The Inconvenient Truth about Extra Virgin Olive Oil - Part I

by Eliza Ward

Extra Virgin Olive Oil - Yellow-Green Gold!

Olive Oil Fraud and the Perils of Not Knowing What’s in That Bottle..

In January, 2016, 60-Minutes (CBS) aired an exposé called “Agromafia" about the sordid underbelly of the Italian olive oil industry. Their objective was to educate a broader audience on the mafia’s involvement in the European olive oil business and the extent of the fake olive oil problem – especially here in the US, but also in Spain and Italy.

Since then, I’m asked daily about olive oil, including during our weekly Seattle in-store cooking classes - and in our retail store and on the phone – and, frankly, I’m glad for it. Olive oil is a big topic and one I’m particularly passionate about; I have invested many hours to researching and relationship-building with the producers of the estate extra virgin olive oils I represent – because I care about the integrity and quality of what I sell. But the question still remains: With all the fraud in the olive oil industry, how do you ensure that what’s in a bottle marked “Extra Virgin Olive Oil”, is actually extra virgin, or even olive oil?

The short answer is, it’s not easy!

Real extra virgin olive oil is very dear and fraudsters are very clever and your average retailer has little information on what they’re actually buying and selling. Many times, retailers have limited choice but to trust their suppliers, especially when they're buying in large volume. Add to that the fact that most Americans don’t know much about olive oil and that few have ever tasted the real deal leaving both the purchasers none the wiser. Now you have a perfect storm!

Unfortunately, not only is the US awash in low-quality, inexpensive olive oil, but fraud in the olive oil industry worldwide is rampant – and nothing new; cheating in the olive oil business has been happening for hundreds of years. That’s why the Romans instituted an elaborate system of checks and balances, aimed at ensuring what they purchased and consumed was actually what the merchant said it was – olive oil. In fact, unbeknownst to most Americans, fraud is a big issue with many traditional and imported food products – including honey, wine, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and traditional balsamico (or balsamic vinegar), just to name a few. As a general rule, the bigger the market and the more expensive the food product, the more likely there is to be fraud. In 2010, Italy produced over 600,000 metric tons, or about $1.2B worth, of olive oil (Czech Agriculture Journal, 2013) - so no one should be surprised that there are issues. Ironically, while the Italians produce about 600,000 tons of olive oil every year, they consume about 700,000 tons a year, and they prefer to consume their own olive oil. Do the math - someone is not getting what they think they are getting, because it just doesn't add up...

History of EVOO in America
We’ve all heard about the Mediterranean Diet. First studied in the 1950's by Ancel Keys, and published in the 1960's and 1970’s, the Diet finally caught fire in the US in the 1990's. The original research on the Mediterranean Diet was conducted primarily in Crete, Greece, Italy and Spain. The main conclusion (or at least the conclusion that everyone, including my mother, remembers well) was that saturated fats are bad (hello Margarine, goodbye butter!), and that the superior health (lack of coronary heart disease) and longevity of the Cretans and others was largely due to their copious consumption of olive oil – heavy in a mono-unsaturated fat popularly called Omega-9 Fatty Acids. What the researchers failed to mention (or probably failed to understand, at the time) was that it was actually the copious consumption of *high-quality*, *fresh*, and *locally produced* olive oil that made most of the difference in health benefits of olive oil – something we American’s got (and still get) little of.

Ironically, in 2011, researchers at UC Davis conducted a study to better understand what olive oil flavors Americans prefer. They found something astounding and saddening - most Northern California consumers disliked the bitter and pungent flavors of true extra virgin olive oils — flavor qualities favored by expert olive oil tasters — and actually prefer olive oil that displayed defective attributes, such as rancidity, prevalent in non-extra virgin olive oil. (UC Davis, 2013) That’s because musty-ness and racidity are the olive oil flavors we grew up with, thanks to the introduction of the Mediterranean Diet in the 1960's and 70's, and are therefore the flavors we have become accustom to in olive oil. Yuck!

But it’s time to change all that! If there's one thing I appreciate about Rachel Ray it’s that she has successfully increased awareness among millions of American consumers about this thing called “EVOO” or Extra Virgin Olive Oil. That’s a good thing – and a big step in the right direction. Before Rachel, most of us were just blindly buying “olive oil” with no awareness that there were even differences in quality. Now, everyone at least has an idea that there is more to this food called “olive oil” than meets the eye. The next step is to take the time to truly understand what that term "Extra Virgin" actually means and why it matters.

The Joys and Health Benefits of Flavor in Olive Oil
One of the main reasons we buy and use extra virgin olive oil is because of its well-documented health benefits, such as its heart-healthy anti-inflammatory properties. Where much of those benefits were once thought to be contained in the type of lipid prevenient in quality olive oils, a mono-unsaturated fat called Oleic Acid or Omega-9 fatty acids, food scientists are now learning that most of the health benefits (decrease in bad cholesterol, increase in good cholesterol, decrease in blood pressure, decrease in inflammation) of olive oil actually come from compounds in the oil called polyphenols, or phytonutrients. But the rubs is, these compounds are only present in significant amounts in fresh, high quality, EXTRA VIRGIN olive oil. (UC Davis, 2013)

Lucky for us, these same polyphenols are prevalent in other ("super") foods we love to consume as well - such as red wine (and red wine vinegar), green tea, chocolate and many fresh fruits and vegetables. These healthy compounds - along with hydrocarbons, vitamins and minerals, and other delicate compounds - are why we are now told that, besides eating copious amounts of olive oil, we should consume our glass of red wine with dinner, switch to drinking green tea instead of black, eat our colorful vegetables with every meal, and savor our day with a one-ounce piece of extra dark chocolate before we go to bed. It’s the polyphenol compounds that are largely responsible for the health benefits and therapeutic properties of olive oil, as well as the strong, fresh, peppery, pithy, sweet and bitter flavors; without polyphenols, olive oil is just another fat - a rather healthy mono-unsaturated fat, but just a fat none-the-less.

So, if you are consuming bland, heavy or musty-flavored olive oil, I’m afraid you are out of luck; like many of the foods we eat, the more of the right (as opposed to the wrong) flavors present, the higher the nutritional value and health benefits. What we are learning now, and what the study in the 1950’s did not take into consideration, is that the lucky inhabitants of Crete and the other Mediterranean countries had plentiful access to inexpensive, locally-produced, and very fresh extra virgin olive oil – that was probably why they were so healthy - plus they consumed lots of fresh fish and fresh vegetables, were naturally active throughout their life, and did not consume packaged foods that are so prevelent in America - all considered important components of the Mediterranean Diet.

What of “Extra Virgin” Olive Oil Anyway?

The term “Extra Virgin” in olive oils is defined as first-pressed, cold-pressed olive juice that:
  1. Is not oxidized (become rancid) due to elevated temperatures (heat), too much exposure to light or oxygen, or age (is old). [Note: If you put your cold-pressed, extra virgin olive oil in a hot pan, it’s technically no longer "Extra Virgin" - not good!]
  2. Is not adulterated with cheaper, more refined or older olive oils, or mixed with other nut or seed oils [Most typically Canola or Rapeseed Oil.]
  3. Is not poor quality or made from olives that are damaged or over-ripe, not “pressed” within 24 hours of picking, exposed to other processing flaws (like poorly controlled extraction processes or chemical extraction methods – also known as lampante or “industrial olive oil” or second-pressed olive oil), or improperly stored in a way that the oil is exposed to excess oxygen.
Extra Virgin - It's Not What You Think
What’s important to know, and not so surprising to hear, is that most commercially available olive oils found in the US are very low in polyphenols, and therefore are not considered “Extra Virgin”, and do NOT contain the healthy properties or flavors we desire and look for. In the same study in 2013 (UC Davis, 2013), researchers tested many of the more popular imported brands labeled as “Extra Virgin Olive Oils”. Their objective was to understand how common the problem of miss-labeling imported olive oils was. What they discovered is that most (69% of the brands tested) of the imported olive oils did not imbibe the minimum quality characteristic required to be called “Extra Virgin”. Additionally, because the brands they tested were mostly from the “big guys” in the US retail supply chain (think Bertoli, Lampini, and others) who sell in higher volumes, both through retail channel and to restaurants and food service, volume-wise that figure is actually much higher than 69% - perhaps as high as 75-80%, if not more - according to Tom Mueller, author and olive oil expert. In fact, as we know from watching 60-Minutes and reading Tom Mueller’s book, Extra Virginity (Norton, 2012), much of the oil is probably not even olive oil, let alone extra virgin. So, not only do most olive oils labeled as “Extra Virgin” not contain the polyphenols we desire, but most do not even contain significant amounts of healthy Omega-9 fatty acids prevelent in olive oil, either - because they are not even from olives. Hummmm…

So, if you want the flavor and health benefits of a true extra virgin olive oil, look for the term on the label, but understand that just because the label says it’s “Extra Virgin”, does not mean it is “Extra Virgin” – because the term is not well regulated or monitored here in the US. And remember, when it comes to flavor and health benefits, both the type and the quality of olive oil you consume makes all the difference; when it comes to extra virgin olive oil, it’s definitely “buyer-beware!” If you care about the flavor and health qualities in your olive oil, then it’s important to know what to look for before you spend good money on a bottle. Truth is, fraud in the food business does not stop at olive oil. The same education and care holds true for most of the items we have in our home pantries.

Bummer about that Bottle of EVOO
And, what of that bottle of once-delicious olive oil that you brought back from your trip to Italy a few years ago and squirreled away in your kitchen cabinet, saving it for that special occasion? Well, you may as well pass it to your local bio-diesel distributor – because that’s probably all it’s good for now. (For drop-off locations for old and used cooking oils in the Seattle area, click here.) If it’s not fresh and if it has not been properly stored, then you’re not getting the health benefits you are hoping for – or the flavor. Quite the opposite, actually – old, oxidized oil of any kind is very bad for your health! Best to invest in a new bottle of fresh estate olive oil, and don't save it - just drink it! The quicker the better.

The more we learn and understand about the ingredients we cook with, the healthier and happier eaters we will be, period! For more information on fraud in the olive oil business, I suggest you read Tom Mueller’s book, Extra Virginity (Norton, 2012) Although I was well aware of olive oil fraud and have been since founding in 1999, I found Tom’s book very reassuring and timely – and an important step in starting a broader national and international conversation about the issue of quality (or lack of quality) in the olive oil market. The more educated we are about what’s in our pantry and refrigerator, the more control we have over what we put in our bodies. Plus, it’s well-written and a quick, entertaining read - at least to me!

For more information on the health benefits and what to look for when selecting a quality extra virgin olive oil and why it makes a difference, please read
Search for the Health Benefits of Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

(c), 2021