Olive Oil 101

The quick answer:  The extra virgin olive oils in your supermarket may not be all that innocent.  Try the California oils and see if you don’t like them better.


The Problem with Olive Oil

I should be addressing this week’s Healthy Change subject—vegetables—but we’ll get to that tomorrow.  Today we have a more interesting comment from a reader:  What brands of olive oil can be trusted?

It’s a great question.  I don’t know the answer but I think that collectively our readers might.  So I’ll offer some information to start the conversation and ask for comments. 

When I wrote the recent post disparaging vegetable oils, I noted that olive oil now gets equal shelf space in the local supermarket.  That’s a big change from a decade ago and I noted an important difference between the two food groups:  There were just a few vegetable oil brands (Best Foods, Wesson Oil, Mazola Oil, Kraft Foods) but there was a plethora of olive oil brands.

I returned to the store and counted the olive oil brands—14.  It’s odd that the food giants haven’t dominated such an ancient product.  Three countries—Spain, Italy, and Greece—produce ¾ of the world supply, but other Mediterranean countries like Turkey, Morocco, and Tunisia play a role, as does Argentina, Australia, and, drum roll, California. 

California is a relatively recent player (it produce 3% of the world supply).  The original Spanish friars planted olive trees around the missions but the industry slowly died due to the low cost of imported oils.  In recent decades there’s been a revival and excellent California olive oils are now available.

Benefits of Olive Oil

I have to be brief here as the beautiful wife said the last post was too long.  There’s an excellent summary of EVOO benefits here.  A brief summary:

  1. Anti-inflammation:  The plant nutrients, especially polyphenols, have potent anti-inflammatory effect.
  2. Anti-cancer:  An Italian research institute reviewed 25 studies of olive oil and cancer.  The results confirm the cancer risk reduction effect of olive oil, especially for breast cancer.
  3. Cardiovascular:  Besides the anti-inflammatory benefit, olive oil is rich in antioxidants, including vitamin E and beta-carotene (vitamin A precursor).  Both are beneficial to vascular health.

Who Can You Trust?

There’s a big problem with olive oil:  Real olive oil is far more costly than other vegetable oils, so you can make a lot of money by slipping in cheaper oils.  In his later years, Mark Twain wrote a nostalgic book about his youth called Life on the Mississippi.  In the book he recounts, or imagines, a dialogue between two traveling salesman.  One brags about the money that can be made by shipping cottonseed oil to Italy where it is chemically treated and bottled as olive oil for shipment back to the US.  It’s a slippery business.

More recently, a UC Davis study found over 2/3 of the imported EVOO brands sold in California aren’t what the label claims—they’re mixed with lower grades or other oils.  One of the California EVOO brands also failed the test.  (It should be noted California growers funded the testing.)  For EVOO labeling, there’s no law against cheating, as the FDA hasn’t set standards for olive oil grades.

Olive Oil Aisle Visit

Here are a few things I noted in the olive oil aisle:

  • PriceOlive oil costs more; prices ranged from 27 to 76 cents/oz. (in the 500 mL size), though most cost in the 50-60 cent range.  Why the difference in price?  I couldn’t tell—except the more expensive came in more interesting bottles.  It’s a big question with olive oil—what justifies a higher price? 
  • California olive oil—I looked for domestic olive oil but everything was imported, even from less known countries like Tunisia.  California olive oils are gaining popularity, but they’re not that common yet.  I later found a bottle—Trader Joe’s Extra Virgin California Estate Olive Oil.
  • Taste test —The beautiful wife and I tasted three extra virgin olive oils—two imported and TJ’s California EVOO.  Conclusion:  I thought the California EVOO tasted much better; the others had a heavy, almost-rancid taste.  The California oil had a fresher grassy taste.  Better yet, TJ’s 500 mL bottle only cost $6.00.  Not in our taste test:  Costco offers a California EVOO from Cullen Creek; per Costco, you have to buy a liter but it's a good value we want to try some day.

Please comment:  Do you have a favorite olive oil?  Please share your experience.

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Reader Comments (13)

I've been buying the Costco Olive Oil because it comes in a glass bottle, but if this isn't a good one, please let me know!

February 12, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermelissa

I also buy the Costco olive oil. I have been happy with it. It seems like Costco typically goes the extra mile to ensure the high quality of their products. I would like to try Trader Joe's and see how it compares.

February 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBecky

After reading "Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil" by Tom Mueller, I now choose to buy California Olive Oil. It is so frustrating that food processors and distributors are so corrupt. I found it very interesting to read that Italy sells more extra virgin olive oil than it produces, which proves corruption is a problem.

I now only buy California Olive Oil. I been happy with the Trader Joe's California Olive Oil. I also like California Olive Ranch branch which I have been able to find a quite a number of grocery stores in Utah and Arizona. If I can't find those brands, I try to find one with the California Olive Oil Council logo on it. I know it is probably not a guarantee, but I just do the best I can to find the best product and hope for the best.

February 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLindsay

Trying to find the blog where a read an extensive review and comparison of olive oils. They gave tips on how to determine if your olive oil is what it claims to be and reviewed a few brands. Kirkland brand olive oil actually came out on top! They had a more pure olive oil than many expensive, highly touted brands. This was of course only for the extra virgin. (If I relocate this blog I will post another comment!)

This is a similar article to the original that I read (this one gives tips on checking the quality of your oil:

Also, I have heard excellent things about Chaffin Family Orchards in California. You can order direct.

February 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

Aha! Here it is. ;) With a link to the results of the UC Davis study as well as a simplified breakdown.

Note, the "at home tests" in both links are not entirely accurate. But a start, at least.

February 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

I bought some of the Costco extra virgin olive oil (the kind in the big plastic bottle) at Christmas time to make salad dressing as gifts for friends and it was awful! So bitter!

I've been buying my olive oil in bulk in big metal tins from a woman who does group orders on grains, oils, etc. She typically does her research, but now I want to look into it a little more closely. I'll have to try the TJ's brand. We just got a TJ's in Salt Lake, which I really love! On a side note, I found that they have grass fed, organic butter for under $5/pound. The color is so much darker than Costco's organic butter, which means more nutrients.

February 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnn

The Costco olive oil in the plastic bottle is NOT the good stuff. That is the cheap one.

February 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

This is the first I've heard about California Olive Oil. I can't wait to do some research and find some good brands, then see if I can get our local little grocery store to bring some in for us. Sadly, our closest TJ's is 6 hours away.

February 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterValena

I don't stick with any brands of EVOO, I haven't bought it frequently enough in the past to compare, and I never remember what it was I bought last time anyways. I have heard though that the more green (as opposed to yellow) the oil, the better. I don't know if that's true, but it's all I know so I go through the clear glass bottles and pick which ever has oil that looks more green. Many bottles are tinted so it is hard to tell what color the oil really is, hence only going through clear bottles. My husband recently suggested we start using coconut oil. I've never used it or even seen it, but then I've never looked for it.

February 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHollie

I read once that you can tell high quality olive oil because it will get solid when stored in the refrigerator. An olive oil that is mixed with a "lesser" oil will not get solid. Interestingly, I bought an olive oil at whole foods once and I put it in the refrigerator. It had small balls of solids, but was mostly liquid. I went back and got another brand to try and sure enough, when I put it in the refrigerator, it got completely solid. Has anyone else heard that? I don't know if that's really true, but anymore it's so hard to know you are getting what you think you are.

February 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterApril

Thanks so much for responding to my question! I just bought a bottle of Californian olive oil tonight so we'll see how it works.

February 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJosie

Real olive oil shouldn't be sold in clear glass bottles. Light/sunlight reacts with the oil and can make it go rancid. The real stuff is typically sold in dark glass or metal for that reason. That's usually my first test for authenticity. Also, if you buy the real stuff, you should store it somewhere cool and out of direct light for those reasons that it will go bad or rancid. And yes, real olive oil should solidify in the fridge, same as coconut oil will also solidify. Just a quick internet search gives articles on spotting the fake olive oils from real as well as naming brands that are quality.

February 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNaomi

I took a cooking class recently and my instructor said that the Costco EVOO is really great quality and that that is what she uses.

March 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterProvident Princess

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