Beware of your “extra virgin” olive oil

I use a fair amount of “extra virgin” olive oil, and have always gone by the label. As many people know now, that’s simply not safe. Time Magazine estimated that 69% of of olive oil sold in the U.S. is adulterated. Forbes published an estimate that 80% of the olive oil imported from Italy isn’t what it’s supposed to be (“extra virgin” oil, which is all I use, is made simply by crushing whole olives and filtering the juice; it is otherwise unrefined and untreated. It’s a nice dark green, and should taste a bit bitter and very olive-y). Sadly, it looks as if most extra virgin olive oil you buy in stores isn’t that at all, even if it’s labeled as such. As Forbes notes,

You want the worst news? Traditional, well-known brands haven’t escaped the evil: Many adulterated olive oils are sold under quality brand names.

Yet, supermarkets are full of them.

Oh, my mistake – that wasn’t the worst. Here it is: Even the labels bearing the coveted “Protected Designation of Origin” or PDO stamp indicating the precise geographical origin of a particular extra virgin olive oil to ensure the quality of that region’s agricultural products, and which are subjected to more strict controls, have not escaped the illegal trend.

Yet, governments continue to permit the entry and commercialization of those products.

For years, David Neuman, an olive oil expert and taster who is CEO of the Greek food companyGaea North America, has been warning about adulterated and mislabeled oils and finds it particularly frustrating that consumers, retailers and governments are turning a blind eye to the widespread fraud.

“There is good olive oil and bad olive oil everywhere, and there are many Italian producers who stand by their product,” he told me. “But the extended nature of the Italian problem is affecting all the rest of Europe.”

For him, the most serious issue is the fraud committed against the consumer: “The olive oil sold in supermarkets should meet the established standards. And that is not being upheld.”

Even in Italian supermarkets, the rate of fake olive oil on the shelves is estimated at 50%.

In a well known test, the National Consumer’s League (see also here) tested 11 widely-sold olive oils from grocery stores and food stores, and found that six brands weren’t “extra virgin”: they had been adulterated with other oils or simply weren’t “extra virgin”. But these five were deemed okay (do note that Colavita failed another test at UC Davis):

  • California Olive Ranch “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” – Classified as extra virgin.
  • Colavita “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” – Classified as extra virgin.
  • Trader Joe’s “ Extra Virgin California Estate Olive Oil” – Classified as extra virgin.
  • Trader Joe’s “100% Italian Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil” – Classified as extra virgin.
  • Lucini “Premium Select Extra Virgin Olive Oil” – Classified as extra virgin.

Unfortunately, the League didn’t name those brands that failed the test. They said that the failing companies raised a stink, noting (which is true) that only a single bottle of each product was examined. They really should have looked at more.

The University of California at Davis also did two tests of many more brands, and, as notes,  did list the ones that failed to meet the extra-virgin criterion. One of them, Colavita, which I long used, failed to meet the Davis criteria:

The brands that failed to meet the extra virgin olive oil standards, according to this study: Bertolli, Carapelli, Colavita, Star, Pompeian. Eat Grown Local also reports: Filippo Berio, Mazzola, Mezzetta, Newman’s Own, Safeway, and Whole Foods in this list; the data may be from the earlier 2010 study when more brands were evaluated.

The real deal: California Olive Ranch, Cobram Estate, Lucini. Kirkland Organic, Lucero (Ascolano), McEvoy Ranch Organic are also noted by Eat Grown Local.

Ergo, in both tests Californa Olive Ranch and Lucini brands were okay.  And the former isn’t expensive: $8.50-$10/bottle:


So if you’re not fancy-schmancy, into searching for rare varieties, you can stick with the brands given in bold. I was a bit distressed to hear about Colavita, as I used to use that as my go-to oil, so now I’ll use the Trader Joe’s stuff. Olive oil from California is generally safer, for the state has have stricter labeling laws.

And here’s a tip from Professor Ceiling Cat: Instead of using butter on your popcorn—or, God forbid, that microwave stuff, which is full of foul-tasting and artery-clogging butter substitutes—drizzle it with extra virgin olive oil and a little salt. (I sometimes use Chinese sesame oil.) I highly recommend eschewing the microwaved stuff and using a hot-air popper, which is cheap:  it’s basically an inverted hair dryer with a spout (Presto is a popular brand). These are dead easy to use: you just turn them on for about two minutes, dump in the corn, and then put a big bowl under the spout. Voilà: a big bowl of good stuff.

Over the long run, that will save you lots of dosh and make better popcorn, for you can buy lovely gourmet popcorn, as kernels in bags (remember that?) for only a song. And you can top it with whatever you want.



  1. BobTerrace
    Posted July 14, 2016 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    I have used a hot air popcorn popper for decades. I did try putting extra virgin olive oil on the popcorn but I don’t like the taste. I eat the popcorn plain with no butter/oil or salt.

    • dabertini
      Posted July 14, 2016 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

      Me too!! I love it plain.

  2. Scott Draper
    Posted July 14, 2016 at 8:55 am | Permalink

  3. alexandra moffat
    Posted July 14, 2016 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    Feeling smug – read about this a few years ago and switched to California Olive Ranch. Surprised that the scams are continuing – there was a fuss about it then but the regulators failed to crack down, I guess.
    COR is fine with us, there are a couple of labels.

  4. Posted July 14, 2016 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    I couldn’t find where the articles discuss the safety concerns.

  5. Ken Pidcock
    Posted July 14, 2016 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    We make popcorn by the traditional stovetop method (layer of kernels in the bottom of a sauce pan in oil) using olive oil. Works great.

  6. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted July 14, 2016 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Testing a single bottle and finding it to be adulterated is not likely to mean that the tested bottle was a rare anomaly. Quite the opposite. So crying foul over that is just a tactic for more obfuscation.

    • Posted July 14, 2016 at 11:50 am | Permalink

      Yeah, but it would have more credibility if they looked at a couple of bottles. It wasn’t just adulteration, either; they assessed purity, I believe, through smell and appearance, which might be tricky.

  7. Posted July 14, 2016 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    I use olive oil as my go-to butter substitute just about everywhere…but I pop my popcorn in coconut oil and lightly salt it.

  8. Charlie Jones
    Posted July 14, 2016 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    I seem to recall that the hot air popcorn is tougher than the popcorn done in hot oil. Is this true?

    We use a West Bend hot oil popper, and use the popcorn as an excuse to eat large quantities of BUTTER. And salt. What could be healthier?

    Microwave popcorn is evil and best avoided under all circumstances.

  9. Rod
    Posted July 14, 2016 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    My local Greek restaurant sells EV olive oil, supposedly specially imported from the owner’s uncle’s groves in Greece. Tastes pretty good and at least the money doesn’t go to Kraft or some other conglomerate.

    Also the specialty Italian grocery in Ottawa sells a house brand, about C$8/litre. Also good.
    I almost never bother with supermarket stuff.

    • Alexander
      Posted July 14, 2016 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

      When we lived in the US, we went to visit my wife’s relatives in Tuscany. When we departed they offered us a ten-liter plastic jerrycan with oil from their 1000-tree olive grove to take home (we declined the live chicken). We took the jerrycan as cabin luggage to the plane, and while boarding and walking by the stewards at the door, one of them pointed at the jerrycan, and said, laughing, “Are you going to blow us up, boom!”

      These were innocent times…

  10. Richard C
    Posted July 14, 2016 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    I’ve long used California Olive Ranch, so I’m glad to see it make the cut again. Why import olive oil when we grow some of the best right here?

  11. Lauren
    Posted July 14, 2016 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    For the past six months I’ve been putting olive oil on my nightly air-popped pop corn. Wouldn’t change it for butter or anything else (except a Sesame oil experiment).

    My brand wasn’t listed as a faker – I will try to verify that it’s really EVOO

  12. Christopher
    Posted July 14, 2016 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    After trying an air popper about five years ago, I couldn’t believe anyone would eat popcorn made any other way (except the occasional Jiffy Pop for pure retro dorkness). I, for one, cannot stand the disgusting oily garbage pushed at movie theater. Foul and inedible!

    Now, let me recommend a fantastic popcorn brand, Lakota Popcorn, grown by the Lower Brule Sioux. If you like big, fat fluffy popcorn (as opposed to some of the more common, small, chewy name brands) then this is the one for you. I love it, and I bet there are others grown by Native American groups that are worth a try. I’ll bet there are some heirloom varieties saved by some tribes that deserve to be recognized. They invented it, so they ought to know something, right?

  13. rickflick
    Posted July 14, 2016 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    I’m not an oil connoisseur, but it’s good to know there are people upholding standards.

  14. Jeff Lewis
    Posted July 14, 2016 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    I don’t mean this to sound flip, but what part of this issue is the big deal? I can certainly understand being upset at companies for committing fraud and boycotting them for that. Is that the main reason to avoid them? If it’s an issue of taste, and people have been consuming the fake stuff for years and never noticed the difference, is there any reason to switch to one of the genuine EVOOs? If cost, why not just switch to regular olive oil if it’s a little cheaper, and that’s what they’d been satisfied with before, anyway? Or are there other reasons I’m not aware of?

    • Jeff Lewis
      Posted July 14, 2016 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      I mean, it would be like if I found that a grocery store I went to was selling mislabeled wine, passing off a cheap wine in a bottle with a more expensive label. If I really liked the fraudulent wine I’d been drinking, I wouldn’t go looking for a store that sold the genuine article – I’d switch to the cheap wine from a store that didn’t misrepresent it. If it turns out that the olive oil we’ve been using for the past few years isn’t actually EVOO, then apparently, EVOO is wasted on my palate, so I might as well just buy the cheap stuff.

      • Mike
        Posted July 14, 2016 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

        @14 Jeff Lewis One of the main objections to adulterated olive oils is the negation of the supposed health benefits of consuming it. The oil fraudsters are “watering down” or stretching the reputable oils with cheaper, less healthy oils in order to get more bang for their buck. This is I think done at the time of bulk packaging.

  15. Charles Minus
    Posted July 14, 2016 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    I gave up on the air popper because I find the microwave works great. Just put the corn in a glass bowl with a loose cover and zap it until it stops popping. Add EVO and salt and it’s terrific.

    • juan
      Posted July 20, 2016 at 8:16 am | Permalink

      It works! Thanks!

  16. Posted July 14, 2016 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    There’s a lab at the University of Ottawa that has gotten good at doing isotopic analysis to determine origins of foods and so on. (For example, they were able to determine, apparently, that some American fishermen were indeed catching in Canadian waters, despite their protests to the contrary.) I take it this investigation is done in a similar way.

  17. Kevin
    Posted July 14, 2016 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    California Olive Ranch rocks! Good olive oil is really good. Most olive oils are reasonable, even if they are fake. It’s what hits the taste buds that matters most.

    • Ben
      Posted July 14, 2016 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

      Agree. I’ve been sticking to that since I first tasted it and found it tasted noticeably better to me. I thought it might just be fresher since it came from California, but that doesn’t really make any sense. Then again, I have never noticed price to be a particularly reliable guide to taste or quality, in oils and wine and many other things–but you have to try to be sure – I find price usually does work for butter and gruyere.

  18. Teresa Caras
    Posted July 14, 2016 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    You can also buy California olive oil at the University of California-Davis bookstore and online (

  19. Art
    Posted July 14, 2016 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    Great book about the olive oil problem: “Extra Virginity,” by Tom Mueller. He also has a good website: I have been making popcorn in the microwave for years — large brown paper lunch bag, about a half-cup or so of popcorn, two staples to close the top of the bag (no, it will not arc out the microwave), and about 2-3 minutes on high. Works well, no nasty chemicals.

    • JoanL
      Posted July 14, 2016 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

      I too use paper lunch bags, though w/o the staples – I fold the tops once and dog-ear the corners twice.

  20. Posted July 14, 2016 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Mandatory “extra virgin” cartoon

  21. Avis James
    Posted July 14, 2016 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    I have a microwave popcorn popper which makes fine popcorn with no oil. An olive oil / butter mix with black pepper goes down in our house.

  22. Mike
    Posted July 14, 2016 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    @14 Jeff Lewis One of the main objections to adulterated olive oils is the negation of the supposed health benefits of consuming it. The oil fraudsters are “watering down” or stretching the reputable oils with cheaper, less healthy oils in order to get more bang for their buck. This is I think done at the time of bulk packaging.

  23. Jose
    Posted July 14, 2016 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    But why would you use imported italian olive oil instead of spanish?

    Well, I’ll asume is an availability issue. Even if Spain is the biggest world producer. We suspect that lots of italian olive oil is bought here in bulk and branded there.

    Anyway, if you buy an imported spanish brand, I can be quite sure you’ll have actual 100% olive oil. It’s a thing we take seriously. Fraud wil happen, of course, but with less known brands that usually will not exporte. Search for Borges, even if I don’t buy it in spain, it’s expensive; I use cheaper brands but still good, that usually will not be exported. Maybe Fragata, Ojiblanca (It’s a variety, but also a brand, I don’t remember any more names at the moment.

    • Colin Campbell
      Posted July 15, 2016 at 2:05 am | Permalink

      My Brother in law produces OLive oil in catalonia in what is a designated region that produces oil from the small arbequina olive which produces oil of very low acidity (good) of about 0.4% (well below the 0.8% max for extra virgin. It must be said that our family of 5 consumes about 80-100 litres a year as it is the oil for everytihng and is very good indeed, all olives being crushed and centrifuged on the day of harvest. It should be noted that the cooperative that produces the oil also sells the odd truck load to italian purchasers (the story goes to improve their own oil!). I would also mention the fact that among small producers, Borges in not that well regarded.

  24. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted July 14, 2016 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    No comment on the popcorn question, but I think this “extra virgin olive oil scandal” was puffed a bit in the UK a year or so ago, with similar results in that the adulterated stuff was everywhere, in essentially all brands.

  25. Posted July 15, 2016 at 1:22 am | Permalink

    I appreciate the tips in this post.

  26. chrism
    Posted July 15, 2016 at 5:48 am | Permalink

    I have been in the habit of buying large cans of olive oil as I use for everything.The last two I have had from a large Canadian chain of supermarkets have both developed wax flakes even though kept at room temperature, these clog the outlet and are obviously composed of a denser/longer chain fat than olive oil. I took the last can back and we are assured it is perfectly OK and expected behaviour. Well, that just ensures I shall never buy olive oil from them again.

  27. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted July 15, 2016 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    I could never figure how anything could be *extra* virgin. I mean, either it’s virgin or it isn’t, right?

    (Cue graffiti:
    Mother said I didn’t oughta
    So I stayed a virgin, sorta )


%d bloggers like this: