Olive oil consumption has exploded over the last 30 years. Since 1980, consumption has increased about 11-fold in the US and Canada. (1) Although good quality olive oil has genuine health benefits, the food industry’s massive marketing campaign has turned olive oil into a $1.5 billion industry, and just like so many other lucrative operations, greed and corruption have wormed their way in.
Imported oils now account for more than 95 percent of the olive oil consumed in the US. (2) But is there really such thing as fake olive oil? Reports indicate as much as 80 percent of so-called Italian olive oil is a fraud, cut with inferior seed oils and given a coloring agent, then deliberately mislabeled as virgin or extra virgin.
America has become the dumping ground for a spate of fraudulent food operations. There aren’t enough resources to control the more than 350,000 tons of olive oil imported to the US each year, so adulterated olive oil increasingly litters supermarket shelves. Large grocery chains turn a blind eye, continuing to buy it because it’s cheap and it sells. Consumers have become addicted to the low prices so there’s no incentive for grocers to stock the good stuff—and no consequences for selling a fraud.
Are any olive oils actually worth consuming? How does one find them? Or has the time come for us to scrap olive oil altogether? The short answer is, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. In this article, you will learn about the fraud and corruption that’s growing like a cancer in the olive oil industry and how to prevent yourself from becoming a victim.
Olive Oil Is Slippery Business
Smuggling, tampering, counterfeiting—these may sound like the makings of a good spy novel, but they also mark an all-too-real dark side of today’s olive oil industry. The UC Davis Olive Center estimates 70 percent of the extra virgin olive oil sold in markets is adulterated—cut with cheaper oils such as soybean and sunflower with perhaps a little chlorophyll dropped in for color. (3)
In a major 2014 report, UC Davis researchers found that 20 of 38 olive oil samples tested failed to meet USDA standards for fatty acid and sterol profiles. (4) Their prior report (2010) found samples of imported olive oil labeled “extra virgin” and sold in California did not meet international and US standards. (5, 6)
Crackdowns are happening in Europe as well. In 2015, police in Italy nabbed 7,000 tons of phony olive oil. According to CBS News, “The oil was from North Africa, deodorized with chemicals and rebranded as more expensive Italian extra virgin. The scam was cooked up by organized crime.” (7) The Italians refer to these food-defacing gangsters as Agromafia. The olive oil supply chain is so vast and so global that it’s easy for them to dilute EVOO with lower quality oils. They don’t cut them with anything terribly dangerous—if patrons were to get sick or die, it would eat into their numbers. They simply adulterate the oils just enough to slip through the cracks and turn a tidy profit.
Some Premium Oils Fail Miserably When Put to the Test
It’s bad enough that cheap olive oils are adulterated, but you could also pay a lot of money for a fake—trendy new premium olive oil “boutiques” have not escaped counterfeiting. In 2013, olive oil expert and founder of Truth in Olive oil, Tom Mueller, investigated whether or not the premium extra virgin olive oils sold in boutiques were all they claimed to be. (8) He purchased 14 EVOO samples in three Arizona cities and subjected them to a wide range of tests for quality and authenticity. This is what he found (to view chemical parameters, click here):
- Only three of the 14 were actually extra virgin olive oil
- One, although it met the US standards for EVOO, failed under the more rigorous Australian standards
- Three had sensory defects that downgraded their rating from “extra virgin” to “virgin”
- Five were lampante (Italian for “lamp oil”), which by USDA standards is intended for industrial purposes only and deemed “not fit for human consumption without further processing”
- Two contained canola oil and lampante; in one sample, 50 percent was canola
The purveyors of these oils either did not know the oils were fakes or intentionally made false or misleading statements about their products. Either way, they are legally liable. The real victims are you—the consumers—along with every legitimate olive oil producer, artisan, food market and boutique.
Olive Oil Is Extremely Prone to Oxidation
Olives are from the same fruit family as cherries and plums. Olives release their juices just like oranges and other fruits, so they essentially yield a fresh-pressed juice with a limited lifespan. Olive oil is best consumed within eight months of its picked and crushed date and is best stored in dark glass or stainless steel containers that limit exposure to heat, light, and air (oxygen).
The higher an olive oil’s antioxidant and phenol content, the slower it will oxidize. Remember, there are NO health benefits from consuming oxidized or rancid olive oil! The “best by” date will be two years from the time the bottle was filled—not when the olives were processed—so it’s not a reliable indicator of quality, as well as saying nothing about how the oil was processed, handled or stored.
And then there’s the labeling. Many of the words you will find on olive oil labels are simply marketing ploys to evoke feelings of old world romance and mystique, but they’re meaningless when it comes to quality. Terms you should actually look for are “virgin” and “extra-virgin,” as these denote olive oils produced without solvents, additives, or heat. Extra virgin is the highest rating in terms of taste, aroma and nutrition. The pungent, peppery finish that often brings about a “burning” sensation in your throat is the mark of a fresh, high-quality olive oil, high in polyphenols.
The term “cold pressed” is outdated, harkening back to the days when olive oil was made using hydraulic presses and there was a distinction between the first (cold) press and the second (hot) press. Today, the vast majority of extra virgin olive oil is made in centrifuges in a single, continuous process. The terms “pure,” “light,” or “lite” refer to highly refined oils—meaning stripped of polyphenols, color and flavor. (9, 10)
How can you be sure a bottle labeled “extra virgin olive oil” is really what it says? You really can’t because of all of the criminal shenanigans, and that is why it pays to grow your knowledge base, learn what real olive oil tastes like, and identify local growers you can trust.
Tips for Selecting the Finest Olive Oil
Olive oil can be part of a healthy diet if you choose the right kind and consume it in moderation. Westerners tend to consume far too many vegetable oils overall—and mostly unhealthy ones—but there are risks to overconsuming even “healthy oils, such as throwing off your omega-3 to omega-6 ratio. As vegetable oils go, olive oil’s fatty acid profile is superior to most. It has an omega-3 to omega-6 ratio of about 1:10—much better than cottonseed oil (1:54), sunflower oil (1:71), corn oil (1:57), and others. Our dietary intake should be closer to 1:1 or 1:2, which is why olive oil should be consumed in moderation.
Fresh olive oil contains vitamins E and K, plus antioxidants and polyphenols, which are associated with lower heart disease risk, decreased inflammation, and even resistance to infection. However, these nutrients are not exclusive to olive oil—they are available in a number of other whole foods, such as nuts and seeds and some vegetables. From a Paleo and whole foods perspective, we should be consuming more of the whole olives themselves.
Reserve your olive oil for drizzling because one of the fastest ways to destroy any health benefits is to overheat it. If you do cook with olive oil, make sure you don’t heat it to the smoking point.
With so much industry corruption and deceptive marketing, how do we make sure we’re getting the real deal? We can begin by shopping closer to home. Source olive oil from ethical, local growers who are making olive oil in small batches, disclosing harvest dates and ensuring the quality of their oils through independent testing. Doing it right costs money—you won’t be paying seven bucks a bottle for this liquid gold, but you’ll get what you pay for.
Below is a table summarizing key points to keep in mind when choosing an olive oil. If you know what to look for and the right questions to ask, you’ll dramatically reduce your chances of being duped by loathsome imposters. (11)
Color and Flavor:
Good oils come in all shades, from green to gold to pale straw. They should smell and taste fresh and fruity, with other descriptors including grassy, apple, green banana, herbaceous, bitter, or spicy. Avoid flavors you could describe as moldy, cooked, greasy, meaty, metallic, or cardboardy.
Labels and Grade:
Ensure your oil is labeled “virgin” or “extra-virgin,” since all other categories indicate chemical processing and therefore inferior quality. Ignore descriptors such as “cold press,” “first press,” “pure,” “light, “lite,” etc., which is basically meaningless.
Organizations such as the California Olive Oil Council and the Australian Olive Association require olive oil to meet stricter quality standards than the USDA. Other seals may not offer such assurance. Finding “USDA certified organic” is a bonus but not the only consideration. PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) seals may inspire some confidence but are not guarantees.
Freshness and Quality Testing:
Look for a harvest date, and purchase oils only form the most recent harvest season. Ignore “best buy” dates, which are unreliable. Consider a visit to a premium olive oil tasting bar where the oil is stored in a fusti and they don’t bottle it until you buy it. Ask for a taste. Are the oils quality tested? Do they have certificates?
Storage After Purchase:
Keep your olive oil in a cool, dark place, and replace the cap or cork immediately after each pour. If buying pre-bottled oil, favor bottles that protect against light—dark glass, stainless steel, or even clear glass enclosed in cardboard are suitable options. Ideally, buy only what you can consume in six months or less. Store away from heat.
In order to slow down oxidation, you can add one drop of vitamin E, lutein or astaxanthin to your olive oil. Lutein and astaxanthin are orange in color, so as your oil starts to pale, you know it’s time to discard. This trick was recommended by Dr. Rudi Moerck, an expert on fats and oils. Vitamin E oil works as a preservative but it’s colorless, so it lacks the advantage of giving you a visual indicator of freshness. (12, 13)