It’s not surprising there is so much confusion surrounding extra virgin olive oil – and olive oil generally. A recent survey by the Olive Center at the Davis campus of the University of California found that 55 percent of consumers surveyed believed they understood the meaning of different olive oil grades – but no more than 25 percent responded correctly to statements about the grades.
Why all the confusion? For starters, olive oil is among the top food items on your supermarket shelf that’s likely to be bogus. Among the adulterants found in extra virgin olive oil, for example: cheaper ingredients like hazelnut oil, sunflower oil, refined olive oil, palm oil, or peanut oil.
Moreover, studies suggest U.S. consumers often pay premium prices for European olive oil labeled as “extra virgin” when they’re really buying a lower quality oil.
So it’s little wonder that, for many people, buying olive oil is like buying yogurt or cold medicine. You’re confronted with a dizzying array of choices, labels and claims. Here’s a primer.
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. (Yes, olives are a fruit.) The olives are crushed at a mill and the oil is extracted via mechanical means – versus refined oil 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 sediment.
Extra virgin is the priciest grade. And, to be truly extra virgin, the oil must pass a battery of chemical requirements (such as free fatty acid percent and peroxide levels) set by the Madrid-based International Olive Council (IOC), the California Olive Oil Council (COOC), Australian Olive Association (AOA), and other bodies. We adhere to the COOC and AOA standards as well as our own internal standards that we have set for ourselves to be more rigorous than others. 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.
First Cold Press: An outdated, vague term used mainly for marketing purposes. It’s not a required standard. It really just means the oil underwent one phase of “separation” from the olives at the mill – versus repeated separations – and no heat was involved in extracting the oil from the olives. So why do we put “First Cold Press” on our bottles? Because so many people ask us whether our oil is first cold pressed. For us, the term means the fruit of the olive was crushed just once – i.e., the “first press.”
Pure Olive Oil/Olive Oil: Oil that’s been refined to remove any defects. It’s typically blended with a little extra virgin olive oil to add flavor.
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.
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.