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How to speak olive oil

(article, Jim Dixon)

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The olive-oil marketplace is full of claims. Know your terms: 

Extra Virgin: As defined by the International Olive Oil Council, extra-virgin olive oil must meet  strict standards for production, chemical content, and flavor. Unfortunately, the international rules have not been adopted by the FDA, and so the term “extra virgin” is not regulated in the United States. As a result, unscrupulous producers can legally label a refined-oil blend as extra-virgin olive oil and sell it for a higher price. 


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Jim Dixon, a writer and olive-oil importer in Portland, Oregon, dips into the nuances of olive oil in a companion feature.


Currently, only oils produced in California and certified by the California Olive Oil Council have been subjected to the analysis and tasting required to ensure that the IOOC standards for extra-virgin olive oil have been met. The COOC has petitioned the FDA to adopt the IOOC standards, but until that happens, consumers are out of luck. To increase the chance that the extra-virgin olive oil you’re buying really is extra virgin, stick with major brand names like Bertolli, Berio, or Colavita (they have a reputation to protect), look for the COOC certification seal on California olive oils, or buy from a trusted source. 

First Cold-Pressed: The term “first cold-pressed” is more marketing hype than accurate description. Continuous centrifugal mills have replaced the old hydraulic presses, so there is no “second” pressing. Warm water, up to about 85 degrees, is allowable under the IOOC rules to help separate the oil from the olive paste. Truly cold pressing at ambient temperatures during the fall harvest would take much longer, and longer contact between the oil and paste degrades the oil.

Pure or Lite Olive Oils: Anything that’s not truly extra-virgin olive oil, which includes most oils labeled “pure” or “lite,” is likely a blend of refined and virgin oils. They’re similar to other refined vegetable oils and, for what you’re getting, are overpriced. The refining process strips the virgin oil of flavor and any healthful qualities.

Price: It’s impossible to produce a true extra-virgin olive oil cheaply. While there may be exceptions, a good rule of thumb is anything less than $10 for a half liter (about 16 fluid ounces) is probably not really extra-virgin oil.

Flavor: Extra-virgin olive oil can range from mild and buttery to bitter and pungent depending on the types of olives used and the time of harvest. But metallic and chemical flavors or sweet aromas such as bananas or Play-Doh are signs that the oil is probably a blend that includes lower-quality refined olive oil.

Bottle: Light can damage olive oil, so avoid oil sold in clear glass bottles. Metal tins are fine; some producers believe they provide even more protection than dark bottles.

Color: While some publications recommend green olive oil, the color is not considered an indicator of quality. Unscrupulous producers press leaves with the olives to extract chlorophyll and tint the oil green. Avoid any bright green oil in clear bottles unless you’re purchasing freshly pressed oil from a reliable source.

p(bio). Longtime food writer Jim Dixon sells olive oil and sea salt in Portland, Oregon. He writes about food at Real Good Food.

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