Jane Says: Don’t Be Misled by Olive Oil Labels

You’ll find lots of verbiage on a bottle—but not all of it is meaningful or helpful.

(Photo: Marcelo De Pozo/Reuters)Marelo del Pozo /R

Jun 25, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.
“I know that olive oil is a cornerstone of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, but the choices are dizzying and can be expensive. Can you demystify the labels for me?”
—Danny Lewis

We all know how well balanced and delicious a Mediterranean diet can be. Compared with a typical American diet (if there is such a thing anymore), it has fewer meats and processed foods, along with more plant-based foods (thus more fiber) and monounsaturated fat (i.e., olive oil). According to sources such as Medline Plus and the Mayo Clinic, the Mediterranean diet may result in more stable blood sugars, lower cholesterol and triglycerides, and a lower risk of heart disease and a host of other health problems.

This is not news to Italians, Spaniards, Greeks, and other people in the Mediterranean region, who have eaten this way for thousands of years. One can argue that it’s easy to eat large amounts of raw and cooked vegetables, instead of meat, or slices of grilled bread instead of chips because olive oil makes them taste so wonderful. In Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit (1996), Mort Rosenblum wrote, “On her 121st birthday, Jeanne Calment, of Arles, France, had a simple answer when asked how she survived to be the world’s oldest person: olive oil. It appears in nearly every meal she eats, and each day she rubs it into her skin. ‘I have only one wrinkle,’ she said, ‘and I am sitting on it.’ ” Calment, who died a year later, also ate two pounds of chocolate a week, rode a bicycle until she was 100, and didn’t quit smoking until five years before her death. (With her vision, she couldn’t light up herself and hated to ask for help.) God bless.

The olive oils you’ll find on the shelves of supermarkets and specialty foods shops include those from Italy, Spain, France, Greece, Morocco, Tunisia, and California. Depending on what olive cultivars they’re made from (as well as the time of harvest, the pressing process, and other variables), they range in flavor from mild to robust, from fruity to peppery; the throat-tickling pungency (due to an abundance of the phenol oleocanthal) of some Tuscan oils is a prized attribute called pizzicante. A vibrant green color doesn’t necessarily equal strong olive flavor. And in price, olive oils run the gamut from a few bucks to around $40 or so, although if you’re a sucker for opulent packaging, Clare Leschin-Hoar can tell you all about a bottle that costs $15,000.

Olive Oil Labeling Terms and What They Mean

Extra-Virgin: This, the highest grade of olive oil, contains less than 1 percent oleic acid and must pass muster in terms of flavor, aroma, and mouthfeel by a professional taste panel. It must also be produced entirely by the mechanical crushing of the whole olive (including the pit) without the use of any chemical solvents and under temperatures that will not degrade the oil (less than 86°F/30°C).

Virgin: Rarely found in stores, virgin olive oil can have up to 2 percent acidity.

Pure, Pomace, or Olive Oil: This is refined oil—it’s been treated with heat or solvents. Although it’s an economical choice for frying or sautéing, to my mind, it’s in the same category as so-called cooking wine. It’s inferior stuff, and life is too short—supercentenarian or not.

First Cold Press: Whether or not it says so on the label, all extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) is first cold pressed, which means that the olives were crushed just one time, rendering the freshest, fruitiest flavor. The word cold refers to the temperature of the fruits at the time they’re crushed; it can’t exceed 86°F/30°C. Lower-quality oils are made from olives that are crushed numerous times and at higher temperatures in order to extract more oil from the fruit. First Cold Press doesn’t necessarily signify good quality, and, for the most part, modern centrifuges have rendered the term obsolete.

Country of Origin: The label may say that the oil is the product of a particular country, but all that means is that it was bottled there. The oil could be from another country entirely.

Best Byor Harvest Date: Olive oil is fragile, and its flavor breaks down over time. Freshness, then, is the most important quality to look for in a good olive oil. If you see a “best by” date, it should be no more than two years out. A harvest date (look for the words raccolta, annata di produzione on an Italian bottle, or cosechar or recoger on a Spanish one) is preferable, although it may be in small type and hard to find on the label.

Light or Extra-Light: Olive oils labeled “light” or “extra-light,” which are pale and very mild, have been refined to remove much of the flavor and color. The terms have nothing to do with fat or calories. All olive oils have 14 grams of fat and 120 calories (all of them from fat) per tablespoon. Because they’re refined, light or extra-light olive oils have a higher smoke point than extra-virgin oil does.

Quality Seals: A quality seal on a bottle, such as that from the California Olive Oil Council, isn’t a guarantee that you’ll love an oil, but it does certify that it has passed chemistry and sensory criteria.

The standards for “extra-virgin,” “virgin,” and “pure,” by the way, were established by the International Olive Oil Council, a Madrid-based organization backed by the United Nations. That said, olive oil production is labor-intensive and expensive, and the end result is inherently delicate and different from year to year. So it’s no surprise that the industry has long been plagued by mislabeling, mishandling (age and exposure to heat and light hastens oxidation), and outright fraud—“extra-virgin” oil that’s made with damaged or overripe olives, or adulterated with an inferior grade or a seed or nut oil. Two studies by the University of California at Davis, in 2010 and 2011, “indicate that the quality level of the largest imported brand names is inconsistent at best, and that most of the top-selling olive oils we examined regularly failed to meet international standards for extra-virgin olive oil.”

As for buying, storing, and cooking tips, stay tuned—all that and more next week.