In April 2007, U.S. Marshals busted into storage facilities in New York and New Jersey to seize a counterfeit and potentially dangerous substance.
The product they seized? Olive oil labeled as extra virgin—10,000 cases of it. Turns out it was mostly soybean oil disguised under the label of olive oil. The street value of this bust? Around $700,000.
That’s no chump change. With such a profit at stake, it’s no wonder that Italian police raids have resulted in the arrests of dozens of Italians involved in mafia rings involved in selling and distributing fake olive oil. Sounds more like a movie plot than real life, right? And with so many of the world’s olive oil coming from Italy—either being produced there or just exported—that means that a lot of us have reason to worry.
Olive oil fact: Italy is the world’s largest importer and exporter of olive oil, but Spain is the largest producer.
Olive oil fraud is rampant
According to a University of California at Davis study, more than two-thirds of common brands of extra-virgin olive oil found in California grocery stores aren’t what they claim to be.
The oils were either spoiled or made from lower quality olives unfit to be labeled “extra virgin.” Even worse, some were outright counterfeits, made from soybean, hazelnut, and even fish oils mixed with low grade olive-pomace oil. Not only is this a scam to your wallet and your health, robbing you of the true health benefits of real, high-quality extra-virgin olive oil, but it’s a major safety hazard too—especially to those with allergies to some of the counterfeit oils actually used in place of olive oil.
Here’s a video I made about counterfeit olive oil
Why bother counterfeiting olive oil?
Olive oil is big business. Americans spend $700 million on olive oil annually.
Far more valuable than other vegetable oils, olive oil is also more costly and time consuming to produce. So people have been adulterating it since the time of Christ.
These days, olive oil is the most adulterated agricultural product coming out of Europe.
Part of what makes olive oil so valuable is its many touted health benefits. Rich in monounsaturated fats and antioxidants, olive oil can lower LDL cholesterol and blood pressure while stabilizing blood sugar levels and reducing inflammation in the body.
Is your olive oil lying about its virginity?
If you buy olive oil at a supermarket, the odds aren’t stacked in your favor. This is doubly true if you shop by price or consume “light” extra-virgin olive oil.
According to this NPR interview, it’s possible that some shoppers in America have never had 100% pure, extra-virgin olive oil in their lives—even though they’ve been buying products labeled that way for decades.
And don’t think you’ll be able to tell the good stuff by taste alone—even master food critics and olive oil producers themselves failed miserably in blind taste tests. The results were so embarrassing, in fact, that the results of the blind taste tests were never released.
Just trust us, you can’t go by taste, smell, or appearance alone. You must know how to find the good stuff! So listen up as we give you the deets on how to do just that.
How to find real olive oil
1. Be skeptical with labels + stay away from “light” varieties
Hate to break it to you, but “cold pressed” or “first cold pressed” labels are usually just lip service. Extra-virgin olive oil is typically spun with centrifuges rather than pressed, so the term is usually pointless these days.
Even the highly coveted “extra-virgin” label doesn’t mean much, as some low-grade counterfeit oils even slap the “extra-virgin” label on their bottles illegally.
But… even if some of the oil labeled “extra virgin” is in fact fake, the others that don’t even bother labeling their oil that way are likely to be much worse.
Stay away from anything labeled with meaningless buzzwords like “pure,” “natural,” “premium,” “made in Italy” and the like.
Same goes for “light” olive oil. Stay far, far away. This is the worst stuff on the market.
2. Instead, look for respected stamps of approval
For Californian olive oils, look for the seal from the California Olive Oil Council—COOC Certified Extra Virgin.
Internationally, there are more seals to seek out, like the Extra Virgin Alliance (EVA), and UNAPROL, the respected Italian olive grower’s association, which stamps their recommended bottles with a “100% Qualita Italiana” label.
The North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) also tests member samples and marks qualifying products with a NAOOA Certified Oil stamp, denoted by a red circular logo with a green olive branch. International Olive Council certification is another good one to look for.
3. Go by location
Certain countries are good bets for great olive oil just based on their standards—like Australia, which has the world’s highest olive oil standards. Chile is another country with a great reputation as a quality olive oil producer.
Australia and Chile both received the highest marks from the United States International Trade Commissions’s report on average quality of extra-virgin olive oil.
Californian olive oils are also far less adulterated than imported oils, so many people trust oils grown there—especially if it carries the COOC Certified Extra Virgin stamp of approval as mentioned above.
4. Buy in season and in dark containers
Olive oil degrades in the light and heat, so don’t buy clear bottles sitting near windows or in the sun. Opt instead for dark bottles or cans, where the oil will be better protected from degradation by light.
Olive oil can also start to go bad as soon as you open it, so try smaller bottles that you can use more quickly, or store it in the fridge or another cool spot between uses to keep it from going rancid.
As far as dates go, you don’t want anything older than a year. So if you can find bottles with the harvest or production dates listed on them, great.
5. Do your homework
If all else fails, find a reputable company, and buy small bottles from them to try. If you’re local to a company that produces olive oil, ask to tour their facility or see where the olives are grown or produced.
You got this!
Now tell us in the comments below, have you ever had a bad olive oil experience? What did you do? What about an experience finding an olive oil you love?