You’re standing in the grocery store, staring at shelf upon shelf of olive oil: Extra Virgin … Pure… Light. It’s little wonder that so many people are confused about the different grades of olive oil. A survey last year – by the Olive Center at the University of California’s Davis campus – found that 55 percent of respondents thought they understood the meaning of olive oil grades. Yet no more than 25 percent responded correctly to statements about the grades.
The Olive Center added: “Lack of consumer knowledge of the differences among olive oil grades indicates a need for clearer information on the quality difference among grades.” That’s for sure.
Unfortunately, for many people, buying olive oil is like buying yogurt, cold medicine, or toothpaste. You’re confronted with a dizzying array of choices, labels and claims. Once again, it’s worth reviewing the different grades of olive oil, and what makes them different.
Extra virgin olive oil: The top grade, delivering the best taste and the full health benefits of olive oil. It has zero defects. Think of it as freshly pressed fruit juice, given that olives are a fruit. The olives are crushed at a mill and the oil is extracted through mechanical means – versus refined oil, which is extracted through the use of heat or chemicals. In our case, we crush our olives and run the resulting paste through a centrifuge to separate the oil from the water and any leftover solids from the olive, known as pomace.
To be truly extra virgin, the oil must pass a battery of chemical requirements (such as free fatty acid percent and peroxide values) set by the Madrid-based International Olive Council (IOC), the California Olive Oil Council (COOC), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and other bodies. We adhere to the COOC and USDA standards as well as our own internal standards, which are a combination of the most stringent quality parameters on the books. In addition to the chemical tests, true extra virgin olive oil must pass a panel of professional tasters who detect positive attributes like olive fruitiness; the tasters must not find any taste flaws. In short, the oil must taste like olives and be of the freshest quality.
Virgin Olive Oil: The intermediate grade of olive oil, below extra virgin and above lowly lampante (see below). Virgin olive oil has “reasonably good flavor and odor” as well as some defects that a certified taste panel can detect; the general population, however, may well not notice the flaw.
Pure Olive Oil/Olive Oil: Oil that’s been refined to remove any defects. Without the refining, the oil would be unfit for human consumption and be considered lampante oil (see below). Pure olive oil – also known as olive oil – is typically blended with some extra virgin olive oil to add flavor. In that same Olive Center survey, nearly half of respondents said olive oil labeled “pure” was best – when, in reality, it’s lower on the grade scale than extra virgin.
Light Olive Oil: Not a diet product. It’s basically the same as “pure” olive oil. It’s really light in flavor or color – not calories or fat. In short, the term “light” has absolutely nothing to do with the quality or health benefits of the oil. “Light” and “extra-light” oils, like other cooking oils – such as canola, corn, and vegetable – contain 14 grams of fat per tablespoon.
Lampante Oil: Oil that’s unfit for human consumption. To be sold as food, lampante oil must be refined to remove the off flavors.
Pomace Olive Oil: Oil extracted from the olive pomace – the solid waste left over from the milling process. It includes olive pits, skin and flesh. The oil is obtained by re-milling the pomace to obtain the remaining 1 percent to 5 percent of oil that’s left in the waste. It also can be obtained by mixing solvents into the pomace; heat is then used to extract additional oil from the pomace.