A few weeks ago Your Money reported on the scandal rocking the olive oil industry: Companies that pass off lower grade or adulterated oil as Extra Virgin.For an in-depth look we turned to Antoinette Addison, Vice President of the California Olive Oil Council, an organisation that’s been working for years to set the record straight.
Addison discussed why these producers have been able to get away with mislabeling for so long and how you can be sure you don’t get fooled.
'The United States definitely has been slow on the olive oil front,' Addison says.
Without clearly defined olive oil grades, any company selling olive oil in the states was free to label lower grades as Extra Virgin without repercussions.
Then this groundbreaking 2010 study revealed 69% of 19 popular olive oil brands sold in the states failed a chemical and taste test based on international and USDA standards for extra virgin olive oil.
Consumers filed a class action suit against companies that failed the test, but it was pretty much pointless
'The suit said (the companies selling mislabeled olive oil) was misleading, and it certainly was, but they were not breaking the law, which was totally absurd,' Addison said.
Brands that failed the test included big names like Rachel Ray, Whole Foods' 365 Days, Bertoli and Filippo Beri. See the full study here.
The study gave olive oil producers in the country enough leverage to push the USDA into implementing new guidelines on olive oil grades.
The new standards group olive oil into about five categories:
U.S. Extra Virgin Olive Oil (Oil in its rawest, most nutrient-rich form)
U.S. Virgin Olive Oil
U.S. Olive Oil
Refined Olive Oil
U.S. Olive-Pomace Oil
See the USDA guide here for a list of their individual characteristics.
An FDA spokesperson confirmed the agency does not inspect olive oil in the states.
That's mostly because passing off lower grade oil for the elite stuff doesn't pose much risk to consumers' health in the long-run. Just keep in mind that the nutrient-dense qualities associated with EVOO won't be found in lower grades.
The real danger occurs when oil has been tampered with or mixed with lower quality oils, a practice highlighted in Thomas Mueller's controversial new book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.
In it, Mueller cites the death of hundreds of people in Madrid after street vendors tried to pass off oil intended for industrial purposes as regular olive oil.
Ask any olive oil expert and they'll tell you smell is one of the key ways to tell EVOO apart from lower grades.
'It's like Minute Maid versus fresh squeezed orange juice,' Addison says. 'By taste and smell, you can tell the quality you're getting.'
Extra Virgin olive oil should have a strong, fruity and pleasant smell, while lower grades can often be totally tasteless.
While the FDA isn't testing every bottle of olive oil in the country, independent organisations have taken it upon themselves to put olive oils through rigorous chemical and taste testing.
For example, the COOC offers a seal for California producers that pass its test.
The Olive Oil Source has an exhaustive list of other seals for olive oil quality that can be found in the states. See it here.
The downside: Not all companies can afford the fee to have their products tested.
Addison says the general rule of thumb is that any EVOO sold for less than $10-$14 for <750 ml is probably not high quality.
Only the largest producers and supermarkets may be able to get away with selling bottles for any less.
Why should we care? Because EVOO is championed for its heart-healthy antioxidants. The lower the grade, the lower the nutrient content you'll be getting.
'The problem for the consumer is that, if you're in the market in Atlanta, for example, which is far from olive oil producers, it's pretty hard to know what you're getting,' Addison notes.
In major cities, there are massive marketplaces where boutique olive oil producers offer their oils up for taste testing and have stringently vetted their quality. Here's a list of these tasting bars.
Just because a bottle of olive says it was 'Bottled in Italy' doesn't mean it was produced from Italian olives. Other clever marketing labels: 'Product of X' or 'Packaged in X.'
'If the stuff was actually made in Italy, they'd put that on the labels,' Addison says. 'Italian producers export more than they produce. By definition, a lot of the olive oil we get from Italy is probably not from Italy. The problem is people on the streets don't know that.'
Popular olive oil sources: Spain, Greece, France, California, Australia, Chile, Mexico.
EVOO is very sensitive to light and heat, which is why the real stuff should be packaged in dark coloured bottles.
The problem is Americans have a problem with not being to 'see' what they're buying, Addison points out. That presents a dilemma for retailers, who usually opt for lighter bottles to please shoppers -- jeopardizing the nutrients of the oil at the same time.
This is undoubtedly the most popular question posed by readers, but there is no simple answer. Big brands like Rachel Ray and Whole Foods both came up short in the U.C. Davis study.
Try paying attention to olive oil competitions, which rank oils from around the world on a variety of factors, including taste and quality.
The winners in the 2011 Los Angeles Extra Virgin Olive Oil competition were Australia's Cobram Estate, California's Sciabica's olive oil, Riebli Point Ranch's Quattro olive oil, and Oro Bailen from Spain.
Also, check out Consumersearch's compilation of olive oil reviews from a host of reknowned food publications. Extra Virgin olive oils from Trader Joe's and Lucini's both scored high in a Bon Apetit taste test.