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This Is How You Recognize A Really Good Quality Olive Oil

When you buy olive oil that says extra virgin (or extra virgin) on the label, you automatically think you’re getting the best olive oil possible. When the oil comes straight from Italy, you might assume that it’s also the healthiest of oils. But is that really true? You can find out here how you can recognize really good quality (but also bad quality) olive oils.

Three qualities of olive oil

Olive oil is divided into three grades. Firstly “Extra Virgin” (or in English “extra virgin olive oil”), secondly “Vergine” (or in English “virgin olive oil”), and thirdly so-called lampante oil (also called “olive oil”):

  • For extra virgin olive oil, the olives must be picked straight from the tree at the optimum stage of ripeness and processed within a few hours in a modern oil mill, where neither fermentation nor oxidation can occur during production. This oil must also meet special chemical and sensory requirements, for example, according to the law, it may only contain up to 0.8 percent free fatty acids (a value of less than 0.5 percent is better here – unfortunately, fatty acid values can now also be falsified. ) Only genuine extra virgin olive oil can be of health benefit to humans!
  • A virgin olive oil (i.e. without the “extras”) is obtained when the olives were not quite fresh or even damaged, or even when the oil was produced in an old-fashioned oil mill. Free fatty acids may be contained up to a content of 2 percent.
  • Lampante oil is basically a foul-smelling and unpleasant-tasting oil that comes from spoiled olives that have been picked up from the ground, already rotted, or fermented. This lowest category should actually not be sold for direct consumption at all. The law dictates that lampante oil can only reach supermarkets as plain “olive oil” after it has undergone a chemical refining process and has been blended with a small amount of extra virgin olive oil.

Consumer fraud is completely normal

When the trade journal for wine and olive oil Merum, in cooperation with Stern, ZDF, and the German Slow Food Magazine, had thirty-one olive oils (all allegedly extra virgin) from the German food trade examined in 2004, it turned out that only one had this designation really deserved.

Nine others should only have had “virgin” (i.e. not “extra virgin”) on the label and 21 oils that were sold to consumers as high-quality olive oils were nothing more than the inferior lampante oils. Consumer fraud in olive oil is really not uncommon, but completely normal.

Of a wondrous transformation

According to the label, ninety percent of the olive oils that fill the shelves in supermarkets are high-quality extra virgin olive oils. However, the olive oil that leaves the oil mills is mostly inedible so-called lampante oil, at best simple virgin olive oil. Only a tiny part of it is extra virgin olive oil.

So where does all that extra virgin olive oil come from if it’s not actually produced? And where does the inferior lampante oil go? Quite simply: On the way from the oil mill to the supermarkets, extra virgin olive oil is made from lampante oil. And not only that. Other oils such as soybean oil or hazelnut oil are also treated in special factories and – because of the aroma – mixed with a little virgin olive oil that they can be foisted on the unsuspecting consumer as extra virgin olive oil.

In 2005, for example, 100,000 tons of olive oil declared as extra virgin and destined for Germany with a value of 6 million euros were confiscated. It was rapeseed oil colored with carotene and chlorophyll typical of olive oil.

While the latter is an occasional occurrence, but not necessarily the order of the day, the sale of low-grade lampante oils labeled as extra virgin olive oils goes on every day, year after year, no matter how strict the laws may be. The oil counterfeiters are always one step ahead of the inspectors and legislators.

Mixed with inferior oils

Olive oil is often mixed with so-called partially hydrogenated oils. Hydrogenated oils are oils (usually soybean oil from Brazilian GM soybeans, sunflower oil, or rapeseed oil) that have been treated with hydrogen and certain chemicals under the action of heat and thus preserved.

Since hydrogenated oils are quite cheap, which benefits the oil producer, but at the same time are quite unhealthy, which unfortunately doesn’t benefit the consumer much, they are only PARTIALLY hydrogenated to find some kind of compromise between preservation and health.

Nor is it even required by law that the label for hydrogenation (“partially hydrogenated”) must appear on the label as long as the proportion of these hydrogenated oils blended remains below 20 percent. But it is these partially hydrogenated oils that are contributors to many health problems, with we grapple with today – including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even cancer.

When hydrogenated oils are mixed with olive oil, the health benefits of olive oil almost completely disappear, while the toxins of highly processed, partially hydrogenated oils attack our bodies.

Oil panderers are caught, but rarely punished

A number of cases of this type of fraud have been reported over the past two decades. Although the adulterators were repeatedly caught in the act and the adulterated oil in question was subsequently withdrawn from circulation (at least that which had not yet been sold to the end consumer), hardly a single case was prosecuted.

This is quite simply because those responsible at the major cooking oil importers or traders very often have excellent political connections and therefore have no major problems pulling their heads out of the noose inconspicuously. But on the contrary. It has happened that an olive oil company convicted of the scam has sued (for reputational damage) the editors of the magazine that reported the scam.

To be on the safe side, he also filed criminal and civil lawsuits against the Chamber of Commerce (whose experts had uncovered the fraud) and an oil expert involved in uncovering the scam for disrupting the freedom of trade and commerce. Although the lawsuits were eventually withdrawn, they had not failed to have an effect. Whoever should learn of the oil multinational’s adulteration or fraudulent labeling in the future will prefer to keep their mouths shut from now on.

Olive oil is a billion-dollar business

Italy is THE hub for olive oil. Almost half of the world’s 10 billion euro olive oil business is transacted through Italy. A few oil multinationals share huge profits. The producers, who have the most work with the year-round care of their olive groves, see the least of these 10 billion.

Depending on the location of the olive groves, the production costs for a liter of high-quality olive oil are at least six euros, but usually far more than ten euros. In hilly areas where a lot of manual work is required, the costs per liter rise to twenty euros.

But if a liter of extra virgin olive oil is sold in the supermarkets for less than four, sometimes less than three euros, then it CANNOT be real extra virgin olive oil. If you are lucky, it will be virgin olive oil.

However, it is more likely that it is the cheapest lampante oil.

Cheap olive oil means poverty, exploitation, and ecological disasters

Olive oil producers could not exist at these prices without EU subsidies. Anyone who is unable to market their oil themselves due to a lack of equipment receives starvation wages from the billionaire wholesalers – regardless of whether the oils delivered are of high quality or inferior. So no olive oil producer will go to the trouble of harvesting his olives from the trees with expensive helpers in such a way that they are not damaged and that high-quality oil can be produced from them. Because he gets roughly the same price for olives that he lets fall on the ground when they are overripe and then quickly sweeps them up when they are already rotten: two to four euros at the most for a liter of olive oil.

A price that leads to poverty, desperation, and the exploitation of undeclared workers. The olive grower only keeps going because he has no other choice. With each generation change, however, more and more farmers migrate to the cities. The olive groves become overgrown, the risk of fire increases, and after the fire, they have finally disappeared, the gentle, wildly romantic hills with the old, gnarled olive trees whose leaves shone silvery in the wind. What remains are ugly, eroded landscapes where landslides and unbridled storms reign supreme, and only charred remnants remain of bygone beauty.

All of this is behind cheap olive oils and all of this is supported by everyone who is always looking for bargains in the discount store and believes that they can also get a high-quality oil for their few cents – just because it says so on the label. He was thoroughly mistaken there.

With cheap olive oil, poor quality is guaranteed

It is true that not all expensive oils are automatically high-quality oils, but that none of the three or four-euro oils from the supermarket is a real “extra virgin” that can be guaranteed with one hundred percent certainty – no matter what the label on this subject has to say.

In April 2007, Italy’s Agriculture Minister Paolo de Castro announced that the government had inspected 787 oil producers, convicting 205 of adulteration, mislabelling, and other offenses. Whether there will ever be negotiations, fines or penalties is uncertain. A few years earlier, the Italian government had reacted so weakly in the prosecution of some oil dabbles that it could almost have been accused of complicity if anyone dared.

Consumer tests are often irrelevant

Even the popular awards after tastings do not necessarily guarantee the quality, since only the samples sent in by the producer are tasted and awarded. What is later on the shelf with the proud award on the label does not necessarily have to be the same oil.

The situation is similar to the much-noticed consumer tests, which, to the delight of all cheap fans, award the permanently low-priced oil from cheap markets top marks. A little hint at the right time is enough to quickly put a few “good” bottles on the shelf – and the tester can come.

Law provides “recipe” for oil counterfeiters

But even without the hinted warning, conventional and recognized tests can hardly ever determine the real quality of olive oil. The percentage of free fatty acids mentioned above under “The three qualities” is just one of the almost endless number of legally prescribed values that an extra virgin olive oil should actually meet.

The law stipulates the limit values for trans-isomeric fatty acids, saturated fatty acids, waxes, sterols, and many other substances, as well as the number of peroxides and UV absorption at different frequencies. Now one might think that such a detailed law would be wonderful. But unfortunately, it is the case that the detailed information in the law is more useful to the swindlers than to the control bodies.

The legally prescribed limit values serve the former as a kind of “recipe” according to which they combine their mixtures of spoiled or heat-treated olive oils and sometimes other oils in such a way that they achieve the same analysis results as an extra virgin olive oil with the usual detection methods. Nor should one imagine olive oil counterfeiters as petty crooks in gloomy cellar dungeons handling a few barrels of oil.

Today’s oil swindlers are equipped with much more advanced analysis laboratories than even inspection offices. They have huge modern factories and move hundreds of thousands of tons of olive oil. They have power, influence, money, and friends at the highest levels of politics.

The influence of the oil industry determines the law and oil quality

Nevertheless, there are now detection methods (e.g. the determination of the polyphenol content, see also under 3. under “Criteria for the selection of a real extra virgin olive oil”), how to get rid of the swindlers, but these are not yet official in the EU recognized and therefore have no legal force.

Despite all the details, the legislation leaves a lot to be desired. The protection of the consumer is not the top priority here, the influence of the oil industry on the legislator is too strong. The representatives of consumers and agricultural producers lose out.

Spanish and Greek olive oil from Italy

Another law regulates the topic of origin. Italian olive oils have a very good reputation. The olive oils from Morocco, Turkey, Spain, or Greece, for example, are less so. Of course, this has nothing to do with the real quality of the oils from these countries. It’s just the reputation that still sits in the minds of consumers.

In reality, for example, relatively good olive oil from the Greek Mani is carted to Italy to spice up inferior Italian oil there. Leonardo Marseglia, former managing director of one of the most important Italian olive oil importers in Europe and evocatively called the “extra virgin baron” by the media, once said: “We imported a lot of olive oil to blend it and use it to save a number of bad and stinky Italian oils …”. (from Merum 05/2007)

But it also happens that inferior Spanish oil, which consumers are reluctant to buy and would not pay as much money for as Italian oil, is simply shipped to Italy. There they mix it with a bit of Italian olive oil and then export it all over the world as real Italian olive oil. That is absolutely allowed.

Of course, in a cold country like Germany, you are not allowed to bottle any olive oil (neither Spanish nor Italian) and also not sell it as German olive oil. Because no consumer would believe that – with all due respect to climate change – olives are already growing in Germany. Another variant is when, for example, Spanish oil companies buy an Italian oil company and sell their Spanish oil under a nice-sounding Italian name – as happened with the Bertolli company.

Attention: The place of filling is not the same as the area of origin

So if the label says “Italian olive oil” or an Italian name with an Italian place name, then this only refers to the place of bottling or the importer’s registered office, but not to the region of origin of the olives. The protected designation of origin DOP, on the other hand (see under 4. under “Criteria for the selection of a real extra virgin olive oil” below), indicates the actual origin of the oil, but unfortunately does not necessarily have anything to do with good quality.

“Cold pressed” – a term from the old days

The terms “cold pressed” or “first cold pressing” come from the olden days, when the oil miller won the oil in several pressing stages. First, it was cold pressed, then hot. “Hot” meant that hot water was poured over the olive pulp in order to squeeze out the very last drop of oil. So at that time “cold pressed” was actually still considered a quality feature.

Today, however, according to the EU olive oil regulation, extra virgin olive oil should generally not experience temperatures above 27 degrees Celsius during its production process and since almost everyone declares their oil as extra virgin (although in most cases it is not), everyone claims it, his oil is “cold pressed”. But that does not mean that the oil has not been thermally treated. Maybe it was actually cold-pressed.

However, the processes that take place after the pressing process, such as refining and deodorization, require temperatures of at least 100 degrees. Without these processes, inferior lampante oil can hardly be sold because otherwise, its taste would put consumers off.

Refining and deodorization – temperatures over 200 degrees

During the refining process, the oil is degummed, deacidified, bleached, and deodorized. In all stages, the oil is heated to over 200 degrees, steam and high pressure, and various chemicals are used.

Refined oil is therefore a very heavily treated and industrially processed oil that has nothing in common with healthy natural oil. However, such treatment can easily be proven, which of course is not desirable (on the part of the oil traders). So the oils are only cleaned in a fast process.

The off-flavors – which indicate unclean processing or advanced decomposition of the olives – are removed in a counter-current process at 80 to 100 degrees that can hardly be detected. The cold treatment hoped for by the consumer is therefore a thing of the past.

Refining and deodorization – temperatures over 200 degrees

During the refining process, the oil is degummed, deacidified, bleached, and deodorized. In all stages, the oil is heated to over 200 degrees, steam and high pressure, and various chemicals are used.

Refined oil is therefore a very heavily treated and industrially processed oil that has nothing in common with healthy natural oil. However, such treatment can easily be proven, which of course is not desirable (on the part of the oil traders). So the oils are only cleaned in a fast process.

The off-flavors – which indicate unclean processing or advanced decomposition of the olives – are removed in a counter-current process at 80 to 100 degrees that can hardly be detected. The cold treatment hoped for by the consumer is therefore a thing of the past.

Healthy and real extra virgin olive oil

For the production of absolutely pure premium oil, i.e. real extra virgin olive oil, the olives are carefully picked by hand to ensure that these highly sensitive fruits remain intact – they spoil faster than, for example, cracked apples and now have to be – within the next eight hours – processed into oil in a modern oil mill without the use of heat or chemicals.

Shelf life, packaging, and storage

A real extra virgin olive oil has a sufficiently long shelf life of about 18 months – even without hydrogenation. This is due to its unadulterated antioxidant ingredients. The health benefits of polyphenols, vitamins, and minerals are preserved with competent and gentle processing. They protect the olive oil from oxidative damage and spoilage and the consumer from disease-causing free radicals.

The oil should be stored in dark-tinted glass bottles or rust-resistant steel cans. In plastic containers, the oil could absorb chemicals. Unfortunately, this also applies to the actually promising bag-in-box packaging(1), which – as tests have shown – had a taste-impairing effect on the oil and gave the oil an unpleasant odor.

Organic Oils

Naturally, organically grown olives produce an overall higher-quality olive oil than olives from olive groves that are chemically treated several times a year, since – in addition to the direct oil quality – the ecological and social aspect on site also plays an important role. Of course, organic oils can also fall victim to counterfeiting.

Inferior oils can also be produced from organic olives. Therefore, it would be foolish to think that oil with an organic label must automatically be an extra virgin olive oil. This is not the case, so when buying organic oils, you have to proceed with the same care as when buying a conventional premium oil.

Criteria for choosing a real extra virgin olive oil

  • Taste: A real extra virgin olive oil tastes fruity, and slightly bitter, and leaves a scratchy throat. The healthy and anti-inflammatory substance oleocanthal is responsible for this scratching. It is said to prevent certain types of cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Consumers who generally use cheap oils are used to their taste and therefore often believe – if they happen to come across a real extra virgin oil – it must be a spoiled oil, simply because they have no idea what a high-quality olive oil really tastes.
  • Chemical analyses: The indication of the content of free fatty acids (less than 0.3 percent) and the peroxide number (if possible less than 10 to 14) can indicate a correct extra virgin oil, but does not have to and is, therefore, no guarantee for a premium oil.
  • Polyphenol content: A value that could actually indicate the real quality of oil – if the measuring methods are ever standardized – is the polyphenol content. However, to this day the EU has neither promoted its development nor approved it as an official test method. In a real extra virgin olive oil, the polyphenol content should be over 250 milligrams per kilogram of olive oil, while industrial oils can at best come up with 100 milligrams of polyphenols per kilogram of oil. But here, too, a portion of background knowledge is necessary in order to be able to correctly assess the specified polyphenol content. In Italy, for example, the olives are harvested much earlier in the year than in Greece due to the earlier onset of winter. However, an early harvest ensures a higher polyphenol content. This does not mean that Greek oils are automatically inferior. Of course, the polyphenol content must therefore be evaluated in connection with the other ingredients and criteria of olive oil.
  • DOP – Protected Designation of Origin: DOP means “Denominazione d’Origine protected” and guarantees the origin of olive oil. However, the quality of olive oil is determined less by the soil, climate, and variety (as with wine) than by the treatment and processing of the olives, so the DOP seal cannot offer any guarantee of quality either.
  • Some olive oil producers kindly indicate the harvest date of their olives – and not just the bottling date.
  • Buy your olive oil where you will receive competent advice and only if you will receive ready and competent answers to all your questions. Special buying guides can also help when choosing a real extra virgin olive oil. They have oils chemically and sensorially tested by independent and strict taster panels and then present reliable producers of high-quality oils.

Really high-quality and real extra virgin olive oils are of course a bit more expensive. But using them in moderation will be better for your health than using copious amounts of the surely adulterated or counterfeit oils that can be found for a few bucks at discount stores.

However, of course, a high price is no guarantee for high-quality oil. Therefore, use our 6 criteria when buying olive oil. Some of the values mentioned are not stated on the labels. Simply ask the manufacturer of your olive oil by e-mail! (According to the peroxide number, the amount of free fatty acids, the polyphenol content, the harvest time of the olives, etc.) You can already see from his answer how important quality and a good relationship with the end consumer are for him.

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Written by Bella Adams

I'm a professionally-trained, executive chef with over ten years in Restaurant Culinary and hospitality management. Experienced in specialized diets, including Vegetarian, Vegan, Raw foods, whole food, plant-based, allergy-friendly, farm-to-table, and more. Outside of the kitchen, I write about lifestyle factors that impact well-being.

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