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 lifehacker.com 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.