Bad News: Your Olive Oil Might Be Fake
Labels tell you a lot about what's in the food you're consuming—but when the labels are misleading or just plain wrong, it gets confusing. One of the biggest offenders here is imported olive oil. Nearly 70% of imported oils labeled "extra-virgin olive oil" did not meet standards for the category in tests run a decade ago by UC Davis Olive Oil Chemistry Laboratory, and it's been reported that as much 80% of the Italian oil, specifically, on the market is fraudulent.
"Most people don't even realize that counterfeit olive oil is a thing," says Eric Lees, executive chef at Spiaggia restaurant in Chicago. It's hard to tell based on a label alone exactly where your olive oil is coming from, when it was produced and whether it's non-GMO and additive-free, he adds.
So what, exactly, is fraudulent oil, anyway? First, you need to understand what real olive oil is. The term "extra-virgin" is the top grade of olive oil defined by the USDA, and by definition, it means absence of a defect. "What it's saying is that there's not a flaw in the oil," says Vincent Ricchiuti, a fourth-generation olive oil farmer with Enzo Olive Oil Company in California's San Joaquin Valley. There are four grades that fall below extra-virgin, from just "virgin" all the way down to "refined" olive oil, which is flavorless and odorless.
The olive oil that's considered "fake" is still likely made from olives, but it's not actually of the quality it claims to be; it can be made with very old oils or super-refined oils that have been stripped of all the health benefits of olive oil.
California, which produces nearly all olive oil in the U.S., has a few programs in place to guarantee quality—including the California Olive Oil Council, which grants COOC Seal Certification to producers who meet all criteria to be considered extra-virgin grade; and the California Department of Food & Agriculture's grade and labeling standards for olive oil—however, the rest of the world does not have those requirements.
Spotting fake extra-virgin olive oil can be trickier than it sounds—and you might be surprised to learn it's in stores you likely shop all the time, not just on the bottom clearance racks at discount chains like T.J. Maxx.
"If you walk into [a supermarket], the olive oil that's on the shelf does not have to have a seal, so it could very well be mislabeled," says Ricchiuti. For example, the olive oil may have an Italian-sounding brand name, but the back of the label says it's only been packaged in Italy—and that the oil itself is a blend, with origins in several countries such as Tunisia, Syria, Spain, Greece and Morocco.
If you've picked an EVOO bottle you're not sure about, you'd think you'd be able to tell by the taste if it was of the highest quality—but again, that's not always the case. The reason that this olive oil fraud has been going on for a century, says Ricchiuti, is because the American palate doesn't often know what good olive oil really tastes like.
High-quality extra-virgin olive oil should have a clean mouthfeel. When you sip it, the residue should feel clean and not oily. The flavor should be pleasant and remind you of green grass, green almond and tomato leaves, says Ricchiuti. You can also tell good olive oil based on the way it coats a spoon: If it's watery, it's no good.
"Taste your olive oil like wine—it should take you on a flavor journey and shouldn't come off as bitter and dull on your palate," says Lees. Bad olive oil will taste rancid, woody or have a certain "fustiness" about it—something that reminds you of dirty laundry, says Ricchiuti.
To ensure you're getting a bottle of EVOO that's actually what it claims to be the next time you're at a store, there are two things you should look for: the harvest date and the "best by" date. "If it doesn't have one of those things, it's a red flag," says Ricchiuti—and many imported olive oils do not.
Farmers making good EVOO will be proud of their harvest date, he says, and if that date is missing, it's probably because they don't want you to know (because it's so old). Unlike a fine wine, olive oil does not get better with age—it should be consumed within 18 to 24 months of the harvest date. And after a bottle has been opened, its shelf life is six months, as it starts to oxidize and ferment and will eventually turn rancid.
You don't have to spend a lot of money to get a good bottle of extra-virgin olive oil, but you don't want to go too cheap, either. Think of it like wine: "There is good wine that's $12, and great wine that's more expensive," says Ricchiuti. With olive oil, there are different levels of producers at different prices—just be sure to look for the harvest and "best by" dates, as well as quality seals if you're buying California oils, to ensure you're getting the highest-quality product.