Olive oil is perhaps one of the most delightful food staples on the planet.
But unfortunately, it’s also one of the most commonly counterfeited foods.
As Larry Olmsted, author of the book “Real Food/Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating and What You Can Do about It,” told Business Insider, this is a real problem because people buy olive oil both for its amazing flavor and health benefits.
So if you’re not getting the real thing, you’re missing out — big time.
There are all kinds of ways that people either pass off lower quality (or even rotten) oils for true extra-virgin olive oil.
In the book, Olmsted writes that it has become less common recently to cut olive oil with sunflower oil or some other form of oil, though this still happens. As he explains, every time the FDA has looked for adulterated oil, they’ve found it.
That’s not the only type of consumer fraud, though.
Often, extra-virgin olive oil might be diluted with low-quality and chemically refined oil. Or, as he explains, some producers will use “older — and often rancid — stocks of oil held over from bumper crops of previous seasons” that might pass inspection on the day they are bottled but will certainly be rotten by the time they reach consumers.
As FiveThirtyEight has pointed out, many people in the US are so accustomed to rancid olive oil that they like that flavor, which is less bitter than fresh, higher-quality olive oil. But those rancid or low quality oils may not have the same health benefits as quality olive oils. Plus, if you’re paying for extra-virgin olive oil, you should get a product that’s up to standards.
How to find the good stuff
If you’re looking for the true high-quality product, here’s what Olmsted recommends.
- Know that certain words are meaningless. Words like “light,” “natural,” or “pure” are all unregulated terms and don’t carry any meaning. In the US, terms like “first pressed,” “cold pressed,” and “first cold pressed” are also unregulated and therefore meaningless — those terms date back to old ways of making oil that are rarely used now.
- Only buy “extra virgin” olive oil. Even if much of that is faked, know that things just labeled “olive oil” or “pure olive oil” are even more likely to be poor quality.
- In the book, Olmsted recommends certain producers, including McEvoy Ranch from California; Cobram Estate from Australia; or Oro Bailen from Spain.
- Certain retailers also stock high-quality oils, including T.J. Robinson’s Fresh Pressed Olive Oil Club (available online); Zingerman’s, in Ann Arbor, Michigan (available online); Oliviers & Co. (available online); or recommendations on extravirginity.com.
- Certain certifications are excellent signs of quality. For California oils, you can look for “COOC Certified Extra Virgin.” The “EVA” label from the Extra Virgin Alliance is a global certification. Italian olive-grower association UNAPROL has a “100% Quality Italiana” certification that’s another great sign.
- If you can find a harvest date on a bottle, that’s great — you don’t want anything older than one year.
- Fresh is key. You don’t want to expose the oil to light, which will degrade it, and it starts to go bad as soon as you open it. For that reason, Olmsted recommends small cans or bottles that you use quickly.
As Olmsted previously told Business Insider, it’s worth seeking out the real thing.
“It’s the real foods that are really important,” he said. “They’re being knocked off because they’re good.”