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When Buying Olive Oil, Knowledge Is Power

Freshly milled oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Freshly milled oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

It’s an old story — you’ve heard it before, and not just from me — but it’s coming around again. Predictably, just as U.S. specialty markets begin to trumpet the arrival of fresh new-harvest, extra virgin olive oil comes the warning that it ain’t what it seems.

According to journalist Tom Mueller, speaking on the popular CBS News program “60 Minutes,” an astonishing 80 percent of the extra virgin olive oil sold in the United States does not meet the standards for extra virgin.

That statement requires some clarification. To be characterized as extra virgin, legal parameters must be met. They are set by the International Olive Council, and they are liberal. The oil, for instance, must have only 0.8 percent free oleic fatty acid and a peroxide content of 20 milliequivalents, or meq.

But there’s more. To qualify as extra virgin, an oil must be free of defects, with perfect flavor and aroma. And that’s where a lot of extra virgin oil on sale in the U.S. falls down, usually because it is too old (Unlike wine, olive oil does not improve with age.) or has been exposed to damaging light, heat and/or atmosphere. The finest extra virgin will deteriorate very quickly. I know firsthand because once in Tuscany I deliberately exposed a glassful of extra virgin, milled just days earlier from my own olives. Within a week of exposure, it was unrecognizable, pale in color and with almost no flavor or aroma except for the slight development, as yet inchoate, of rancidity.

Much of the 80% of substandard extra virgin oil cited by Mueller (if indeed the figure is accurate, which I tend to doubt) was probably legally produced, bottled and shipped. But once it left the producer’s hands, all bets were off.

Buyer beware

An olive tree. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

An olive tree. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Let me give a disturbing example: In my local Whole Foods I bought a bottle of oil from a Sicilian producer whom I know well, one who makes his award-winning product with scrupulous care. And it shows: The oil has a robust flavor you associate with new oils made from barely mature olives and picked just 12 to 24 hours before pressing. Yet, the oil I purchased was pale yellow, indicating exposure to too much light, and it was unmistakably rancid, so much so I had to spit it out at the first taste.

So buyer beware, or caveat emptor, as they said back in Rome.

The conclusion of this somewhat misguided “60 Minutes” report was simple: The problem with Italian olive oil is a creation — like so many Italian problems — of the Mafia, a catch-all for everything wrong with Italy. And we Americans, who sometimes seem to fear the Mafia as much as we fear ISIS, certainly don’t want to give any support, financial or otherwise, to the dons. So should we all stop buying Italian olive oil?

Hang on a minute. If Italy is ground zero for olive oil fraud, the country is also recognized as ground zero for fraud protection, with not one but three national police forces responsible: the Carabinieri (like state police only national), the Guardia di Finanza (the tax police) and the Corpo Forestale, park rangers who also have the responsibility of investigating counterfeit foods and pursuing anti-Mafia activities. It was the Carabinieri in Turin last November who charged seven top olive oil companies with commercial fraud, among them Carapelli, Bertolli, Sasso and Coricelli. All were accused of selling as extra virgin, at extra virgin prices, oils that barely qualified as second-tier virgin, resulting in a 30% rip-off on the price.

Do the names sound familiar? They should. All these brands are in wide distribution outside Italy (as well as within), and especially in the U.S. through supermarkets and big-box stores. Although media have targeted the brands as “Italian,” in fact Carapelli, Sasso and Bertolli, which all began life a century or more ago as Italian family companies, are now owned by the Spanish multinational Deoleo. On its website, Deoleo promotes itself as “the world leader in the olive oil market.” That’s no stretch — Deoleo owns seven of the most widely sold olive oils in the world, including the abovementioned.

As frauds go, I have to confess, I don’t find this one all that shocking. Selling oil that barely reaches the cheap virgin qualification as more expensive extra virgin? It’s a bit like selling cheap toilet water as Chanel No. 5, and it’s tempting to fault consumers for their ignorance. If you can’t tell the difference between eau de toilette and a Chanel classic, it’s your problem, honey, not mine. Nonetheless, fraud is fraud. While this may be fairly entry-level fraud, it is still deceptive. And illegal. And possibly dangerous to the health of people who consume a great deal of what they believe is heart-healthy extra virgin olive oil.

The core of the problem is that, even in Italy and other regions known for producing fine oil, most consumers, including experienced chefs, have little or no idea what top-quality extra-virgin olive oil ought to taste like. Here’s a simple tip: It should leave your mouth feeling clean, not the least bit greasy, and it should have the fresh, herbal fragrance and flavor of just-cut grass. You’ve never actually tasted fresh-cut grass? Get out there behind the lawn mower and try it. It’s not going to kill you!) The flavor and aroma of fine, fresh olive oil can get a lot more subtle than that, and experienced tasters will detect nuances, from roasted nuts to citrus to green tomatoes and tomato leaves, but basically if you keep in mind the adjectives fresh, grassy, herbal, clean, you’ll be on the right track.

What to look for in olive oil

Quality olive oil abounds, if you know what to look for. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Quality olive oil abounds, if you know what to look for. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

A well-made olive oil will have a good balance of three basic characteristics: the fruity flavors of sound, healthy olives, and the bitterness and piquancy (pepperiness) that are indications of the presence of antioxidants that make olive oil the fat you want on your table for all its great health benefits. What should be avoided is oil that has a flat, tired flavor, that tastes of rancidity, that leaves your mouth feeling coated with fat or that tastes like a jar of commercial tapenade that was opened three weeks ago and got lost in the back of the refrigerator.

Fortunately, now is a perfect time to educate your palate with the outstanding flavors of fresh, well-made olive oil. From the Mediterranean — especially Italy — and from California, producers are rushing olio nuovo, new-harvest oil, to market. It is expensive, but worth investing in, if only to give you a firm base-line sense of what excellence is all about. Once you’ve tasted it, you will never again mistake bad oil for good.

Here are just a few I have tasted and liked. Please note these are not by any means the extent of fine extra virgin olive oils; these are specifically new oils that I have tasted recently.

From Gustiamo in New York:

Pianogrillo from Sicily, $38.25 for 500 milliliters.

Tratturello from Molise, $44.50 for 750 milliliters.

Rio Grifone, organic from Tuscany, $39.50 for 500 milliliters.

From Market Hall Foods in Oakland, California:

Séka Hills, top-ranked Californian oil, $18 for 250 milliliters.

Titone, award-winning Sicilian organic, $28 for 250 milliliters.

Olio Verde from Sicily, single cultivar, nocellara del Belice, $38 for 500 milliliters.

From Olio2go in Fairfax, Virginia:

Capezzana from Tuscany, $44.50 for 500 milliliters.

Frescobaldi from Tuscany, with the prestigious Laudemio seal, $32.95 for 250 milliliters.

Villa Zattopera from Sicily, single cultivar, tondo Iblea, $36.95 for 500 milliliters.

Direct from the producer, California Olive Ranch:

COR Limited Reserve, $19.99 for 500 milliliters.

Main photo: Freshly milled oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Zester Daily contributor Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of many books about Italy and the Mediterranean. Her most recent books are "Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil," published by Houghton Mifflin in February 2015, and "The Four Seasons of Pasta," published by Avery in October 2015.

  • Jerry Clare 1·8·16

    What a wonderful educational article on olive oil, and do hope the editor of 60 minutes picks it up.
    I find it amazing that people will spend $25.-35. on a bottle of wine that’s usually gone in an hour, but not the same on olive oil, which with the proper care with last longer, and better for you.

  • qlue 1·8·16

    I just don’t understand why anyone would want to cook with it though. Olive oil is already terribly bitter before you heat it up. Once heated to cooking temperature it becomes as bitter as castor oil or worse.

  • Alessandra da Cortona 1·8·16

    Thank you, Nancy for this much needed clarifying article. To me, there is not really a problem finding a great Extra Virgin Olive Oil resource, there are a few Extra Virgin Olive Oil facilities around my house, Il Frantoio Landi, il Brini and a few others and I buy my supply there, 5 liters at a time. We help Alfredo and Cornelia – bro and SIL- picking their olives and we have our share for the year. Between cooking classes and household, I go through a whopping 130/150 liters a year. Of course, The first months after the picking it is marvelous bruschettas and the likes. My customers have a lot of questions about extra virgin olive oil, normally I would refer to Keith and his excellent l’arte dell’olivo extra virgin, when he is around, but when he is not around, now on I will refer them to you also, and learn this article by memory, and send it over to everyone,
    Qlue, you really have NO QLUE -cheap joke, I know- on what REAL Extra Virgin Olive Oil is or tastes like. What if I tell you tha with the sole exclusion of fish, I deep fry everything in Extra Virgin Olive Oil? It is expensive, I know, but seriously the taste is incomparable. Think Fresh sage leaves, think zucchini blossoms. Pure flavor, pure love.
    Thank you Nancy.

  • Erica De Mane 1·9·16

    Thanks for this much needed piece. I do have one question for you. I too like Olio Verde and I buy it frequently. I have, however, noticed that it’s packaged in clear glass bottles and I wondered why he didn’t use tinted ones as most of the best oil producers do. I would think, especially since he exports, this might cause problems. Does he have a reason for this?

  • Erica De Mane 1·9·16

    Interesting.Thanks, Nancy.

  • Joe Montefinese 1·9·16

    The best I’ve tasted is Colavita…fresh peppery finish. Less expensive than those name in the article

  • Rosie DeQuattro 1·9·16

    There seems to be not enough attention paid to “sell-by” dates and “harvest” dates on extra virgin bottles and cans, and not enough literature on the subject. I assume that an oil is good for about a year, but not for 2 or 3. A “sell by” date on a bottle can be anywhere from 1-3 years from when I’m purchasing the oil, not from when the oil was produced. Most bottles do not print the harvest date on the label, which is the important information to have when buying olive oil. Some do but they are hard to find, and even high end gourmet shops will stock oils that don’t have harvest dates. I would love your advice re this issue. Thanks!

  • Grace Michalakeas 1·9·16

    I did not notice that Greek olive oil being mentioned. I noticed in Greece, the olive oil had a darker greenish color. I use olive oil when I cook and use on salads.

  • Rosie DeQuattro 1·9·16

    Thank you!

  • Joseph 1·10·16

    This is great for people who have gourmet food shipped to them, but it doesn’t help people who buy their food locally. What are good brands that are available nationally, not just one off specialty markets?

  • Alain Harvey 1·10·16

    A wonderfully written and informative article. To me, cooking with extra virgin olive oil could be a waste money because it loses most of its benefits when it is heated. When oils are heated they degrade in quality. This fact is supported by recent research at researchers at Portugal’s University of Porto. Writing in the journal Food Research International their research showed that any kind of heating reduced the power of the phenolic compounds in the oil.

    The report states that ‘Virgin olive oil consumption, as final seasoning or within cooked foods, is increasing worldwide, mainly due to its recognized nutritional benefits. However, different cooking practices, from common frying, to boiling and microwave cooking, undoubtedly modify the olive oil chemical profile.” However, even after being cooked, olive oil will still be at least as healthy as vegetable oil so it is not worth replacing one with the other, stated the report.

    With this research in mind, and from my own experience there are other ways to get the most out of olive oil when cooking, One is to keep heating to a minimum, another is to keep adding a splash of olive oil during the cooking process so that it does not get so hot it loses its healthy properties.

    Research shows that olive oil performance under prolonged thermal processing is usually equal or superior to other refined vegetable oils. However, as most of its bioactive components, including phenolic compounds, are gradually lost, it is economically advantageous to use lower olive oil grades and frequent replenishment under prolonged thermal processing. After a short heating period, most olive oil advantages, in comparison with other vegetable oils, are lost.

    First cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil is intentionally created through a mechanical process which avoids the addition of chemicals and the heating of the oil which would destroy much of its unique health benefits. So when cooking on high heat such as frying, I use a good quality light olive oil meant for that purpose or another oil which performs better for high-heat applications such as rapeseed or sunflower oil rather than the more expensive first cold pressed EVOO which quickly loses those highly-prized nuances of taste for which one pays an understandable premium.

  • Joanne Lacina 1·11·16

    Thank you, Nancy, for this. We saw a major influx of questions from concerned customers after the 60 Minutes special aired last week and I appreciate this well written follow up. While the segment brought much needed awareness to a very large American audience, it also left many holes of information that could be more helpful to consumers. I agree it is important to understand why it is thought that up to 80% of oils on retail shelves are not extra virgin. While there are certainly plenty of oils that were never extra virgin to begin with on the shelf, I also know first hand the amount of time it takes for a bottle of oil to reach a supermarket shelf, essentially sending it to its death by light and age. Even the finest oil cannot survive the conditions, which is why its so important to offer consumers an alternative to buying in-store. Additionally, in responding to our customer inquiries, I was saddened by many proclaiming they will no longer buy anything from Italy, when it is my personal opinion that Italy continues to set the highest standard for quality thanks to the hundreds of smaller producers who dedicate their entire lives to producing a genuine quality product, and have been doing so for generations. Unfortunately, the big players conducting dishonest business are there as well. In fact, when I was visiting our producers last November in Italy, the Carabinieri bust (and recall!) was huge news, giving greater hope to the smaller producers; however, the story went virtually unnoticed in the mainstream media here in the US, which is why it is so crucial to continue this discussion and bring awareness and knowledge to consumers.

  • Wendy Lin 1·11·16

    Thank you for this article. As someone who worked in Napa’s wine business for almost 10 years and knowing the strength of UC Davis’ vit/oeno and ag programs, and a buy local believer for many things (but not all), I’ve stuck to California olive oils the past five years. The “60 Minutes” piece painted too broad a stroke and it’s unfortunate for the smaller, quality producers in Italy. Your article helps set things more fairly, but ultimately, I think consumers are going to hold mistrust if these types of stories continue to come to light. I love Italy and Europe for many things, but these overseas guys really need to proactively get their act together to earn back consumer trust. Busy consumers simply don’t have the time to dig for info each time they go buy a bottle (and most of us go through them quickly).

  • Dan Strongin 1·12·16

    Thank you for this. Like so many specialty foods, how food is stored and handled after it leaves the producer is so important! And price. We all want to pay less for our food than is reasonable for a producer to survive on, and crop yield changes every season. The temptation for the large companies who need low price and cannot run out or they will lose supermarket shelf space is strong. If we were better educated about oil and less shortsighted in what we pay we would gladly buy Virgin oil for cooking and other daily use when tightening the belt, and reserve the extra virgin for topping, dressing and cooking where nothing else will do, and we would gladly pay a fair price for the real thing rather than an unsustainable price for a fiction.

  • Dennis Ashley 1·12·16

    Carefully selecting olive oil is very important, tasting when ever possible before purchasing. I’ve also found many ‘blends’ that are marketed as EVOO and can be undesirable. As a culinary educator I also have found certain California, small estate extra virgin olive oils to be very acceptable. As well, certain Greek olive oils have been used with excellent results. Thanks Nancy for your informative article!

  • Salvatore Ferrante 1·12·16

    you list some oils and you said that you like them……….did you see the prices?
    you compare this oils with oils from supermarkets?

  • Salvatore Ferrante 1·12·16

    you also say…….. It’s a bit like selling cheap toilet water as Chanel No. 5, and it’s tempting to fault consumers for their ignorance. If you can’t tell the difference between eau de toilette and a Chanel classic, it’s your problem, honey, not mine. this would be true if you pay the same amount for the fake and for the real Chanel No. 5 so if you pa lets say $ 200 for the real Chanel and then you pay $15 for the fake fraud Chanel do you really expect the same quality? the same is for oil.I do not justify the fraud in any way shape or form but in some ways we ask for this the American Consumer wants to buy always for less and less and some time we get what we ask for.

  • Salvatore Ferrante 1·12·16

    And Finally remember one thing that it cost at least $8.00 to make a liter of oil so if you go to any supermarkets and you buy one liter of oil for $4,50 what do you expect….really????
    99.9% of the time oil that it cost 12,00 and under per liter is not extra virgin olive oil that is the reason you liked the oil you tasted at $60,00 a liter and up no you can bet these are 99.9% right

  • martino 1·12·16

    Informative piece as ever but I’m going into the olive oil import business in the USA. Great prices!
    Just to mention (very) good quality olive oil can be had for around 10€ litre here in Italy and importers won’t pay much more than that. I won’t get more for mine so paying 40$ for half a litre is exaggerated. Even with cost of transport, labeling etc. you should get a litre for that price. On 10€ a liter the producer who doesn’t operate machines, doesn’t make any money, you can just get even.

  • arni narendran 1·13·16

    Thank you Ms Nancy for that educative article on olive oil, Here in India sesame, groundnut and mustard oil are predominant medium used in our cuisines , off late Indians in the metro cities have taken to olive oil in a big way, initially for salad dressing but recently as cooking medium, my family moved into exclusive olive oil usage in the last three years basically on my wife”s recommendation . Honestly we went by the Brand names from the supermarkets having little or no knowledge of the contents-we will now excercise discretion.

  • JRATT 1956 2·29·16

    This is one of the best and concise articles on the EVOO fraud that I have read in the last month. I have just now started using EVOO again after switching to coconut oil about 10 years ago. I have just now found the Zester Daily site – it is now bookmarked and I am sure I will return to the site many times in the future.

    I am now enjoying my search for good EVOO from CA, Greece, Italy and Chile.
    CA Olive Ranch, Shoreline, Olio Carli, and O-live brands have been great finds. I have not had to spend more than 50 cents per oz. I just received a shipment of 6/17 oz bottles of Lucini Premium Select with a best by date of 6/30/2017, that I found on ebay for $50 with free shipping . Not going to find it for that price ever again. It is smother than the COR and should make a great finishing oil for many dishes.

    Good EVOO does not have to break the bank. I just found California Olive Ranch Chef Size
    47.3 oz for $13.88 at Wal-Mart. That is less than 30 cents per oz. It has that grassy olive taste and peppery burn in the throat when I take 1 tbs like medicine 4 times per day. I love the taste of my eggs and hamburgers fried in it. I even pour the oil from the pan on my bacon and sausage every morning, yum.