Extra-virgin olive oil is rich in healthy fats, free-radical-fighting antioxidants, and inflammation-erasing polyphenols. The only problem? Only one in three bottles of EVOO on supermarket shelves is the real deal — and that’s a conservative estimate — according to investigative journalist Larry Olmsted, author of Real Food/Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating and What You Can Do About It.
Fake olive oil made headlines a few years ago when Tom Mueller’s book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, exposed widespread deception in the global olive-oil market. The problem hasn’t eased up. Earlier this year, Italian police busted a mafia-led crime ring for exporting fraudulent extra-virgin olive oil to the United States.
The incentive for food fraudsters to keep up their crimes has only increased. The price of EVOO skyrocketed this year, thanks to wonky weather in Spain and Italy, where a lot of the world’s olives are grown.
Bogus EVOO might be diluted with cheaper, less healthy oils, like soybean, sunflower, or even heavily refined olive oil. A common problem? Stale oil, which quickly goes rancid, sometimes even before it hits supermarket shelves.
So how can consumers know they’re getting genuine extra-virgin olive oil? Here are our top tips, from Olmsted and Patricia Darragh, executive director of the California Olive Oil Council (COOC).
Always opt for “extra.” “Pure” olive oil and “light” olive oil sound promising, but they are lower-grade oils with no health benefits.
Check the harvest date. “Olive oil has a maximum life of about two years, so we recommend consuming within 18 months,” says Darragh. “When it oxidizes, health benefits disappear.”
Don’t assume “organic” has you covered. By law, genuine extra-virgin olive oil must be extracted without chemicals or heat and must pass a taste test. An organic label doesn’t necessarily cover those criteria.
Ignore marketing ploys. Labels like “cold-pressed” and “first press” are meaningless when it comes to EVOO because extraction method and freshness are part of the definition of “extra virgin.”
Expect to pay more. “When you see imported olive oil for $5, it is not olive oil,” says Darragh. “It’s low-grade, refined, poor quality oil.” The cost of genuine extra-virgin olive oil is a real concern both for health-conscious consumers and restaurateurs. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver closed six of his UK-based Italian eateries earlier this year, citing the increased cost of imported goods, including olive oil. Food-industry experts fear that real EVOO is becoming a luxury good.
When searching for domestic brands, look for the COOC seal. California produces 99 percent of the country’s domestic EVOO. To pass muster with the California Olive Oil Council, growers must submit their oils to a chemical analysis by a COOC-approved lab, and the oils must pass a blind taste test.
Know your retailer. Since you can’t always trust the “extra virgin” label on the side of the bottle, look for reputable sellers or wholesalers. Natural food stores and cooperative groceries are good bets. You can also buy direct from small farms.