What should you look for when buying olive oil in the first place?
Let’s say you are in a store to buy olive oil, here is what you need to look at:
1. Expiration date. If the bottle does not have an expiration date do not buy it. And better yet, it should have a harvest date. The reason for this is not that olive oil will go bad in the sense that perishable foods go bad, but that it is old. In my previous post I noted that old olive oil does not taste good and it does not have the health benefits of the fresh olive oil. The older the olive oil the less polyphenols it will have. You should look for an expiration date that is about a year and a half away. If you find that, then that means it has been harvested in the previous year. Usually the expiration date is about 1 ½ -2 years after harvest date. But that does not mean that you should be using it until that date. Ideally, and if you want to replicate what was being done in the traditional Mediterranean diet, you want to consume olive oil within 1 year of it’s harvest date. In other words use olive oil of that year’s harvest. Generally though you should use an open bottle of olive oil in a short period of time.
2. Harvest date. As I have mentioned before, the benefits of olive oil come mainly from the polyphenols and the content of polyphenols is dependent on a few factors and one of them is when the olives are harvested. Early harvest when the olives are partially green results in an olive oil that has a higher polyphenol content, and that also means a longer shelf life. These olive oils have a more herby and bitter taste. Olive oil from late harvest (mature olives) has a more buttery taste, but less polyphenols (antioxidants) and shorter shelf life, in other words it has a quicker loss of its nutritional benefits. So if possible pick a harvest date that that is ideally November or even late October as its harvest date.
3. Variety of olive. Yes this is important and more and more producers include the variety of olive they are using on the bottle, the same way wine bottles have the variety of grape. But why is the olive variety important? Well, it tells you a lot. First of all some olive varieties have a very high polyphenol content and that is a good thing as we know.
Olive varieties with high polyphenol content also produce olive oil that is more stable, that means longer shelf life and slower loss of nutrients compared with olive varieties with medium or low polyphenol content.
- Very High Polyphenol Content: Coratina, Conicabra, Koroneiki, Moraiolo, Picual
- High: Bosana, Chemlali, Manzanillo, Picholine
- Medium: Arbosana, Barnea, Empeltre, Frantoio, Hojiblanca, Leccino,
- Low: Arbequina, Picudo, Taggiasca
Source: International Olive Oil Council
*Keep in mind that many producers/bottlers, particularly larger ones combine different varieties of olive to produce a specific flavor profile.
4. Bottle. Avoid bottles in clear glass as light can affect the oil. Bottles that are made of dark glass are better or not clear at all is even better. Do not be influenced by the shape and design of the bottle either. Many producers feel that good olive oil deserves a state of the art bottle. Sure, but those bottles and designs cost the producers a lot and as a result you are paying more for that olive oil because of the bottle and design. Having said that, some of the best olive oils come in very simple bottles.
5. Olive oil grade. The majority of olive oil you consume should be mostly Extra Virgin Olive Oil. A new report from the U.S. International Trade Commission showed that U.S. consumers are generally unfamiliar with the range of olive oil grades. So before I explain why you should only use extra virgin olive oil let’s just go over the different grades. The International Olive Oil Council has established the following categories-I have added the corresponding U.S. title:
a. Extra virgin olive oil (In the U.S: US Extra Virgin Olive Oil): virgin olive oil, which has a free acidity of not more than 0.8 grams per 100 grams.
b. Virgin olive oil (US Virgin Olive Oil): virgin olive oil, which has a free acidity of not more than 2 grams per 100 grams.
c. Refined olive oil (US Refined Olive Oil) is the olive oil obtained from virgin olive oils by refining methods, which do not lead to alterations in the initial glyceridic structure. It has a free acidity of not more than 0.3 grams per 100 grams. It is basically low quality olive oil that is refined physically and chemically to remove undesirable qualities such a free fatty acids and unpleasant flavor and odor.
d. Olive oil (in the US: US Olive Oil) is the oil consisting of a blend of refined olive oil and virgin olive oils fit for consumption as they are. It has a free acidity of not more than 1 gram per 100 grams.
e. Olive-pomace oil is the oil obtained by treating olive pomace with solvents or other physical treatments. It is blended with virgin olive oils and is fit for consumption as they are. It has a free acidity of not more than 1 gram per 100 grams.
Please look at these titles carefully, I noted the most common you may see at the store. Look at “d.” it says Olive Oil. One would think that olive oil is olive oil, but in fact it is virgin olive oil mixed with refined olive oil, yes the one that has been chemically processed and contains little to no antioxidants.
Basically you should focus on consuming extra virgin olive oil. Most studies showing benefits of olive oil are referring to extra virgin olive oil, all those other olive oils do not have those benefits, apart from being a source of monounsaturated fats. I also read often that you should use lower grade olive oil for frying due to smoke point. I have talked about this in the past, and it is important to know that in fact extra virgin olive oil has a high smoke point and is more stable then other categories. So unless you plan to deep-fry (which is not something you should do often anyway) extra virgin olive oil is the way to go.
One last thought
There has been a lot of coverage on the news in the past few years about a study showing that imported olive oils failed to meet U.S. quality standards. I will quote Nancy Harmon Jenkins, well known author of several books on Mediterranean cuisine:
“The controversial research clearly indicated that the way oils are handled post-production, in transit as well as at their destination, is a huge part of the problem.” This study did not show that imported olive oils are bad olive oils. Another issue that needs to be noted regarding this study was that the study came out from the University of California, Davis Olive Center that according to Jenkins is “in the forefront of energetic attempts to grow the California oil industry”. She adds that what made it more controversial was when it was revealed that the research was funded by the companies behind two of the California oils that were tested and by the California Olive Oil Council, an industry group, according to Jenkins.
In any case, it is important to buy local and if you are able to find good fresh olive oil with a high polyphenol content near you than buy it. But there is something to be said about location, climate, experience and tradition. The olive tree is native to the Mediterranean; this is its natural environment, which influences its taste and nutritional qualities. So be open and shop smart.
Here are some of the interesting facts regarding the top 3 olive oil producers in the world according to a report from the U.S. International Trade Commission that you can keep in mind when shopping.
- Largest producer of olive oil.
- Most Spanish olive oil is produced by mill cooperatives. The cooperative system in many cases does not incentivize growers to harvest their olives early and produce quality oil because the formula used to determine payments to the member farmer emphasizes oil quantity over quality—oil yield increases, but quality degrades, as the olive is left unpicked and becomes overripe.
- There is also a substantial segment of premium olive oil producers in Spain who, like premium producers worldwide, tend to harvest early in order to preserve the flavor and polyphenol content of the oil.
- Italy is the second-largest producer of olive oil after Spain.
- Traditionally, olive oil has been considered primarily an Italian product by consumers in the U.S. and European markets, and the association of Italy with olive oil is still prevalent today. Consequently, Italy is home to large blending and bottling operations owned by multinational companies. These companies import large quantities of olive oil from foreign producers, primarily in the Mediterranean region, which is then blended for consistent taste profiles.
- There is concern throughout the Italian industry that the national brand reputation is at risk of being damaged by low-quality blends that contain very little Italian oil, but are marketed as Italian products.
- Greece is the third largest producer of olive oil, but little of its oil is exported as a Greek product. Most Greek olive oil is consumed domestically, and most of the remainder is exported to bottlers in Italy for blending with olive oils from various sources.
- Greece enjoys a reputation for producing high quality olive oil. As much as 80% of Greek olive oil is extra virgin, the highest share in the Mediterranean. Greek oils can be differentiated from others because they have desirable flavor profiles and score well on chemical tests measuring quality. This is partially because oil milled from Koroneiki olives tends to be the highest in polyphenol content and lowest acidity among all olive oils.
- Greek oils are also considered among the fruitiest and most robust. As a result, they are in high demand by bottlers for blending with other extra virgin oils to raise the overall quality.
- The Greek olive oil industry has generally poor marketing infrastructure.