within its borders; hopefully the U.S. will follow suit next,” says Neuman.
Read The Fine Print
Increasingly, companies are printing a harvest date and a best by date on their bottles. Howard takes it a step further. “Look for a mill of origin and reject all others,” she says. Seek bottles that are dark in color—exposure to light accelerates degradation. “I always buy olive oil from the back of the row, the bottle that’s been behind others and away from damaging supermarket lights,” she says.
Flavor and purity issues aside, extra virgin olive oil is touted for its antioxidants—but only EVOO. “The cheaper, refined oils don’t have those same health benefits,” says Neuman.
What + Where To Buy
Safe brands, which are truly extra virgin olive oil, include Columela, Gaea, Lucini, California Olive Ranch, Cobram Estate, Ottavio and Omaggio, Castillo de Canena. Some of these are available through grocery stores; others are available online. The blog Truth in Olive Oil, from Extra Virginity author Tom Mueller, features a more extensive list, including some supermarket and mass merchandiser brands that make the cut.
In a perfect world, we’d all have access to local tasting rooms and kitchen boutiques, where you can sample the real deal and explore the nuances of flavors from oil to oil. “Once you have tasted real, fresh extra virgin olive oil, you can’t go back,” says Howard.