Caveat Emptor - Olive Oil
Caveat Emptor. We usually associated this phrase (Latin for "buyer beware") with the purchase of big ticket items, like cars or real estate, not so much with something as seemingly simple as a bottle of olive oil. As consumers, we are at the mercy of the labeling of our food, and rely on label information to make informed choices. Unfortunately, we think we are purchasing healthy or pure foods, when in fact we are not. Among the well-known examples of adulterations to such food items as salt, honey, vanilla, and cognac, we can now add olive oil.
As we've covered here, a study released by the UC Davis Olive Center tested several different brands of olive oil, pulled from grocery stores at random locations across California. Over half of the imported olive oils and about 10% of California olive oils that were tested failed to meet the International Olive Council (IOC) and USDA standards for extra-virgin classification. The UC Davis study is not alone in their discovery of fraudulent labeling. Newer standards for testing, developed and adopted by Germany and Austrailia, determine the presence of pure olive oil. As reported in an Olive Oil Times article, these newer tests "referred to as the German/Australian DAGs standards... help detect the adulteration of extra virgin olive oils with refined olive oils. While the IOC/USDA chemistry standards confirmed negative sensory results in only 31 percent of cases, the German/Australian DAGs and PPP standards supported the negative sensory findings in 86 percent of cases."
Translation: your olive oil may in fact not be 100% olive oil, but may contain other vegetable and seed oils as fillers. Basically, you may be consuming olive-flavored oil, rather than real olive oil, much less extra-virgin olive oil, as promised on the label.
So what is a consumer to do to ensure they are getting the quality olive oil they are paying for? Here are a few tips and ideas that we use at Roving Olive when purchasing olive oil:
1. Know thy producer and/or retailer. If you live in California, you are often lucky enough to get artisan-level olive oil directl y from the producer, whether at an event or at farmer's markets. But for the rest of us, we will need to rely on the retailer. If you're serious about your olive oil, try to find a specialty food store or deli where you can talk to staff or owner. Ask questions about the olive oil they sell: has the staff tasted it, do they recommend it, do they have a favorite food pairing? Which brings us to point #2...
2. Start tasting. No better way to become acquainted with quality olive oil than to go forth and taste. It's the best way to educate yourself on the different varieties, styles, and qualities of olive oil. An olive producer will always most certainly open a bottle and let you taste their olive oil. A good deli/food merchant will do the same. Don't hesitate to ask for a sampling if one is not offered. After all, it's your money - get something you like.
3. Look for quality certifications or awards. This one can be tricky. For marketing purposes, some bottlers will make up certifications or awards. Look at the wording on these carefully. Unless they are from a known standards organization or competition, they may not be valid. Here are some olive oil certification and standards organizations you can look for: California Olive Oil Councel (COOC), Internation al Olive Oil Council (IOOC), California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), and Instituto Mediterraneo di Certificazione (IMC) to name a few.
4. Read the label. Yes, we just said that many bottles of olive oil are mislabeled. But just as many artisan-level olive oils are not. High quality olive producers and bottlers are starting to include the date of harvest and olive pressing/crushing on their labels. Since olive oil has a limited shelf life (from about 12 to 18 months), anything over this timeframe should probably be left on the shelf. Ideally, the press date should be the same day as the harvest date, or within a day or so of harvest. And finally, look for the olive variety listed on the label. A quality bottle of olive oil will proudly list exactly what olive variety (or varieties, in the case of blends) is used in the pressing.
Got a great story about olives, olive oil, and tasting? We would love to hear from you! Submit your stories and we can start a dialogue.