Have you ever stood in the grocery store staring at all the different olive oils and wondered which is the best olive oil? Or perhaps you simply chose the cheapest guessing that they were all the same…olive oil is olive oil, right? Maybe you simply picked up the bottle labeled “organic” because that’s always best, right?
It turns out finding the best olive oil is tricky. The main problem is, extra virgin olive oil has been known to be one of those foods often involved in food fraud. Meaning, it doesn’t matter how closely you look at the ingredient list, because what is on the label may not be what’s in the bottle.
Yep, that’s true. Sometimes, and especially in some countries, cheaper oils are mixed in with olive oil, diluting it and making the oil more profitable to sell. Therefore, we have to be informed consumers in order to make sure we are actually getting olive oil.
Don’t worry! I share 5 DEPENDABLE olive oil brands at the bottom of this post!
First, let’s knock the basics out of the way. There are a few different grades of olive oil.
Olive Oil Grades
In 2010, the USDA developed standards for different grades of olive oil, which were initiated by the California Olive Oil Council.
Basically, olive oils can vary greatly in processing. Olive oil is graded by the level of acidity (in the form of free oleic acid.) There are two basic categories of olive oil: natural (also called unrefined) and refined, and they vary in both taste and nutritional content.
Natural Olive Oil
Natural olive oil includes both extra virgin olive oil and virgin olive oil.
You’ve likely heard of Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) as it’s the highest grade of olive oil. It has the lowest acidity, is free of defects, and it is high in antioxidants and biophenols. Virgin olive oil still contains a moderate amount of antioxidants, but is slightly more acidic than EVOO. No additives of any kind are permitted in virgin olive oils.
Simply put, virgin olive oil is made by crushing olives.
Refined Olive Oils
Refined olive oil is obtained by refining virgin olive oils using heat or chemicals. They are flavorless and contain less antioxidants than the natural olive oils such as EVOO.
Olive Oil (with no specification as to reined or extra virgin) is a mixture of refined and extra virgin olive oil. In order to ensure we reap the nutritional benefits we associate with olive oil, it is best practice to first avoid refined olive oils, opting instead for extra virgin olive oil.
However, because olive oil fraud is an issue, simply avoiding refined olive oil and opting for extra virgin olive oil alone is not be enough to ensure you are buying the best olive oil.
Olive Oil Fraud: Finding the Best Olive Oil
In 2010, UC Davis did a study which exposed that many imported extra virgin olive oils do not meet USDA or International Olive Oil Standards. This means, if you buy certain brands of imported olive oil, you may not be getting the good quality extra virgin olive oil you think. In fact, in some cases it may actually be diluted with a different kind of oil altogether.
The Flaws of Many Extra Virgin Olive Oils:
- Oxidation due to exposure to high temperatures, aging, or light exposure.
- Diluted with cheaper refined olive oil (AKA olive oil fraud)
- Poor quality oil due to the processing, improper storage, or using poor quality olives.
How many Olive Oils did not actually meet the standard?
69% of imported olive oil samples and 10% of California Olive Oil samples did not meet the sensory standard. Some of the oils were rancid, musty, or had other defects, which can be signs of oxidation, poor quality, or diluted with a cheaper refined oil.
In summary, over 2/3 of the olive oil did not meet industry standards! And, while most diluted oils were diluted with a refined olive oil (still bad enough considering the benefits of olive oil is in the good, pure stuff), some were actually diluted with a different kind of oil altogether!
What does this mean for consumers?
Simply put, buying extra virgin olive oil is not enough, because chances are you won’t be getting what you think. As consumers we should be aware of the situation. When looking for the best olive oil to purchase, these findings should play in to our decision.
Buying the Best Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Like any food purchasing decision, we have to take various studies and facts and simply make the best decision we can. Here are a few traits that the experts recommend to look for when purchasing your olive oil. Even if you can’t buy the best olive oil in the world, you can at least get the best olive oil in the grocery store!
1. Look for a Quality Seal
The BEST way to ensure we buy a good olive oil is to look for a seal that indicates high standards. Seals with high standards to look for include:
- California Olive Oil Council- COOC Certified Extra Virgin (here are olive oils that have the COOC Quality Seal)
- North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) – NAOOA certified oil stamp (check out Olive Oils that bear the NAOOA seal)
- Extra Virgin Alliance (EVA) – A new and developing seal, but standards are based on Australian Standard which are very high (find the olive oil brands that have the EVA seal)
- USDA Quality Monitoring Seal – Standards aren’t as high as some of the other seals, but does help to ensure some standards are met.
2. Look for a Harvest Date
US Davis Olive Center advises that instead of looking at the “best by” or expiration date we should look for a date that tells when the olives were harvested. Reputable companies are more likely to list this. Try to look for the most recent harvest available. (Note: I looked for this at my grocery store and very few bottles listed it. Also to note, a few that listed it were involved in olive oil recall for fraud a few years ago. I’ll personally stick with looking for a seal first and I’ll treat finding this harvest date like bonus points.)
3. Dark Colored Glass Bottle
Similar to the importance of the opaque milk jugs is the tinted glass bottle for olive oil. The dark colored glass bottle protects it from light that alters the oil and changes it’s taste. Another possibility would be a bottle made of clear glass, but with a large label that covers much of it or is placed in a box.
4. Domestic Olive Oil
A common question I hear is, “Which country produces the best olive oil in the world?” Initially, many of us may think: the best olive oil = Italy. However, we now know that many olive oils from Italy may be tampered with or be oxidized from travel/storage conditions.
Purchasing a domestic olive oil (generally California) will help to ensure it is fresher as it doesn’t have to travel as far, and some studies have shown domestic oil is less likely to be tampered with. But don’t forget, even some domestic olive oils are not meeting standards.
Best Olive Oil Storage Practices
Taking care to have the best olive oil doesn’t end when you get home. How you store your olive oil will help to protect the benefits as well. Here are a few tips for olive oil storage in your home:
Keep it away from bright light. Keeping your olive oil tucked away in a cabinet or pantry helps to keep it dark.
Keep it cool. Heat, whether sunlight or your oven can damage olive oil. So it’s best not to keep it directly beside the stove where it could get hot.
Use it. Don’t keep it forever. Olive oil, unlike a fine wine, does not get better with age.
The Best Olive Oil: Brands You Can Trust
Did you ever think the hunt for the best olive oil could be so complicated?
The main things to remember are to look for a seal of approval, and take care of your olive oil at home. There are plenty of olive oils even in your regular grocery stores that have them (and I have a list of them in my resource library below!) I’ve been buying California Olive Ranch olive oil for the past few years because I knew about the COOC seal, but now I know several other good options. (Hint on another brand, I think I’ll be updating my Real Food Finds at Aldi soon.)
Be sure to grab the list of commonly found olive oils that you won’t regret buying. To do this, sign up for our newsletter in the form below to gain access to our FREE resource library!