Many people share Alain Ducasse’s love for that distinct flavor, but what you may not know is that the extra-virgin olive oil industry represents one of the biggest food frauds in the world. In fact, roughly 90% of the “EVOO” sold grocery shelves in the US is not really EVOO at all.
What is extra-virgin olive oil, truly? What gives it its subtlety and aroma? And, most importantly how do you know what you’re buying is real?
How (Real) EVOO is Made
To know what real extra virgin olive oil is, you must know how it is made. Olive oil is quite simply a fruit juice: liquid obtained by pressing fruit harvested from a tree. To be extra-virgin, it must be obtained from the very first press of the fruit (not the second or third presses which are later done to the pulp to produce lower quality oil not fit for human consumption).
The first pressing must also be done exclusively by mechanical means (not chemical) that never exceed a temperature of 80*F (thus, cold-pressed). The resulting oil is then racked -- a sedimentation process by which unwanted sediment and water are removed from the oil -- but kept unfiltered in order to retain a desirable degree of “cloudiness” and a full fresh olive flavor. Hence, the industry’s familiar catchwords: “first pressed” + “cold pressed” + “unfiltered” = “extra-virgin”.
If only that were so.
Olive oil producers with the very best intentions can follow all these steps and still not create extra-virgin olive oil. In fact, more often, olive oil producers with the very worst intentions follow all these steps and create something they gladly label EVOO, whether it’s true or not. Nearly all mills cold press today, so knowing that an olive oil is first cold pressed does not guarantee that it is extra-virgin.
So what makes EVOO real?
The Chemistry Component
Once an olive oil is produced using the first cold pressed, unfiltered, mechanical procedure, it is sent to a third-party lab for testing. To win the designation of extra-virgin, not only must the olive oil satisfy a precise sensory analysis by a tasting panel, it must also undergo chemical analysis for its acidity level, degree of oxidization, polyphenol count, and exclusion of additives and contaminants. The quality standards that determine the designation and labelling of extra-virgin olive oil are regulated by the International Olive Council (IOC), as well as the European Union and certain national governments, but not by the US government or the FDA.
Less than 10% of the olive oil produced each year throughout the world truly qualifies as extra-virgin. With the demand for olive oil skyrocketing worldwide, the temptation for fraud is immense. As if that wasn’t bad enough, most EVOO sold in America is low-grade olive oil mixed with vegetable, canola, or other seed oils.
You may have seen the recent 60 Minutes investigation into Italy’s EVOO exportation industry, in which tankers of low-quality olive oil, or even plain old canola oil, arrive at an Italian port from other Mediterranean countries, only to be blended, bottled up, and shipped out to the world in 1-liter plastic jugs labelled Italian extra-virgin olive oil. “Product of Italy” and “Bottled in Italy” do not mean “Grown, Harvested, and Pressed in Italy”, just as “Extra-virgin Olive Oil” does not necessarily mean extra-virgin. In fact, a report published in 2011 by the UC Davis Olive Center found that upwards of 90% of the “extra-virgin olive oil” sold in large US grocery stores fail to meet the IOC standards when tested.
The EVOOs that are blended with other low-grade oils have an inferior taste and little to no health benefits. Yet, the very reasons we seek out extra-virgin olive oil are its exquisite taste and well-documented health benefits. We want and deserve those qualities!
With all the fraud and the lack of strict US labelling regulations, how can you be sure you’re getting the real deal?
And what about all those other olive oils on the grocery shelves? Virgin? Light? Pure? What’s their story? Well, virgin olive oil is just olive oil that didn’t make the cut for extra-virgin due to a higher acidity. It’s fine to cook with, but it doesn’t have the same complex taste or high health benefits. It’s also hard to find in the States, because it doesn’t quite have the marketing ring of the well-known extra-virgin, or better yet...Light! Pure! Extra Light! These last three are all, in fact, US marketing terms and have no equivalents in olive-oil producing countries. If you’re not convinced that most grocery store “extra-virgin” olive oils are adulterated with other oils, rest well assured that “light” and “pure” olive oils are very much adulterated and on purpose. Just look at the labels: they have no fewer calories than any other olive oil and their ingredients often plainly state the addition of “refined oils”. They are light merely in color, taste, and nutrition due to blending with inferior oils.
While some catchphrases can’t always be trusted, one phrase that is good to look for are the words “estate bottled”. Estate-bottled olive oils are the cream of the crop and represent the world’s best and truest EVOOs. To be from a particular estate means that 95% of the olive oil is from the estate’s grove, and it was most likely bottled there under a watchful eye of that estate and hermetically sealed prior to shipment to ensure freshness.
In addition to looking for estate oils, there are two other things you should always know about your EVOO: the harvest date of the olive oil and the acidity level. To enjoy the freshest flavor and greatest health benefits, extra-virgin olive oil should be consumed within two years of its harvest date and within 6 months of opening the bottle. To be designated extra-virgin, an olive oil’s lab results must report an acidity of no more than 0.8%, but the EVOOs that win international awards and are known for their high quality typically have an acidity level of 0.2% or below. Quality purveyors know when their olive oils were produced and what their lab results were. If a purveyor does not know these, you should purchase elsewhere.
Also, learn the taste and mouth-feel of fresh extra-virgin olive oil by performing your own sensory analysis. Your palate is your best judge. Try tasting an olive oil from a big-box store (that doesn’t have an olive oil buyer) alongside an olive oil that you know has been freshly pressed and meets the criteria for extra-virgin; there is no comparison.
At The Cookery we carry a carefully curated selection of award-winning estate extra-virgin olive oils along with infused extra-virgin olive oils created on a family-run estate in southern Greece. We are delighted to work directly with many of our producers and to know the harvest dates of their products and have the lab reports affirming their authenticity. Olive oil -- the true, first-press fruit juice with low acidity and high polyphenols that create a complex, nuanced, aromatic spectrum of flavors -- embodies our mission in the culinary world. With its authentic, small-batch, hand-crafted nature, it is a product that symbolizes our store much like it defines Alain Ducasse’s cuisine. A true, healthy product for true, healthy living.
Stop by any of The Cookery’s locations to sample true extra virgin olive oil - some of the best available in the region. Once you’ve tasted real extra-virgin, chances are you’ll discover what so many of our customers’ have and will never return to grocery store bought olive oil again!