Authentic extra-virgin olive oil is an anti-aging superfood loaded with healthy fats and antioxidants. It is one of nature’s greatest gifts – pure, healthy and alive. Unfortunately, finding real extra-virgin olive oil may be harder than you think. It has come to light that many olive oils labeled “extra-virgin” actually contain altered, imposter oils.
Imposters Lurking in the Olive Oil Market
Major news media have reported on the issue over the past few years, and it was recently explored through a January 2016 episode of 60 Minutes.
Highlights from the New York Times interactive article include:
- Olive oil purported to originate from Italy – often did not. A good deal of the oils sold as “Italian” were actually oils from Spain, Morocco, and Tunisia.
- Some extra-virgin olive oils were diluted with oils of lesser quality, such as soybean oil.
- Color and flavor of oils were manipulated with beta-carotene (affects taste) and chlorophyll (alters color).
- Highly altered oils of multi-country origin were labeled “Extra-Virgin” or “Packed in Italy” or “Imported from Italy”.
- 69% of imported “extra-virgin” oil did not meet the criteria in one study.
- Authorities have made attempts at regulation; however, there are few legal repercussions for the producers of fraudulent oils.
Additionally, a 2010 Brazilian study (see Alves) described the situation thusly: “Extra-virgin (EV), the finest and most expensive among all the olive oil grades, is often adulterated by the cheapest and lowest quality ordinary (ON) olive oil.” In 2013, olive oil topped the list of foods most prone to fraudulent practices, according to a draft report of the European Parliament Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (see Butler). The risk list was based on research findings, police records, and industry consultations.
Further more, in 2010 and 2011, the University of California/Davis Olive Center published two respective reports (see Frankel) that questioned the integrity of many extra-virgin brands − both imported and domestic. In a summary of its findings, the Center said that “while there are many excellent imported and domestic extra-virgin olive oils available…the quality level of the largest imported brand names is inconsistent at best,” and that most of the top-selling brands examined regularly failed to meet standards and testing methods established by the International Olive Council.
The California researchers analyzed a total of 186 extra-virgin olive samples through both reports. About 70 percent of imported samples failed one test and 50 percent another test. Some of the samples failed five out of seven tests. Only 11 percent of the California-grown samples failed one test. The criteria included oxidation by exposure to elevated temperature and light; poor quality oil as a result of using damaged and overripe olives, processing flaws, and improper storage; and adulteration with cheaper refined oils.
After publication of the California report, the International Olive Council, whose members make up 97 percent of the global production of olive oil, asserted that the reports suffered from an “undercurrent of aggressive, inexplicable criticism of imported olive oil quality” (see Huffstutter).
My Search for Authentic Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
Aggressive or not, the ongoing spate of revelations spooked me into a sustained search for quality extra-virgin products. Over the years I had become a gourmet collector, and enjoyed purchasing brands from Spain, Italy, the Middle East, Argentina, and California. Because I use olive oil routinely in the kitchen and recommend it – aggressively, I might add – for its health benefits, I obviously want the best quality available. This led me to California, where I met the Cohn family, at B.R. Cohn in Sonoma Valley.
The Cohn family has been involved from the start in the formation of the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) that certifies extra-virgin varieties produced by the state’s 400 growers – so important and refreshingly reassuring in the present market turbulence created by product manipulations. Under the COOC certification, “extra-virgin” is only applied to oil that fulfills regulated chemical and sensory parameters and has been tested for quality, freshness and complexity. Olive oil producers who are COOC-certified are producing world-class olive oil using traceably sourced fruit that is processed under strict specifications.
What You Need to Know When Shopping for Real Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
After much olive oil research, I’d like to share some advice that can help make you a smarter consumer and find the authentic extra virgin olive oil you want. First and foremost, make sure you buy extra-virgin oil. I also suggest doing the following:
- Look for a harvest date on the label and choose a product with a current year harvest.
- Check the label for the source of the olives – country, state, and province – and for unique certification, such as DOP in Italy (DOP means all phases of production, processing, and preparation are traditionally conducted in the certified area) and COOC certification.
- Be wary about imported products because of the shipping time and exposure to heat, and concern about quality control. Most products come to the U.S. by boat. Time and heat are critical factors that can affect freshness.
- Always store in a dark bottle, a metal container, or other packaging that blocks light. Keep in a cool cabinet, away from light and heat. No need to refrigerate.
- Use your olive oil smartly. In the kitchen I generally use extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling amply onto vegetables and salads – you can also use it for cooking at low temperatures for short periods of time, such as sautéing. For cooking in general, I recommend coconut oil, a saturated fat least vulnerable to oxidative deterioration from heat.
Benefits of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
People often ask me, is extra virgin olive oil healthy? To which I reply, It’s a superfood! I’ve come to believe this after reading research study upon research study demonstrating the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil. Full of healthy compounds, olive oil plays a paramount nutritional and health role as an “All-star” of the Mediterranean diet. When you seek out authentic extra-virgin olive oil, you are getting the highest concentration of healthy compounds due to the careful production of this finest grade of olive oil. Real extra-virgin olive oil is produced by means of cold-pressing the olive fruit. This technique protects the fruits nutrients and antioxidants which can be destroyed if oil is extracted by means of heat or solvents – processes that may be used in the production of lesser grade oils. The resulting cold-pressed oil is rich in nutrients and antioxidants and includes the following:
- An large proportion of oleic acid – an omega-9, monounsaturated fat
- A high concentration of polyphenols (plant based antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds)
- An abundance of the health protective compound oleuropein – a bitter substance representing up to 14 percent of the olive fruit’s dry weight
Food for Thought – Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Is a Fruit Juice!
Ultimately, few people associate real extra-virgin olive oil with what it essentially is: a fruit juice. Chock-full of health compounds like polyphenols and antioxidants, there is no comparison for golden, rich, authentic extra-virgin olive oil. Remember, like all fruit products, the fresher the better and to obtain the highest quality, it is best to get it from a local source. Try to avoid oils that have taken long trips around the world, especially when you are unsure if the label claims are accurate. Try varieties produced right here in the U.S. such as those from Sonoma Valley and seek out brands that carry the trusted COOC certification. Last but not least – enjoy drizzling your way to health!
References and Resources:
- “Don’t Fall Victim to Olive Oil Fraud.” 60 Minutes Overtime, Jan. 3, 2016. Published online at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/60-minutes-overtime-how-to-buy-olive-oil/
- Blechman N. “Extra-virgin Suicide: The Adulteration of Italian Olive Oil, New York Times, 2014; published online at http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/01/24/opinion/food-chains-extra–virgin-suicide.html?_r=1
- Pierson D. “Adding olive oil to California’s salad,” Los Angeles Times, 2012; published online at http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-california-olive-oil-20140126-story.html#axzz2re8hZlJg&page=1
- Alves J, Neto WB, et al. Extra-virgin (EV) and ordinary (ON) olive oils: distinction and detection of adulteration (EV with ON) as determined by direct infusion electrospray ionization mass spectrometry and chemometric approaches. Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry, 2010;4(13):1875-80. Abstract online at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/rcm.4590/abstract
- Butler J. “Olive Oil Tops E.U. List of Foods at Most Risk of Fraud.” Olive Oil Times, Oct. 21, 2013; published online at http://www.oliveoiltimes.com/olive-oil-basics/olive-oil-tops-fraud-list/36802
- Frankel EN, Mailer RJ, et al. Evaluation of Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Sold in California, April 2011. Published online by the UC Davis Olive Center at http://olivecenter.ucdavis.edu/research/files/report041211finalreduced.pdf
- Huffstutter PJ. “Researchers at UC Davis find problems again with purity of imported olive oil.” Los Angeles Times, April 14, 2011. Published online at http://articles.latimes.com/2011/apr/14/news/la-olive-oil-20110414
- California Olive Oil Council web site
- Lopez-Miranda J, et al. Olive oil and health: Summary of the II International conference on olive oil and health consensus report. Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases, 2010; 20(4):284-94. Abstract online at http://www.nmcd-journal.com/article/S0939-4753(09)00316-0/abstract
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