What Makes Olive Oil Extra Virgin and Can I Trust the Label?
Outside Sacramento, California, a mechanical harvesting machine moves slowly through the rows of a young olive grove, gently shaking olives off the branches of each tree. A truck is waiting to collect the olives and take them on a short drive to Cobram Estate’s processing facility, where they’ll be de-leafed, de-stemmed, and sorted by color on a series of conveyor belts. That’s before they’re crushed into a paste and the oil is extracted via centrifugal force.
Before day’s end, the bright green, peppery oil will be ready to taste. “That tree-to-table process can happen in six to eight hours,” says the company’s olive oil evangelist — also known as creative director and chef at large — Kevin O’Connor. “Our job is to, as quickly and as minimally invasively as possible, extract that pure juice from the olive.”
In the world of extra virgin olive oil, fresh and pure means high quality, which in turn means lots of flavor and incredible nutrient density. However, on a supermarket shelf filled with bottles claiming to be “olive oil” (and making all kinds of other confusing label claims), that kind of quality is hard to find. In fact, dubbing lower quality olive oils as extra virgin on labels is so common, the American Olive Oil Producers Association (AOOPA) recently submitted a petition to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requesting that the agency more effectively regulate the industry. “The majority of olive oil produced globally is not extra virgin olive oil,” says Nicholas Coleman, an oleologist and the co-founder of subscription service Grove and Vine
Olive oils produced in the United States are also vastly outnumbered by imports, primarily from Italy and Spain, making it harder to trace the origin. According to the American Olive Oil Producers Association, the US only produces about 5 percent of the olive oil consumed in the country each year, and some estimates are even lower.
So, if you want to make sure you’re picking true EVOO for maximum nutrients and minimal environmental impact, this is what you need to know.
What is Extra Virgin Olive Oil?
EVOO is essentially just the pure oil that has been directly extracted from olives. Different organizations and agencies have slightly varied standards in how they define it but all measure the percentage of free fatty acids present and include a sensory evaluation, in which tasters test for defects. Lower quality oils that do not meet the standards can be sold with other designations like virgin, refined, pomace, or light.
“It’s like [tasting for] a corked bottle of wine. It means that the fruit was damaged somewhere in the process and you can smell or taste that damage. There is a sensory defect in that oil that legally should disqualify it from extra-virgin status,” Coleman explains. “It’s not an opinion like ‘I’m not crazy about the flavor,’ it’s black and white.”
While most olive oil comes from Europe, especially Italy and Spain, Australia and the United States, thanks to California, have been increasing production over the past decade. According to the California Olive Oil Council, there were 41,000 acres in extra virgin olive oil production as of January 2019 and an estimated 15,000 new acres will be planted by 2020. Extreme weather fluctuations, which many link to climate change, disrupted the 2018 harvest and production fell dramatically, but production numbers are expected to have rebounded for 2019 (although weather events are likely to worsen as the climate crisis intensifies).
Just like with wine, Coleman said great (and terrible) extra virgin olive oils can be made in both Europe and California. What really matters in terms of quality is the process, starting with the right variety of olives being planted in the right microclimate. After that, trees need to be properly pruned. The harvest has to happen at the right time and the olives need to be processed quickly. The milling has to be done well and then the oil must be stored properly to prevent oxidation.
“People ask, ‘What’s the most important thing that affects the quality?” Coleman said. “The most important thing is everything.”
Olive Oil That’s Not Extra Virgin
Olive oil that is lower quality, on the other hand, often starts out with defects. Maybe the olives sat in a pile for a week before being pressed, for example, or they were harvested filled with maggots from olive flies (the specific defect that leads to is called “grubbiness,” really). Whatever the defect, when it starts off at a low quality, the oil is generally put through a five-step refining process, said Selina Wang, Ph.D., the research director at the Olive Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Food and Wine Science at the University of California, Davis.
It’s degummed, neutralized, bleached, winterized, and then deodorized. Chemical solvents may be used, and the last step often involves heating the oil to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. “So the goal is just to remove defects,” Dr. Wang said. “At the end of all of this, what you get is a flavorless, smell-less, and almost colorless product. Extra virgin olive oil is just fruit juice that comes from olives. If you buy refined olive oil, you are looking at a completely different product.”
What’s Missing From Olive Oil That’s Not Extra Virgin
That process matters not only because it’s not going to taste as good, but it also destroys many of the compounds that result in extra virgin olive oil’s unparalleled health benefits. Olive oil is filled with powerful antioxidants and healthy fats, nutrients that are associated with decreasing inflammation (which is at the root of many chronic diseases), improving heart and brain health, and other benefits. Refining, especially using high heat, eliminates the beneficial polyphenols (plant micronutrients) and may alter the structure of the fats, too. “The antioxidants are all gone,” Wang said.
The Problem With Mislabeling of Oil
So, you could just always choose EVOO if you’re looking for the health benefits. Except the fact that many of these lower quality oils are mislabeled, hence the call for more regulation. A 2011 study done by Wang and her colleagues found that when taking samples of the top five imported olive oils labeled “extra virgin” on California supermarket shelves, 73 percent failed to meet extra virgin standards. Samples of Pompeian, Filippo Berio, and Bertolli fared particularly poorly. Star and Colavita did a little better, but the majority of samples still failed both sensory panels. In 2015, the National Consumers League tested extra virgin olive oils on supermarket shelves in the Washington, DC area and found more than half of the samples didn’t meet the standards.
“People ask, ‘What's the most important thing that affects the quality? The most important thing is everything.”
How to Choose Olive Oil
To choose the best olive oil, you’ve got to learn to read the labels.
All of the experts said to look for dark-colored bottles or tins and for a harvest date (not an expiration date). It will have a two-year shelf life if it’s stored properly, but Coleman recommends sticking to bottles that are a year old or fresher. The more the bottle says about exactly where and when the olives were harvested and processed, the better. “You don’t just buy a bottle of wine that says red wine,” he said. “It has a year, it has the grapes, it has the region or the single estate.”
Cold-Pressed and First-Pressed
Labeling terms like “first-press” and “cold-pressed” don’t necessarily indicate higher quality, either. “Those terms are already embedded into the extra virgin standard, said Lorenzo Caponetti, who sells his small-batch Italian extra virgin olive oil to chefs like Dan Barber. “Any oil in the world, to be qualified as extra virgin, has to be straight from the olives. There isn’t any pressing before that…and [the process] has to be cold.” In other words, those things are already guaranteed by the EVOO label (assuming it is truthfully labeled) — in our modern times, extra virgin olive oil is pressed (or, really, centrifuged) once, and it’s never heated. If it was heated during processing, it would no longer qualify as EVOO.
Coleman said he didn’t necessarily trust the certifications out there, but others said seals like the International Olive Council or North American Olive Oil Association certification are fairly dependable, and the California Olive Oil Association’s standard is the strictest of the bunch. (The issue is that all of them, including the USDA program, are voluntary. So there’s no enforced regulation of the standard.)
Unfortunately, if it’s cheap, that also usually means it’s not what it says it is. “Good olive oil costs money, said Coleman. “It’s a fresh fruit juice, and it’s nutritious and versatile in the kitchen.”
Instead of scouring labels at the grocery store, you could also get to know a producer’s story and buy directly from a company you trust online. Specialty grocers and smaller shops also tend to carry bottles from smaller, reliable producers that fit all of these criteria more than big supermarket chains, which tend to stock mass-market brands that don’t really meet extra virgin standards.
Environmental Issues with Olive Oil
Should You Choose Organic?
The general consensus is that while it’s always a great stamp of approval in terms of production not involving chemical pesticides or fertilizers, many olive oils made using organic practices are not USDA certified. The good news is that olive trees are not generally highly susceptible pests so the industry is not known for intensive pesticide use. “It’s relatively easy to do it organically, said Caponetti. “However, there is one fruit fly that can do a lot of damage just before the harvest. And so there are a lot of people that do spray, especially in bad years, and unfortunately with climate change, bad years are coming more and more frequently.”
While Cobram Estate is not certified organic, O’Connor said they don’t spray the groves with insecticides unless there is a fly issue, at which point they apply kaolin, a mineral clay that protects the crop.
Other Environmental Concerns
In terms of water, olives require a little more H20 to grow than some other fruits, but if you compare the water impact of olive oil to butter, it’s barely a drop in the bucket.
And while the process of making EVOO does result in byproducts (namely, the crushed up fruit and pits, called pomace), many makers and companies making high-quality products are figuring out creative ways to use it. Pits can be separated out and burned for fuel, the rest of the pomace can be composted, used as organic fertilizer, and sometimes used in animal feed. Olive leaves can be used to make olive leaf extract. Olive wood from pruning the trees can be used for building. Coleman said many small producers employ many of these practices, and Cobram sells its pits to be turned into energy while using the remaining pomace in compost that’s applied to the groves as fertilizer. But it’s hard to know which companies prioritize minimizing waste; mass-market olive oil brands likely produce considerable waste in the form of byproducts. Dr. Wang said her research team is also working on studies that will look at finding “high-value usages of olive oil byproducts.”
The Benefits of Supporting Small Producers
Caponetti also said that with an ancient staple like olive oil, some of the environmental and community benefits of supporting smaller producers may be harder to see on a label.
His organic groves in Tuscany are home to a larger ecosystem, where cattle graze on the leaves of the trees after clippings. Italy is also home to more than 600 varieties of olives, and terraced groves were planted to hold the ground in place, to prevent hillsides from washing away.
“Everything is related, the ancient varieties grow in old groves that require old methods for harvesting,” leading to a much higher cost of production, he said. “We’re all competing on a global market. It’s important for consumers to know that with their dollars, they can sustain small farmers and contribute to saving traditions and biodiversity and all of these things the world needs right now.”