Is Your Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Real or an Imposter?

By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.

Real 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 authentic 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.

The New York Times and Los Angeles Times have also reported that there appears to be food fraud and mislabeling in the olive oil market.

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 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. The risk list was based on research findings, police records, and industry consultations.

Furthermore, 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).

Certified Authentic Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

Aggressive or not, the ongoing spate of revelations spooked me. Because I use olive oil routinely in the kitchen and recommend it – aggressively, I might add – for its health benefits, I began a sustained search for quality extra-virgin products. My quest for the best quality olive oil available led me to California.  I met with a local olive grower there and learned of the California Olive Oil Council (COOC), an organization that certifies extra-virgin varieties produced by the state’s 400 growers. 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. Finally, a way to know what you’re getting is the real deal!

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 olive oil. I also suggest doing the following:

  • Check the label for the source of the olives – country, state, and province. I advise going with small-batch producers in California. I’m 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. If you do buy olive oil imported from overseas – look for unique certification, such as DOP in Italy (DOP means all phases of production, processing, and preparation are traditionally conducted in the certified area).
  • Always store in a dark bottle, a metal container, or other packaging that blocks light and in a cabinet (as opposed to on your counter, where the bottle is more exposed to light). Keep your oil relatively cool, away from a heat source like your stove; 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 or medium temperatures for short periods of time, such as sautéing. Avocado and coconut oils have higher smoke points, making them good choices to cook at higher temperatures with.

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:

  • A 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 small batch varieties produced right here in the U.S. and look for COOC certification. Last but not least – enjoy drizzling your way to health!

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