As a cardiologist and nutritionist who grew up in an Italian household, I make no secret of my love for extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). It’s as close to the perfect “superfood” as you can get, with its antioxidant phenol content and heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. This is why, for years, it’s been the cornerstone of my Pan Asian Modified Mediterranean (PAMM) diet.
But in the past decade or so, olive oil hit a bit of a rough patch with consumers here in the US. It started in 2010 with a couple of reports released from the University of California, Davis.
In the first report report, titled “Tests Indicate that Important “Extra Virgin” Olive Oil Often Fails International and USDA Standards,” researchers tested 52 extra virgin olive oil samples from 14 different brands. They concluded that up to 69% of samples were not what they claimed to be. They either were rancid due to age or exposure to high temperatures or light; altered with cheaper oils like soybean or canola; or poor quality in general as a result of improper storage or the pressing of damaged or overripe olives.
In a follow-up report released in 2011, “Evaluation of Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Sold in California,” the researchers wrote that “the quality level of the largest imported brand names is inconsistent at best, and most of the top-selling olive oil brands we examined regularly failed to meet international standards for extra virgin olive oil.” This investigation analyzed fewer brands than the previous 2010 study, but more samples of each brand to get a more comprehensive analysis.
Between the two studies, the research team analyzed 186 EVOO samples, which they said offered, “a statistically significant picture of olive oil quality…” Among their findings, they noted that, of the top 5 best-selling imported EVOOs, 73% of samples failed sensory standards, 70% failed tests for diacylglycerol content (meaning subpar oils were mixed with the EVOO) and 50% failed pyropheophytin testing (which is an indicator of freshness). California-grown samples fared the best—though were far from perfect.
Of course once the media got a hold of this information, it led to a slew of headlines about “fake olive oil.” The New York Times, Forbes, and 60 Minutes were among the major media outlets to shed light (and fear) on this topic, which then spawned countless other newspaper and online articles.
This is a relative recent revelation in the US, but there’s little doubt that olive oil fraud has been going on for quite some time in Europe. According to a 2012 article published in the New Yorker, “By the late 1990s, olive oil—often cut with cheaper oils, such as hazelnut and sunflower seed—was the most adulterated agricultural product in the European Union.”
And there’s some evidence that such olive oil fraud dates all the way back to the 24th century BC!
Why I like California Olive Oil
I was probably more worried and distraught about this fake olive oil news than anyone. After all, I use extra virgin or cold pressed olive oil regularly and have been recommending it for decades for its impressive health benefits, most notably for the heart.
The good news, folks, is that it’s not all doom and gloom—and you shouldn’t give up on olive oil. Yes, there are some unsavory aspects to this industry, and you do need to be a vigilant consumer. But if you know what to look out for, there’s a great chance the olive oil you buy will not only be authentic, but extremely healthy for you.
For one, the government is doing its part to help counter the problem. The olive oil industry thus far has been largely unregulated, but in 2016, Congress called on the FDA to start testing imported olive oil (which accounts for up to 90% of what is sold here in the US).
On a more personal level, I began to conduct exhaustive searches for superior quality olive oil products. My quest led me not to Italy or Spain or some other European country—but to California.
In talking to local olive growers, I learned of the California Olive Oil Council (COOC), an organization that certifies extra virgin olive oils produced by the state’s 400 growers. COOC-certified olive oil has to meet stringent standards. For instance, the “extra virgin” designation can only be given to oil that is 100-percent cold-pressed olive oil which has undergone and passed a series of rigorous sensory and chemical tests for quality, complexity, and freshness. COOC certified olive oil is, simply put, world-class oil using olives that are sourced stateside under strict regulation.
How to Avoid Fake Olive Oil
After all my extensive research into fake olive oil and how to avoid getting duped, I want to share some important tips you should keep in mind when shopping for olive oil.
- Make sure the label says “extra virgin” or “cold-pressed” – Of course these phrases alone are no guarantee that the product is authentic, but without such terminology on the bottle, you’re most certainly going to end up with a low-quality product. Avoid anything labeled “light,” “pure,” or simply “virgin.” If shopping for flavored olive oils, looked for “cold-pressed” which indicates that the products were produced the same way as extra virgin, just with fruit, herbs or vegetables.
- Check where the olives were grown. The label should state the country, state, or province. Since I’ve visited California growers and seen for myself how they grow their olives and make their olive oil, I feel comfortable recommending olive oils from some small-batch producers in that state. With all the uncertainty and corruption surrounding imported oils, I’m no longer comfortable using them. Not only is there the fake olive oil issue, there’s also no way of knowing if and how long the product has been exposed to heat and light during the shipping process, or how old the oil actually is.
- Look for a certification seal from a third party. If you do buy imported extra virgin olive oil, one way to at least partly ensure that you’re getting a decent product is to look for the European Union Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) seal. However, I do believe buying American is the best way to ensure you’re getting the cold-pressed quality you expect in your olive oil. Well-made California extra virgin olive oils should have the “COOC Certified Extra Virgin” seal.
On a side note, with flavored olive oils from California, you won’t find COOC certification, as they contain ingredients other than olives. To make sure your flavored oil is real olive oil, go with small-batch producers who make “crushed” or “fused” cold-pressed flavored oils.
- Trust your senses. Your eyes, nose, and mouth are usually your first-line defense against fake olive oil. Inauthentic varieties will usually taste rancid, flavorless, or just plain gross, and they will have a pale/washed out color (think canola or vegetable oil…). Authentic, real olive oil will have a deep gold or pale green appearance, and it will taste and smell rich, earthy, and even have a bit of a bite or kick when you swallow it, depending on the type of olive. A high-quality EVOO can even make you cough when you sip it into your throat because of the polyphenol content. I was amazed by this when I taste-tested olive oils in California.
- Store properly. Buy cold-pressed olive oil that’s stored in a dark bottle or a metal container. At home, be sure to keep it in a dark cabinet or pantry so that it’s not exposed to light at all times. Also keep the oil away from heat sources like your stove.
The health benefits of authentic extra virgin olive oils really can’t be beat. That’s why I want to ensure you don’t fall prey to unscrupulous importers and manufacturers that are giving the entire olive oil industry such a bad rap. When it comes to extra virgin olive oil, shopping locally (or, at least American) is an excellent way to make sure you can reap the wonderful taste, aroma, and health benefits of this amazing superfood.
Here at Vervana, I’ve taken the guesswork out of shopping and offer only olive oils I know are real. My extra virgin olive oils from California are not only COOC-certified, but they are also certified organic. And my flavored olive oils are made on a family-owned and operated farm that I trust. All the olives and fruits, herbs and hot peppers used to authentically flavor the oils are grown without synthetic pesticides, and the resulting cold-pressed oil is made the “crushed” or “fused” way – a labor-intensive process, not one to utilize short cuts.
From my heart to yours,