Olive oil can be a scam. Make sure you’re getting the good stuff

Make sure you’re getting the best.
Make sure you’re getting the best.
Image: Reuters/Antonio Bronic
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There is a particular feeling of panic and dismay that one experiences in front of shelves stocked with olive oil. Extra virgin, virgin, pure, cold-pressed, Italian, Greek, Californian—which is best? And what about all those reports of fake or adulterated olive oils, and corruption in the industry? It’s like showing up to class and realizing there was a quiz.

If these terms seem confusing and arbitrary, it’s because they often are. Even those in the industry agree: The CEO of the world’s largest olive oil company made this point to his competitors recently, arguing that something needs to change.

“Consumption is falling because consumers have a lack of confidence and they don’t trust anything,” Deoleo head Pierluigi Tosato said, according to the Olive Oil Times. “Olive oil is a broken business model. We need to change it.”

Beyond the packaging, the business of producing, importing, and exporting olive oil has long been rife with deception and fraud. Every few years another ring of olive oil fraudsters is uncovered—just last year Italian police busted a scheme to export impure, lower-grade olive oil and sell it as top-tier extra virgin olive oil in New Jersey, part of Italy’s nearly $17 billion business in illegal agriculture.

But there are safeguards in place: North American Olive Oil Association executive director Joseph R. Profaci told Quartz in an email that his organization sends an average of 200 different olive oil samples per year to independent testing labs, and has found that 98% is authentic olive oil.

How is olive oil made?

Olive oil scams are profitable because making it right is really hard. The olives should be ground and pressed as soon after harvesting as possible, and the process has to be gentle—because friction raises the temperature of the olive pulp, which is bad for the flavor. That’s the big deal about cold-pressed olives, which have to be kept below a temperature of 27°C (80.6°F) to earn the label.

Then the oil is separated from the pulp by soaking and pressing fiber discs or decanting it in a centrifuge. Once it’s been pressed, the oil is ready to be tasted for quality. Most olive for mass consumption is then filtered, meaning much of the sediment is stripped away to create a clear oil.

What do the words used to describe olive oil mean?

While extra virgin, virgin, and pure might all sound like similar (and good) things, they’re actually wildly different.

There are four main kinds of virgin olive oil, according to the International Olive Council standards. The difference is in their levels of free fatty acid, a compound that correlates to the condition of the olives when they’re crushed. Damaged, old, or overheated olives will be high in oleic acid, which makes a lower-grade oil.

Olive oil is also judged by a sensory taste test, where experts screen for defects like being “grubby,” which is what happens when the olives were crushed with the larvae of the olive fly inside. (This is more likely in rainy seasons, which is just one of the ways climate change is wreaking havoc on the industry.)

  • Extra-virgin olive oil has less than 0.8% free fatty acid and no tasting defects. The oil must be mechanically extracted, meaning the olives are physically crushed and strained, rather than using a chemical process.
  • Virgin olive oil has between 0.8%-2% free fatty acid and may have a defect.
  • Ordinary virgin olive oil has between 2% and 3.3% free acidity, and may have defects. Sometimes called “pure olive oil,” a marketing term that doesn’t actually mean anything scientifically.
  • Lampante virgin oil comes from the Italian for “lamp oil.” These oils have more than 3.3% free acidity and are not for consumption until they’ve been processed or refined.

How to taste olive oil

As with wine, whiskey, and coffee, there’s a set of best practices for tasting olive oil. Nicholas Coleman, the co-founder and oleologist of the boutique olive oil subscription service Grove and Vine, broke them down for Quartz:

  1. Put a small amount of oil in a small cup or shot glass. Put one hand under the cup and one hand over the top, and then swirl. The heat from your bottom hand will warm the oil, and the aromas will be trapped by your top hand.
  2. Smell the oil for the aromas.
  3. Raise the oil to your mouth and slurp sharply, with your mouth in the position to make an “ee” sound. This is called “strippagio.” This sucks the oil into your mouth in a spray, coating your taste buds.
  4. Sharply inhale with your mouth open, like you just stubbed your toe, to coat your entire mouth and back of the throat.
  5. Absorb the taste. Olives harvested earlier in the season give oil that’s more peppery and bitter, which are seen as good things. Harvesting later in the season results in a smoother, more buttery flavor. Oil can sometimes taste like fresh-cut grass, but shouldn’t taste like mud, hay, or plastic.

How to get the good stuff

  • Check the date of harvest or best-by date. Olive oil is only at its prime for one year.
  • The label should say the estate the olives came from, or even the olive varietal. (Ancient Roman producers did basically the same thing.)
  • Beware “Imported from” on the bottle—to cut costs, some olive oil companies import oil from Greece or other countries to Italy, refine it, and sell it as a “Imported from Italy” to bump up the price. (Profaci says that this practice has become less common after class action lawsuits.)
  • The bottle should be dark glass. The color of the oil has no bearing on taste, and clear glass permits photo-oxidation.
  • Oils are like wine; buy robust oils for seasoning heartier foods like red meat, and delicate oils for fish and raw preparations, like drizzling on hummus or cheese.
  • Expect to pay $15–20 for 750mL of quality olive oil for cooking and salad dressing, or $25–45 for 500mL for the best of the best. It’s the price of a bottle of wine for something that could last you many meals, olive oil expert Nicholas Coleman says.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the kind of olive oil being illegally imported to the US, the scope of the illegal importing ring, and the phrasing used by olive oil manufacturers to hide olives’ true point of origin.

This post is adapted from the Quartz Obsession newsletter, a daily digression into fascinating topics. Subscribe here!