Consumers Still In The Dark: 6 Tips To Buying Better Olive Oil

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in: Cooking

Olive oils line shelves at Corti Brothers in Sacramento, Calif. Credit: Elaine Corn

Have you ever wondered what exactly you’re getting when you purchase a bottle of olive oil? Extra virgin? Pure?

“Pure,” explains Dan Flynn of the University of California Davis Olive Center, “which is such a great word from a marketing standpoint, indicates to a lot of consumers that they’re buying the very best olive oil. But in fact, it’s a lower grade.”

Extra virgin is the highest grade for olive oil.

Flynn, the olive center’s executive director, and his associate Selina Wang, its research director, recently released a study called “Consumer Attitudes on Olive Oil.” It revealed problems with consumers’ notions of this product that would make lovers of great olive oil, or those knowledgeable about it, cringe.

Only one in four of us understands olive oil grades, the report found. Eighty percent cited flavor as an important factor in buying olive oil, yet earlier studies have shown that a majority of imported oils have off flavors or are already rancid. Rancidity negatively affects the human body by forming free radicals and depleting certain B vitamins. If you’re using olive oil for your health, ingesting a rancid one will not bear the valuable antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and viable polyphenols.

Consumers also did not think that the terminology olive oil professionals used to convey positive attributes, such as “grassy,” “peppery” and “fruity,” made the product sound tasty. They were also confused by the term “refined.”

“It doesn’t mean elegant or high class,” Flynn said. Typical of labeling that intends to mislead, refined means just the opposite. Refined olive oil has been processed with solvents to mask off odors and flavors. This do-over is done because the oil might have started out with olives of questionable quality, or it’s a blend of low-grade oils gushing around the Mediterranean from Turkey, Greece or Spain, or it’s been cut with other oils, such as hazelnut or safflower. In these cases, that’s all got to be covered up.

Wang designed the consumer study. She is originally from Taiwan, where olive oil is not so familiar. “It probably took me several months to figure out all the terminology and nomenclature,” she said. “It’s very confusing.”

olive oil label

Olive oil label. Credit: Elaine Corn

The conclusion is there is much work to be done to better communicate what’s in the bottle instead of focusing on devising language that masks unscrupulous practices.

So how do you read an olive oil label to make sure it’s the best extra virgin you can afford?

There are six things to do. With advice from Orietta Gianjorio, a UC Davis Olive Oil Taste Panel member who grew up in Rome and is familiar with these terms we’ve inherited from Europe, here are some clues about how to read a label. In general, look for the term extra virgin. But don’t take it for granted.

Turn the bottle over. Where is the oil from? Just because it was packed or produced in Italy doesn’t mean the oil’s Italian. Oils come from all over the Mediterranean — Tunisia, Spain, Greece and Turkey — to Italy just to be packaged. That’s a lot of traveling. To impress you, the label may even brag that the oil has come from many countries. But now that you’re becoming an expert, you’ll know that the longer the time between harvest and processing, the better the chance the oil has of degrading.

Look for the harvest date. Remember that olive oil is the opposite of wine. It is not meant to age. Think of it as fresh fruit juice. Olive oil is good for about two years if stored in optimum conditions, which means in a dark, room-temperature cupboard. “If the back of the label doesn’t have the harvest date, you may consider putting that bottle back on the shelf,” Gianjorio advised.

Look for seals of approval. Many California olive oils are sent, for a fee, to the California Olive Oil Council’s panel of trained tasters. If the oil passes, the producer is given permission to place the COOC seal on the label. Most often, this is placed on the back of the bottle. However, many fine California oils from small producers are never sent to the COOC because of costs. Usually, these bottles show a harvest date.

Smell it and taste it. Because you can’t very well take a swig at the store, Gianjorio said that as soon as you get the olive oil home, smell it and taste it. Ideally you won’t encounter the off odors, which Gianjorio described as wax, bad salami, old peanut butter, baby diaper, manure or sweaty socks.

Take it back. “This is America. You take everything back,” Gianjorio said. Tell the store manager that the oil is rancid and return it. If the manager is unable to lead you to a better product, find a shop that specializes in fine olive oil, or look for good olive oil online.

Favor domestic oil. First, this is not an us vs. them: There are high-quality producers all over the world. Olive oils made in the U.S. consistently score higher in quality than imports. California furnishes 97% of the olive oil produced in the U.S. If there’s a shorthand way of looking for quality, reach for olive oil from the Golden State.

Top photo: Olive oils line shelves at Corti Brothers in Sacramento, Calif. Credit: Elaine Corn


Zester Daily contributor Elaine Corn is a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and food editor. A former editor at the Louisville Courier-Journal and The Sacramento Bee, Corn has written six cookbooks and contributed food stories to National Public Radio.

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Comments

Beth
on: 8/27/13
How great to know that US olive oils are usually excellent quality - certainly makes the choice easy!
pierino
on: 8/27/13
I'm a great proponent of California olive oils. The COOC's standards for Extra Virgin are even stricter than the IOC's. It wasn't so long ago that the USDA used terms like "fancy"; more appropriate to grading meat than oil. Personally I think California olive oils are about where California wines were back in the Seventies. They are just beginning to get the recognition they deserve.
Linda
on: 8/27/13
So, Zester, how about giving us some recommendations on exceptional California EVOOs?
pierino
on: 8/27/13
I am not Zester but I can offer some suggestions. Among the larger producers California Olive Ranch is quite good, and because they are one of the biggest their product is easier to find. In particular their arbequina (which is a Spanish cultivar) is really good. Some of the best oils are coming from my own area (Paso Robles) and from Napa. What you will find though is that with small producers the flavor can vary dramatically from year to year. One guy I know only makes 7,000 bottles. As with wine, climate swings have a big impact. From the Paso area I like Pasolivo (you can order that through Zingermans), Olio Nuevo, and Fandango. From Napa I like Talcott and McEvoy, but there are other good ones. To get the COOC stamp the extra virgin (PLEASE don't call it EVOO!) must be no more than .05% acidity when lab tested. You can expect new oils to begin showing up in late October and November. The new oil, "olio nuovo", can be a bit cloudy because it takes some time for the sediment to settle. When you are tasting a good oil you should expect a grassy beginning and then after a slight delayed reaction a peppery finish at the back of your palate. Sometimes that finish is too muscular which I don't think makes for a good oil.
Elaine Corn
on: 8/27/13
I agree with my friend "Pierino" above. I use California Olive Ranch a lot, especially it's Miller's Blend. Here in Sacramento, the go-to oil is Bariani, beloved by chefs because it's perfect for just about everything, not too delicate and not too pungent. Same for a very small producer called Seka Hills from the Capay Valley. Also, Corto oils are delicious, as is McEvoy. Hope that helps.
Elaine Corn
on: 8/27/13
And how can I forget Apollo. Made in the Yuba wine appellation area, this oil is made entirely without contact with air. I witnessed the computer-driven tubes that go every which way taking the olives to extraction, then the pomace pours out at the end which is taken to cattle as feed, a complete circle. Apollo is probably highest in polyphenols, which means it is robust and pungent, might make you cough on the first taste. I happen to love pungency in olive oil, but always have on hand a delicate one and one that's got medium pungency. Apollo is a perennial winner at reputable olive oil competitions.
June Pagan
on: 8/27/13
If yo uare looking for a really tasty local California oil go to Nuvo Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Oroville California. They print the crush date on their bottles and also it is a grove with trees over 125 years old, primarily Mission olives. Great family who recently bought the neglected orchard with the dream to start producing a high quality California olive oil, full of healthy polyphenols!!! Nuvo is delicious, too!
Linda
on: 8/27/13
Thank you, Chef Pagan!
Linda
on: 8/27/13
I just scrolled back up, thank you Pierino and Elaine Corn as well. And Pierino, I promise not to use the acronym again! I used to use a Spanish arbequina until I tried Laconiko from Greece. I see that my olive oil education is far from over. I'm about 20 miles from a tasting shop, so I'll take this list with me.
pierino
on: 8/28/13
Linda, just curious but which tasting shop will you be going to?
Linda
on: 8/28/13
The Imperial Olive is the one I've seen in Williamsburg, VA. http://theimperialolive.com/ Looking at the olive oil section, I'm not sure if they have California oils.
Lucia
on: 8/28/13
Check the dates on California olive ranch. Unless they have changed recently the best by dates are more than two years from harvest.
Robert
on: 9/1/13
Please read the article from the University of California at Irvine regarding extensive chemical testing of many olive oils on the market. The results are eye-openning. As a chef, this is what I judge my decisions on purchasing oils. You may find them to be very interesting !
Elaine Corn
on: 9/2/13
The study Robert refers to is from UC Davis. It found adulteration in olive oils selected randomly from shelves in LA, San Francisco and Sacramento. It is reliable for the time frame during which it was conducted. Rather than rely on 3-year old results, buy fresh olive based on harvest date and the other tips mentioned in this story. The study, indeed, was eye-opening, sort of the canary in the coal mine, but it's not really a shopping list.
Zach
on: 9/4/13
If you're going to recommend people look for extra virgin, you should probably also add a word about applications - dressing salads and other "raw" applications, sure, but I'd hate for someone to take your suggestions and end up pouring that EVOO into a fryer.
Tayler
on: 9/4/13
The Oregon Olive Mill in the Willamette Valley offers a great domestic olive oil as well. It is readily available in the Portland area, is used by a ton of local chefs, and can be purchased online as well. Anything produced in the US is going to be way fresher than most of the imported oils found on the grocery store shelves, even if it has to be shipped in from another state.
Kathy
on: 11/9/13
I have heard from a Registered Dietician that you can also test Olive Oil by putting it in the refrigerator and seeing if solidifies. Good ones do. If it doesn't, the chains of fatty molecules have been modied, i.e. refined. She did her own study and found that California brand did past the test but most that we can purchase in Fairbanks, Alaska didn't.

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