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My 5 Rules for Buying Olive Oil

My 5 Rules for Buying Olive Oil

When I shop for olive oil, I spend a lot of time making a choice. Price is an issue. Extra virgin is a must. But I’m also interested in where the olive oil came from. Is it single origin oil? Or a mix from random sources? Are those sourcess listed? Is there a Best By date? Or a harvest date? Or neither?

Meanwhile as I’m picking up different bottles, and examining the labels for all that information, someone inevitably comes along, grabs the cheapest bottle off the shelf and moves on down the aisle. Am I investing too much mental energy into this? Nope.

Back in the pre-olive oil era — before the 21st century — olive oil was a niche product, something you would encounter while traveling to Southern Europe and the Mediterranean regions. Now it’s big business, because olive oil has a major Health Halo, thanks to the high monounsaturated fat content. Olive oil turns up in mayonnaise*, salad dressing and other foods. The amount in the food may be small, but the label loudly proclaims “Olive Oil!!” Marketing.

Olive Oil Grading Regulations

Most of the world’s olive oil comes from Europe, specifically the Mediterranean region. The European Union has established standards for labeling different types of oils, which were updated at the end of 2022. Protocols for quality testing and labeling are intended to give consumers accurate information for purchase decisions. The USDA also has established standards for different grades of olive oil.

The Big Picture for shoppers is this: olive oil labeled “Extra Virgin” has a certain acidity, a fruity flavor and is free of sensory defects. Oils labeled “Virgin”, “olive oil” or “refined olive oil” typically have more acidity and some flavor or odor defects; frequently these are blends of oils from different locations.

Here’s a catch: Extra Virgin oils aren’t necessarily single origin oil. They may be blends from different countries. How do you know? The label will give you a list of possible countries, as shown in the photo. Then you have to look under the Nutrition Facts label to find the initials of the actual source, in this case Greece. Sometimes the oil in a bottle came from more than one country.

Here’s a label on a bottle from California Olive Ranch that makes it abundantly clear where the oil came from. At least this label doesn’t make you search all over the back of the label, reading tiny print.

Single origin oils can be identified by the label, such as this one: “Certified Italian”. Another catch: unless the label indicates that the oil is from one grower, it may be all Italian, but a mix of Italian sourced oil from different growers.

3rd catch: a single origin oil doesn’t necessarily have better flavor than a blend. I recently saw a review of olive oils in Consumer Lab (subscription required). Several EVOOs were reviewed by an “expert tester” and found to be lacking in flavor and other sensory properties.

What’s a shopper to do?

We obviously can’t open the bottles and taste or smell the oils before purchasing. It’s a crap shoot to some extent. Here are my criteria:

  1. I do not buy on price alone, and never buy what’s cheap.
  2. Unless you have some reason for buying more refined oil, stick to Extra Virgin. This is the grade with the most health benefits thanks to the polyphenols present in the oil, which give the oil flavor and color. The catch is that this type of oil should not be used for high temperature sautéing.
  3. If the oil is a blend, I check for countries of origin. I prefer oil from Spain, Greece and Italy.
  4. Sometimes I splurge on boutique oils, from a single producer (typically Italian or Greek). These can be very pricey, but they can have lovely and unique flavors. I reserve these for salads, where the flavor of the oil makes a difference.
  5. I do not buy giant cans of oil. Oil will go rancid over time. I only buy what I can use up in a reasonable amount of time.

Worth the effort?

Olive oil is a healthful food. It’s uniquely high in monounsaturated fats and extra virgin is an excellent source of polyphenols. Quality olive oil has a lovely fruity flavor that complements other food, like vegetables in a salad. The good news is that you don’t need to use much at any one time. It may seem expensive compared to garden-variety vegetable oils, but the health properties are worth it.

*I recently tried some olive oil mayonnaise. The actual amount of olive oil was token, and it was some of the most unpleasant mayo I’ve ever tasted.

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