Claims of “fake” olive oil abound, but the reality of olive oil fraud in U.S. retail is a bit complicated. Purity problems—that is, the adulteration of olive oil with seed oils like soybean or canola, or refined olive oil added to extra virgin olive oil—are rare.
Far more common is the mislabeling of olive oil grades—a quality issue—when lower grade “virgin” olive oil is sold with a label that says “extra virgin,” the highest grade. And as olive oil is perishable, oil that may have started as extra virgin can be compromised by the time it reaches you.
This mislabeling is possible because there is a dearth of meaningful regulation in the market. California is leading the way to correct the problem with a California Department of Food and Agriculture standard for olive oil—the most stringent in the country—and a mandatory government sampling and testing program for California-produced olive oil under the Olive Oil Commission of California (OOCC).
However, 96 percent of the olive oil consumed in the U.S. is imported—and this includes some of the finest olive oils produced—so having some understanding of the ins and outs of imported oil is also critical to being an informed buyer.
Here are some things to notice on bottles when choosing an extra virgin olive oil:
- Price. If it seems too cheap to be extra virgin, it probably isn’t. Genuine extra virgin olive oil costs more to produce, so it should cost more to buy. If an oil labeled “extra virgin” is very cheap, there’s a good chance it is “virgin” grade, with some minor flavor faults. It’s okay to use virgin grade olive oil for high-heat applications (i.e., cooking), but extra virgin is better for salads and other non-cooking uses.
- “Best Before” or “Harvest Date.” Olive oil is at its best when it’s fresh during the first year after harvest, but a well-made, well-conserved extra virgin olive oil should have a two-year shelf life before opening. Once open, use it within a couple of months. “Best Before” dates are most often two years from bottling.
- Single region of origin. No matter what the front label looks like, check the back label for the actual origin of the oil, which is often stated in abbreviations. A single region tends to indicate a higher-quality olive oil. If multiple countries are listed, there is a greater chance that the oil is a commodity oil from an industrial packer. These are large corporations that own brands—often several—of olive oil, but produce little or no oil themselves. (The majority of familiar supermarket brands are owned by these large corporations.) Though a brand with an Italian name, for instance, may have originally belonged to an olive oil producer in Tuscany, many brands are now owned by companies in Spain, China, or elsewhere. There is no obstacle to their buying and bottling good oil, but they tend to trade in cheaper oils.
- Brands from actual olive oil producers, or Estate Production. If an olive oil is labeled “Estate Production” it should have been grown and milled on the farm. The understanding and regulation of this term in olive oil is generally based on its use in wine, but enforcement depends on the region. Extra virgin olive oil brands that belong to the people who grew the olive trees and made the oil, or who worked closely with the farmers and processers to control quality, are more likely to be higher quality (and higher price). You can sometimes learn more about the people behind the brand by visiting their websites, but be skeptical of gimmicky marketing stories.
- “Protected Designation of Origin” logos (PGI, DOP, DO, or AOC). These guarantee that the oil was produced in a specific region of the labeled country using traditional varieties.
- Marketing seals. These use varying quality standards and monitoring practices. The Olive Oil Times provides a comparison of some of the programs found in the U.S. market.
- Other information, including olive varieties, farming practices, milling (the term for processing of olives into olive oil). Such descriptions on labels are usually a good sign, indicating a more conscientious producer.
- The taste! The oil should taste of fresh olives, ripe or green, with no flavors of rancidity (crayons, stale walnuts) or fermentation (likened to sweaty socks). Note: Bitterness is not a defect but rather is a natural taste component in fresh green olives and is a great flavor enhancer with the right foods, such as a hearty bean soup or tomato-based sauce. Grilled meat (choose lean cuts) is also fabulous with intense bitter olive oil and a touch of coarse salt.
Also see Is Olive Oil Really That Special?