Spanish olive oil that is sold as Italian; diluted oil sold as extra virgin; old or mishandled oil that becomes rancid. The olive oil industry has been rocked by several scandals the past few years and for consumers it can be difficult to distinguish a high-quality product by reading labels only. But going the extra mile to find a premium extra virgin oil is worth the effort, both when it comes to flavour and health benefits.
Just a few years ago, an investigation in Italy revealed that only 16 percent of the olive oils that were marketed as Italian actually originated in that country. In some cases, what is sold as olive oil isn’t even made from olives, but seeds or nuts. And with today’s sophisticated technology, the fake oils can be hard to detect, even with chemical testing.
The label Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) used to be the industry gold standard when it comes to flavour, aroma, colour and level of free fatty acids, but rampant cheating among producers has tarnished its reputation. The EVOOs found on supermarket shelves are also often subpar because they’re old or have been mishandled, causing them to become rancid.
The million-dollar question is of course how to distinguish a high-quality extra virgin olive oil from the cheap knock-offs, especially when even established brands have been caught bending the truth. A few years ago, some olive oil producers came up with a solution; they simply created a whole new category of EVOOs, adding the term “Premium” or “Ultra Premium” to distinguish their products from the rest. While still rare in supermarkets, these true high-quality oils can typically be found at gourmet restaurants and select online stores.
Of course, t if all you’re using olive oil for is frying food, you may not need the highest quality oil, since many of the beneficial properties of the oil are destroyed when it's exposed to high heat. But if you use olive oil as a flavour enhancer on top of salads, drizzled on fish, mixed in with smoothies or served with warm bread, it’s certainly worth spending a little extra for the real deal!
Five qualities of olive oil that you need to know about:
- Premium Extra Virgin Olive Oil or Ultra Premium Extra Virgin Olive Oil
The label “Premium” or “Ultra Premium” is reserved for a small segment of the highest-quality olive oils, which must meet stringent requirements when it comes to production, storage, transportation, testing, freshness, flavour and chemistry (rancidity, makeup of fatty acids, presence of chlorophyll and polyphenols etc). Since freshness is crucial to qualifying for this category, most of the oils in the premium segment come from small producers, who tend to press their olives directly after harvest. Premium oils often have a notably fresh and slightly pungent flavour, with a distinct blend of bitterness and fruitiness. The content of free fatty acids, which is an important marker of quality, is no higher than 0.3g per 100g.
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil
“Extra Virgin” means that the oil is unrefined, as the olives are mechanically cold pressed rather than treated with heat or chemicals. In order to be categorized as extra virgin, an oil has to meet certain requirements as far as the chemical makeup and flavour go, although these are less stringent than for a premium oil. EVOO typically has a light peppery flavour and deep golden-green colour, and retains more of the naturally occurring nutrients than the lower-quality oils. Also, it has no more than 0.8g of free fatty acids per 100g.
- Virgin Olive Oil
Virgin olive oil is unrefined and made in a similar way as EVOO, but the production standards are less stringent. Virgin olive oil also has a higher rate of defects when it comes to flavour and odour, and a higher content of free fatty acids, up to 2g per 100g. This type of olive oil is rarely found in grocery stores.
- Olive Oil
If the label on the bottle says “olive oil”, “pure olive oil” or “regular olive oil,” it refers to a mix of virgin olive oil and refined oil that has been treated with heat and/or chemicals during the production process. This is a lower-quality olive oil that typically has a more neutral flavour and lighter colour than the higher quality oils. It has a free fatty acid content of no more than 1g per 100g.
- Light Olive Oil
The term light olive oil doesn’t imply that it has fewer calories, but refers to a refined oil that is lighter in colour and flavour, and is best suited for sautéing, grilling and frying, since it has a high smoke point.
Moral of the story? If you want to be sure to get a high-quality olive oil with optimal flavour and nutrient makeup, choosing the bottle labeled “extra virgin” at the grocery store isn’t always enough, and for real "foodies" only a premium extra virgin olive oil will probably meet the mark. Because with olive oil you typically get the quality that you pay for.