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How to Choose Olive Oil

By Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD

olive oil

Who doesn’t love olive oil? Known for its starring role in the Mediterranean diet, olive oil contains active compounds that benefit health. These include oleic acid (monounsaturated fatty acids) and phenolic compounds (antioxidants) that help reduce the risk of chronic disease such as heart disease and certain cancers.

But when you go to the store to pick out an olive oil, how do you know you’re getting the best one?  Well, as you will see, it takes a little investigative work.

Type of olive oil

The difference in the type of olive comes down to processing. In the case of extra virgin olive oil, considered the highest quality olive oil, there are no chemicals or high heat used when making it, just a mechanical or physical process. This helps to preserve the health-promoting phenolic compounds of the olive.

According to the Olive Oil Source: “If you are especially interested in the health benefit aspects of olive oil, the best choice is extra virgin olive oil, preferably a very high quality one, as it is likely that its production method left most anti-oxidants and other healthy components intact. “

What about all the other types of olive oils on the market? According to the Olive Oil Source, virgin olive oil is of lower quality than extra virgin due to higher acidity and taste. Refined olive oil (also termed pure olive oil) is made with charcoal or other chemical/physical filters to make lower quality virgin oil more appealing by eliminating defects and taste issues.  Because refined oils are tasteless, some virgin olive oil is mixed in with it. If not labeled “virgin” or “extra virgin,” olive oil such as “light” or “extra light,” is usually a mix of refined and virgin olive oils.

Is it really extra virgin olive oil?

Just knowing extra virgin olive oil is a great choice isn’t enough. “You have to buy ‘real’ extra virgin olive oil, not some adulterated version,” says Mary Flynn, PhD, RD, Research Dietitian and Associate Professor at the Miriam Hospital and Brown University. “A lot of the olive oil imported into the US, especially from Italy, is adulterated, meaning it is really vegetable (seed) oil and doctored up to ‘taste’ like olive oil to Americans.”

According to the Olive Oil Source, there is no federal standard to guarantee that oil labeled as extra virgin is indeed extra virgin. The USDA is working on new standards. New laws now exist in some states.”

A 2011 report from UC Davis Olive Center found that 69% of imported and 10% of California extra virgin olive oils failed to meet standards. The specifics, included brands that did well, are detailed in this report.

Here are some things to look for when shopping for a high quality extra virgin olive oil:

  • “Harvest date” on the bottle, buying as close to that date as possible.
  • Olive oil in a dark bottle versus light colored bottles (light degrades the oil faster).

To give you an example, I went from buying an extra virgin olive oil in a light bottle with no date said to be “packed in Italy” to a dark green bottle with the California Olive Oil Council seal with a harvest date.

Is it worth buying extra virgin olive oil without these clues that it’s high quality? I say, don’t waste your money. Just go with a less expensive oil — olive oil or otherwise. At least you’ll know what you are getting.

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