Over the past five to ten years many of us have started using extra virgin olive oil for its health benefits and exquisite flavor. Yet many press reports indicate that we in the United States may be paying for what we think is extra virgin olive oil, but getting inferior grades of oil. Tom Mueller’s book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil,  (more information at www.extravirginity.com) is an informative look at what is really in those bottles labeled “extra virgin olive oil – made in Italy” and how to find ultra-premium quality EVOOs. Tom provides a lot of great information in his book and on his site; here are some of the highlights.

Why is extra virgin olive oil good for me?

Numerous studies show that olive oil reduces cholesterol, lowers blood pressure, inhibits platelet aggregation, and lowers the incidence of breast cancer. Because it is so rich in antioxidants, olive oil appears to dramatically reduce the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, thereby preventing heart disease. These same antioxidants also add to the stability, shelf life, and flavor of the oil. However, for an olive oil to provide these health benefits, it must, at the very least, meet the standards required to be classified as an extra virgin olive oil.

What makes an olive oil an extra virgin olive oil?

Logo for the International Olive Council

The International Olive Council defines extra virgin olive oil as follows:

  • Mechanically extracted only from olives
  • Having a free fatty acidity (FFA) level of .8 percent or lower
  • Having peroxide levels of less than 20 milliequivalents per kilogram
  • Having passed a panel tasting test certifying that it is free of taste flaws.

The United States has not yet adopted this standard, which results in lesser quality oils being labeled as “extra virgin” while technically they are not.

Just what do “mechanically extracted,” “free fatty acidity level” (FFA) and “peroxide levels” mean?

Mechanically extracted means that no chemicals were used in the extraction of the oil from the olive. Some manufacturers of olive, seed, and nut oils use chemical processes to extract the oil – this results in higher yields but far inferior quality oils with neutral or negative health benefits.

Free fatty acids result when the olives are damaged by handling, insect infestation, fungus, or other problems that occur when there are delays between harvesting and pressing (also known as crushing) the olive. In general, the higher the FFA, the more likely the oil is of poor quality. Many experts believe that the .8 percent limit set by the IOC is too high – that excellent EVOOs should have an FFA measure of .2 percent or lower.

The peroxide level measures to what extent the oil has been oxidized; a higher measure indicates a poorer quality oil. Like FFA levels, many in the industry believe that 20 milliequivalents per kilogram is too high and that an excellent EVOO contains less than 10 meq per kilogram.

What should I look for when I am buying an extra virgin olive oil?

If you can’t trust the label and these measures are not available, how can you be sure that you are getting a high-quality EVOO? For starters, look for freshness. Ideally, the label includes the harvest date of the olives. You want to consume the oil within 18 months of this date. Some brands feature a “use by” date that is generally 24 months from the harvest date. We encourage you to buy oil that is not more than 12 months old.

F. Oliver’s publishes the harvest date for each of our single varietals, along with the FFA level, the peroxide level, and other component measures. Look for a tag on the stainless steel fusti, or ask a team member for more information.

Fresh crush – EVOO within minutes of pressing

What does all this mean?

The measures that go into qualifying an oil as extra virgin boil down to the quality of the fruit and the time between harvest and press. F. Oliver’s oils use the highest quality olives available and they are pressed within hours of harvest.  

What are the other grades of olive oil? 

The next grade down from EVOO is virgin olive oil, which is made from inferior olives, usually due to poor growing, picking, or storage practices or to laxity in getting the olives to the press as quickly as possible. These olives might be bruised, rotting, or affected by fungus resulting in an oil that doesn’t taste as good and does not deliver the health benefits of an EVOO. Like extra virgin olive oil, this oil is mechanically extracted but will have free fatty acid (FFA) and peroxide (PV) measures outside of those required to be considered an EVOO.

Oils that measure lower than a virgin olive oil are not fit for human consumption as they are – they require refining with the use of charcoal and other chemical and physical filters. Refined oil is generally tasteless, odorless, and colorless; the health benefits of these oils range from neutral to negative.

The issue in the olive oil industry today, according to Tom Mueller, is not that these varying grades of oil exist but that in many cases manufacturers blend refined olive oils or seed oils with an extra virgin olive oil and label it as extra virgin olive oil. In the United States, most of us haven’t had access to high quality, ultra-fresh EVOOs and don’t know what they should taste like so we often pay for what we think is EVOO and getting a markedly lower grade oil.

We at F. Oliver’s have been educating ourselves and our community about EVOO since our inception. Our staff regularly attend olive oil educational conferences and sensory evaluation classes, and we regularly hold tastings of our EVOOs and other oils available in Western New York market. We continue to learn to taste the components that help us discern the good stuff from the not-so-good stuff and the fresh from the not-so-fresh stuff and look forward to helping you do the same.

If you are interested in learning along with us, we invite you to come in anytime to taste our oils, vinegars, and spices. If you’d like to do some comparison tasting, bring in any other oils or vinegars you’d like and our trained staff will help you discern the different elements that fresh, quality EVOOs display.