Now and then when a suspicious food topic arises, I have to break out my culinary sleuth kit and do a bit of whole-food detective work in an attempt to unveil food fraud — or the act of deceiving consumers about a food or ingredient for the sake of profit or convenience. Last year I read Larry Olmsted’s book, Real Food Fake Food which enlightened my deluded palate regarding counterfeit foods. Olmsted exposed the prevalence of adulterated olive oil, a real food kitchen favorite. Another food journalist, Tom Mueller’s gripping book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil uncovered the details of Mafia-olive oil. Olmsted and Mueller increased consumer awareness regarding the olive oil deception.
Sometimes it takes investigative journalists like Olmsted and Mueller, the Woodward and Bernstein of the olive oil-gate, to heighten public awareness about food impostors.
The impostor olive oil debacle aroused the food activist within me, so I initiated an investigation of my own. Let’s figure out how to sniff out a fraudulent bottle of the nectar of the Mediterranean so that you can buy high-quality EVOO with confidence and fortitude.
How Olive Oil is Compromised
- diluting real extra virgin olive oil with cheaper oils like soybean or sunflower oil (which could be a potential health risk for consumers with soy allergies)
- diluting high-quality olive oil with oils of lower quality
- manufacturing low-quality extra virgin olive oil with older oils, often rancid
- adding chlorophyll to enhance the color
Adulterated Olive Oil Reduces Its Health Benefits
When your olive oil is compromised, not only does it affect your wallet but your health as well. In its purest form, olive oil is high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs). MUFA oils like EVOO help combat health conditions like inflammation.
Know Your EVOO
There are two categories of EVOO: estate (finishing oil) and cooking (all-purpose). The price of the oil distinguishes typically one from the other. Estate olive oil is generally used for drizzling over a bed of fresh greens or desserts. Think of the estate EVOO as a condiment oil. Print this free salad grid.
Fresh Off the Press
Not many of us are fortunate enough to experience the olio nuovo or “new oil” which is the harvest time that Italians look forward to every year. The new oil, full of succulent olive particles, is the first extra-virgin oil off the press. Italians lavishly dispense the brilliant green oil relishing its intense, robust flavor. A few weeks after the olio nuovo, the olive sediments begin the fermentation process resulting in off-flavors which is the end of the anticipated olio nuovo period until next year’s harvest.
For now, Europe still dominates the intercontinental EVOO battle, but California continues to flex its olive growing muscles.
Several California olive oil producers sell olio nuovo, but most consumers do not have a European or California source for olio nuova. The typical consumer must rely on local supermarkets as their source of olive oil. They key is to educate yourself about how to get your money’s worth in oil.
EVOO Buyer’s Guide
In a sleepy Mid-Atlantic small town, there exists a remnant of the Old World. The Piazza Italian occupies a bustling corner of the historic shopping district. “Piazza Italian Market is a unique store where you can find the ingredients so easy to find in Italy, but often hard to find in the US.” I met with Emily Chandler the owner of this authentic and quaint yet modern Italian market-cafe to discuss an olive oil buyer’s guide. Here is what we devised:
Look for one of these Stamps of Approval: the California Olive Council (COOC) Certified Extra Virgin, Extra Virgin Alliance (EVA), USDA Quality Monitored, or the National Association of Olive Oil (NAOOA). The NAOOA provides a list of reputable suppliers of domestic all-purpose EVOO.
The Mediterranean coast is not the only producer of excellent olive oil. California olive growers, guided by experts from the University of California, Davis plant quality olive trees, exercise the best harvesting practices, experiment with blending and using a variety of olive presses to develop a high-quality domestic oil.
If you don’t have access to a trusted small retail store for your olive oil, keep your EVOO purchase stateside. It’s a safe way to navigate the labyrinth of fraudulent brands of olive oil.
Scrutinize the Bottle for the Country of Origin
Italian olive oil companies buy the oil from multiple European countries and then label the oil as a product of Italy. As you shop for your EVOO, examine the bottle for the phrase, “product of _____ (fill in the blank with a specific country of origin). I spotted a famous brand of EVOO on clearance. Before I stocked my grocery cart with the oil swag, I pulled out my phone and did a cursory search of the country of origin.
***Mothers of little ones whose tykes are climbing out of the cart or screaming their lungs out, be creative and make this a geography game.
Inspect the Bottle for a Harvest Date
European harvest dates are September through October then shipped to the United States by December. All-purpose EVOO may have a combination of harvest dates. As with any fruit, it’s best to buy in season (close to the harvest date).
The Color of Your Bottle Matters
Olive oil qualities diminish when exposed to direct sunlight. Most EVOO occupies shelves in the middle of the supermarket rather than the perimeter. In that regard, in most cases, your EVOO is safe. A dark glass bottle helps to reduce the penetration of light and oxygen.
Your EVOO is NOT a Shelf Trinket, So Don’t Let It Collect Dust
You’ve shelled out a pretty penny for the translucent delicacy. Estate EVOO starts at $30.00 a bottle then increases. Make sure that you consume the bottle within 12 months of purchase. EVOO stays freshest when protected from air, light, and heat. Ideally, EVOO is best in smaller batches “making them far fresher than the olive oil sold in the typical supermarket or gourmet store.” Let’s face it, most of us don’t have a local supplier of EVOO, so we are at the mercy of the supermarket chains.
The Pressing Facts
To help you cultivate and maintain a lifestyle of healthy living requires you to do your own food detective work. The next time you reach for EVOO evaluate the information on the bottle. Healthy living requires you to unleash the food renegade within.
What olive oil facts
Resources for trustworthy EVOO: