How to Select, Maintain and Get the Most Out of Your Extra Virgin Olive Oil - Article

by Eliza Ward

It’s hard to know if the olive oil you’re buying is high-quality, fresh and extra virgin – and high in polyphenols. In most stores, if you even find olive oil bottles with harvest dates on them, they are often at least two years after harvest – which is too old. But even if the bottle has a harvest date listed and it’s not obviously old, how do you know whether or not the oil has been handled properly, or what polyphenol count the oil has now or had to begin with?

How to find, keep, and use a high polyphenol olive oil

The short answer is – you don’t. Unless the manufacturer has information on the bottle about the phenol count contained therein, there is no way to really tell what you’re getting – and even if there is information, how do you know it’s true? Or still true? Fortunately, we have a few suggestions on how to choose extra virgin olive oil.

Although there is really no way to know, there are things you can do that can help ensure you buy and store the healthiest and best-tasting olive oil possible:

1. Buy your olive oil from a specialty food purveyor that knows what they’re doing, and who’s familiar with the olive farm from which the olives were harvested and the oil processed. The closer the connection to the farm the shorter the supply chain, the more likely that the oil inside the bottle at least started out as high phenol extra virgin. That’s why I only buy estate bottled extra virgin olive oils. If you can’t have a conversation with the retail about the provenance of the oil, don’t risk it.

2. Make sure your retailer is on top of their inventory, that the inventory is fresh (within the last 18 months), and that they mind key pieces of data – like harvest dates. If you can’t tell the age of the oil from information printed on the bottle, and the retailer can’t tell you approximately how long it has been on their shelf, don’t buy it. And if buying online, make sure the harvest year is noted in the product description; the shift from one harvest year to the next happens between January and about April or May — depending on the year and depending on the producer. If it’s May already, and you don’t see indication of the most current harvest (usually the fall of the prior year), then call and ask. [We here at make great effort to stay on top of our harvest dates, but from time to time we fail to update the website with the most current harvest date information — after all, we’re only human!]

3. Taste the olive oil before you buy it. In general, the stronger the flavor of an olive oil, the more active polyphenols it still has. But just as important, you want to make sure you like it before you take it home. On average, there are over 100 polyphenols in extra virgin olive oil, many of which contribute to its flavor. Everyone has different flavor preferences and you are not going to like every olive oil out there. Bottom line: if you don’t like the flavor of the oil, buy a different one. It doesn’t mean that it’s bad olive oil, it just means you don’t like it, and there’s nothing worse than spending good money on a quality extra virgin olive oil to then find out that you don’t like it. If you are in Seattle, stop by our retail shop at 1425 Elliot Avenue West in Seattle any time, and taste — it’s the best way to tell!

4. Look for an olive oil that is bottled in opaque containers or inside a light-protective box, and keep it that way. The more well-protected the oil is from light, the longer the life of the oil and its polyphenols.

(The one exception to this rule might be a Novello (or Nuovo) - Novellos are picked, pressed, bottle and shipped to the US before they have had any time to be naturally filtered.  And sometimes producers use clear bottles for their Novellos - mostly to help distiguish them from their regular bottlings. But Novellos also are meant to be consumed quickly - usually within 6 months of bottling. That's because the extra "organic matter" (usually bits of olive that are floating around in the bottom of the bottle) that is not naturally filtered out contains a lot of water - and water contains oxygen - and oxygen means the oil is more succeptable to oxydation. Novellos are especially tasty - and therefore especially good for you - but you need to consumer them quickly.)

5. Keep your olive oil out of harm’s way and consume it quickly once you open it. Keep it in a closed container and store it in a cool, dark cabinet at home, and use it up quickly. Besides the natural decline in polyphenols over time, exposure to oxygen is also harmful to the integrity of the fatty acids present in olive oil. Exposure to oxygen turns otherwise healthy lipids and fatty acids into trans-fats and free radicals – not good! Some people keep their good olive oil in their refrigerators, but I don’t recommend it – unless you travel a lot and are rarely home. Good extra virgin olive oils are high in a mono-unsaturated fat called Oleic Acid (Omega 9s). Oleic Acid will turn solid in the fridge, and solid olive oil is hard to use. Also, as the oil slowly gets colder, the omega-9 and omega-6 and omega-3 lipids soldify at different rates - which means, once you warm the oil back up to room temperature, you'll need to also figure out how to re-combine those lipids evenly to get the best mouth feel and flavor. On some occations, I've had to put my bottle in a warm-water bath to get the omega-9s off the sides of the bottle. Better to buy small bottles more frequently, and avoid those mega 5-liter tins, and then consume your good olive oils quickly. Besides, then you can try different oils from different producers that have different flavors – which is much more fun!

6. Use olive oil for low-heat and raw applications only. Heat not only forces oxidation of the fatty-acids, but alters the polyphenols and profoundly changes the flavor of your olive oil – and not for the better. Think about it … There’s a reason why extra virgin olive oil is cold pressed, and there’s a reason why so much care goes into every bottle of true, quality olive oil. We recommend using your Rice Bran Oil (RBO) for cooking and high-heat applications, including baking, and save your extra virgin for finishing and dressing. A win/win as now that you’re not cooking with olive oil, you can indulge on drinking some of the good stuff!

7. THE LAST WORD ON EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OILS: Expect to spend at least $20 on a 500ml bottle if you want the real deal – and you DO want the real deal! Good quality, fresh extra virgin olive oil cost money. Period! It’s what I call, “the inconvenient truth about extra virgin olive oil.” If you’re like most people, you buy olive oil for one of two reasons: either you’re seeking the health benefits of the Omega-9 fatty acids and abundant polyphenols that quality extra virgin olive oils contain, or you desire that wonderfully robust and spicy or fruity olive oil flavor. (Of course, some buy olive oil because that’s what the recipe calls for, or because a certain celebrity TV cook is using it for *everything* on her show  – but that’s a topic for another article….) But the reality is, if what’s in the bottle you’re buying is not what the label says it is, you’re getting neither. So, instead of hoping or assuming that that $5 bottle of EVOO is actually EVOO, spend the money required to get the real thing, and then cook with something else – you’ll be happy you did.

For a complete selection of estate-bottled, extra virgin olive oils, click here.

For a discussion on fraud in the olive oil market, please read “The Inconvenient Truth about Extra Virgin Olive Oil”.

For information about the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil and how to ensure the bottle you select has abundant polyphenols, please read “Searching for the Health Benefits of Extra Virgin Olive Oil

(c), 2021