The various health benefits of extra virgin olive oil are no secret, but many Americans don’t know they are very likely purchasing ‘faux’ olive oil, or olive oil which offers very few of those well-publicized healthful compounds. I absolutely despise nutritional and food rip-offs, consider this the ultimate olive oil guide — or what you can no longer afford to NOT know.
#1: Buy The Real Thing
Four years ago, I was dismayed upon learning about the rampant issue of olive oil fraud (for the full story, see this detailed article from The New Yorker), which has fooled millions into falsely believing they were adding a source of healthful fat to their diets.
Cliffs Notes version:
some a disturbingly large percentage of ‘olive oil’ is an adulterated combination of olive and processed soybean or hazelnut oil that is highly refined. In other words — those health benefits you think you’re getting from your olive oil? Barely any in that bottle in your pantry.
I’m sorry to say that as recently as this past April, the problem showed no signs of improving, despite the USDA finally adopting — voluntary, natch — olive oil standards (here are further details on what those new standards entail).
Fortunately, this isn’t a “there’s nothing you can do about it” situation. There are two ways you can guarantee you are getting legitimate olive oil:
- Look for the California Olive Oil Council logo on a bottle or order directly from their certified producers (the list encompasses producers that have earned a certification over the past five years, so be sure to browse the archives).
- Barring that, you can look for the Protected Designation of Origin logo, which guarantees that the Italian or Spanish olive oil on the supermarket shelf was indeed produced, processed, and prepared in a specific region of that country (as opposed to containing soybean or hazelnut oil from Northern Africa that was bottled in Italy and therefore technically “made in Italy”). FYI: French olive oils will communicate this with an “AOC” (Appelation d’origine contrôlée) logo, Italian ones with “DOP” (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) and Spanish ones with “DO” (Denominación de Origen).
- While a high price does not guarantee a good product, you can be sure that a $6.99 bottle of extra virgin olive oil is most likely a knock-off.
#2: Know The Four Foes: Air, Heat, Time, and UV Light
Part of what makes olive oil so healthful (other than its high monounsaturated fat content in the form of oleic acid) are its various antioxidants — mainly flavonoids and polyphenols — which are fragile and susceptible to substantial damage from air (oxygen, really), heat, and UV light. The mere passage of time also takes its toll on these compounds.
With that in mind, here are must-know takeaways:
- Only purchase extra virgin olive oil in tin cans or dark glass bottles (guideline: if you can see the oil’s true color through the bottle, that’s a bad sign).
- Once you use olive oil, put the cork or cap back on immediately.
- Store olive oil in a cool spot (storing a bottle next to — or on a shelf right over — your stove is not a good idea).
- Since time is of the essence, purchase the smallest container of olive oil possible, unless you go through large amounts on a weekly basis. The last thing you want is a three-year supply of olive oil sitting in your pantry.
- The “Best By” date you see on extra virgin olive oil is roughly two years after manufacturing. For example, oil with a “Best By” date of July 2013 was most likely manufactured in July of 2011. Since time degrades the healthful compounds in the oil, you want as ‘fresh’ a batch as possible. UPDATE/FYI: In California, olives are harvested in October. Spanish and Italian olive oils are harvested in November, while Australian olive oils are harvested in April/May.
- High-heat cooking with extra virgin olive oil is a bit of a controversial issue. The International Olive Council — these are the olive oil experts! — reports that genuine extra virgin olive oils actually have a very high smoke point, making them ideal for high-heat cooking (the higher an oil’s smoke point, the more heat it can sustain before its healthful compounds break down). That said, extra virgin olive oil is only okay to use in high-heat methods that are quick (i.e.: sauteéing leafy greens), since long exposures to heat decrease smoke points. I personally prefer to use coconut oil for high-heat cooking and leave my extra virgin olive oil for homemade hummus, dips, salad dressings, and drizzling over cooked pasta or steamed vegetables.
#3: Odds & Ends
- If the olive oil you cook with ever begins to smoke — even slightly — do not use it, as the healthful antioxidants have turned into harmful pro-oxidants.
- Many restaurants use olive oil blends for their cooking (think olive and — eek! — corn oil). Unless you are dining at an establishment that pays particular attention to the sourcing of ingredients or has olive oil as a focus (i.e.: Fig & Olive), don’t assume you are getting the most heart-healthy variety.
Now that you are armed with this knowledge, prepare for the onslaught of frauds you’ll likely encounter next time you shop. By the way, if obtaining authentic olive oil is inconvenient or difficult, then rely on other foods with a similar fatty acid profile (i.e.: avocados, almonds, pecans, olives, cacao nibs, dark chocolate with 80% or higher cocoa content) for heart health.