How Can I Tell if My Oil is (or isn't) Extra
The U.S.D.A.'s standard for extra
virgin is voluntary, and nobody is following up to see whether or not a producer is complying with it.
Surveys are finding that at least two-out-of-three bottles of olive oil on the supermarket shelves really
aren't extra virgin. So how do you know if your extra virgin olive oil
really is extra virgin?
Here are three clues to look for:
Third-Party Certification—To be called
"extra virgin", a qualified third party must have found no taste or odor defects in the oil. Which third party
certified your oil as extra virgin?
Producer's Name—Extra virgin olive oil is a handcrafted product.
The label should tell you who crafted your oil. Not the name of the oil's
retailer, distributor, wholesaler, or retailer.
Price—Real extra virgin olive oil costs somewhere between $25 and $30 a pint.
Real olive oils from Europe—Italy, Spain, Greece, and France, for example—cost even more because they're price
is based on the Euro, which adds about a 30% premium today.
. . . What's It Really Mean?
Outside of the U.S., a lot. Unfortunately inside the U.S., not so much.
The U.S.D.A., which grades and inspects food, offers only voluntary standards for olive oil.
What should "extra virgin" mean?
Let's start with virgin olive oil. Like extra virgin, virgin
olive oil is oil obtained from olives without using heat or chemicals. The olives are pressed (technically crushed
today) by mechanical means at room temperature—"cold pressed" in essence.
However, unlike extra virgin olive oil, virgin olive oil has some taste
or odor defects according to an independent taste panel.
Another quality control item, the acidity level (which essentially measures how good or bad the olives
were before being pressed) will be below a certain percentage. In Europe, the percentage is 0.80 percent. In California, it's even lower, 0.50 percent.
How much olive oil in the world is really, truly extra virgin?
These requirements, the "cold" pressing, no taste or odor defects, low acidity, are
strict. As a result, it's estimated that worldwide, less than 10 percent
of all the olive oil produced each year qualifies as extra virgin.
Things Olive sells only extra virgin olive oil produced in California. We do so because an independent third party—the California Olive Oil Council—perfoms the
taste tasting and chemical analysis. Those oils that exceed the Council's standards, earn its annual seal. These
are the oils we sell.
Real Extra Virgin Olive Oil Made?
make their special olive oil, producers will generally pick the olives by hand so as not to bruise the skin
or pulp. The olives are then crushed and pressed within 24 hours. Any longer, and the olives—as
with any fruit—will begin to ripen or ferment, which will lower the quality of the oil.
At the mill, leaves or twigs are removed, the olives are rinsed in fresh, cold
water, and then pressed at room temperature—the fabled "first cold pressing". Using heat or chemicals
will produce more oil, but at the expense of the oil's flavor and nutrients.
Extra virgin olive oil is not filtered. Filtering extends the shelf life by removing the bits
of fruit that remain in the oil. But filtering also diminishes the flavor of the oil.
Instead, extra virgin olive oil is allowed to settle or 'rest' in air-tight stainless steel
tanks for a couple of months. This allows some of the fruit particles and remaining water to settle on the
bottom of the tanks. The oil is then drawn off the top of the tanks as needed throughout the year to ensure a fresh
supply of oil for bottling.
producers bottle a small portion of their new oil directly from the mill. This "olio nuovo"—new
oil—is available only in late in November and early December.
At The Olive Press in Sonoma, where malaxers slowly mix
the crushed olives prior to the centrifuge extracting the oil
- Tasting Notes -
Depending on the type of olive and the date of its pressing—mid-autumn to early winter—extra virgin
olive oil can taste delicate and buttery, fragrant and fruity, olive-y and peppery, or leafy green and grassy.
The Taste of Extra Virgin
olive, just like any other fruit, offers a distinctive flavor. Think green apples and red apples. Olive oil
producers can make their oil using a single variety of olive, or they can blend a variety of olives to create a
unique flavor. Although many try to replicate the oils being produced in Europe, many others will blend to produce very
The time of the year
that an olive is picked and pressed will also affect the flavor of the oil. Olives are picked in California beginning
in mid November and continuing through to late January. The olive typically starts green, and as it ripens, it
changes color, moving from green-yellow, to red, to purple, all the way to black. When pressed, green olives produce
a much more pungent and robust oil than black olives.
The ripest olives can be pressed to produce a mild and delicate olive oil that's often used as a
substitute for butter. You get the healthful attributes of olive oil, without a strong olive flavor. This type
of oil is ideal on toast or bagels, for scrambling eggs, or dressing fresh peas or potatoes.
The next notch up in the flavor category is the "fragrant and fruity"
olive oil. This oil is most often pressed from varieties that are almost, but not quite, fully ripe. This category is
a good choice to serve with green salads and steamed vegetables.
The next category, "olive-y and peppery", is generally produced from olives that are
still somewhat green This type of olive oil—often referred to as a Tuscan-style—goes great on a crusty
piece of bread, as a simple sauce for pasta, or grilled vegetables.
The last category is leafy green and grassy oil. This oil comes from olives, Spanish or Italian,
that are pressed earlier in November. They have a characteristicly strong olive flavor and peppery finish, which is
great for salmon, tuna, lamb, minestrone soup, or other robust dishes—the oil's flavor will come through!
Free Acidity Level
(Oleic Acid per 100 gms.)
California - 0.5% maximum; Europe - 0.8%
Refining removes most flavor/odor
How's the Other "Extra Virgin" Olive Oil Made?
Most often, the "extra virgin" olive oil you find
in the supermarket today is an industrially-produced product that has been heavily processed. The producers are after
two things—as much oil as they can possibly get from each olive, and a shelf stable product (who's ever tossed out a
bottle of olive oil from their cupboard?).
olives without using chemicals extracts less than 25 percent of the potential oil in an olive. By using petroleum solvents
such as hexane, however, the processor can get almost all the potential oil in an olive.
But . . . after producing the oil in this method, the processor
must then follow these steps:
Bleaching—Eliminates any pigments
left in the oil.
removes the free fatty acids and small quantities of fruit and proteins and other substances that contribute to extra virgin
olive oil's instability oil during high-temperature cooking. After degumming, an olive oil will have a higher "smoke point".
Deodorizing—Eliminates any remaining natural substances
that can cause an oil to go rancid, thus prolonging its shelf life.
Hydrogenation—Adding hydrogen prevents oxidation or aging of the oil, again,
extending shelf life.
alkaline substance (often caustic soda) is added to transform the oil's fatty acids into soap, which is then extracted from
the oil via centrifugation.
vitamin E is added to further prolong shelf life.
Finally, after this processing, what remains is an almost clear liquid with little flavor,
aroma, or healthful properties. To make the
oil look green, as well as to add some taste, some producers will add a bit of real extra virgin olive oil. Others will
often add chemicals and artificial flavors, such as chlorophyll and beta carotene.
Word about European Olive Oil
Be wary about European olive oil. All the European countries are members of the International Olive Council
(IOC), but it's up to the member nations to enforce the IOC's standard for extra virgin, and they do so by spot checking less
than one percent of the oil on store shelves.
The most authoritative sign to look for in buying olive
oil from European producers is the European Union's denominations of origin program. This is a strict labeling policy
that means a certain product comes from a specific geographical area, and was produced under a rigorous set of clearly defined
standards that have historically been used to produce the product. Think
Chianti or Champagne or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Depending on the
country, real extra virgin olive oil produced in Europe will carry its country's designations of origin. Some examples are:
France—Appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC)
Italy—Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP)
Spain—Denominación de Origen (DO)
Given the current premium of the Euro over the American dollar, authentic
extra virgin olive oils from Europe will also be much more expensive than the other "extra virgin" olive oils on
the shelf. The average price is between $30 and $40 a pint. But they will be the real deal.
to the wise, olive oil labels that say "Imported from Italy" usually mean that the olive oil was shipped to
an Italian port from a country with lower labor costs. It is then bottled by an Italian company. The tip-off is
that the label also will mention that the olives used in the pressing came from a variety of countries, such as Tunisia, Turkey,