Olive oil is one of the most popular cooking oils in the world.
It is also one of the most lucrative exports for Italy, which means that it has become rife with fraudulent claims and producers who cut their oils with lower quality oils.
Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), is often referred to as liquid gold!
It is made by grinding olives into a paste and then gently pressing them to release the oil, reaching temperatures no higher than 80°F to preserve the polyphenols, flavor, and color of this precious oil.
When it comes to selling olive oil as extra virgin, the European Union has strict policies and procedures in place to ensure purity and quality.
However, several brands in Italy have been under investigation for making false EVOO claims on their products.
So, what olive oil brands should you avoid if you want a high-quality, pure product? Seven well-known olive oil brands, including Carapelli, Bertolli, Santa Sabina, Coricelli, Sasso, Primadonna, and Antica Badia, are being investigated for passing lesser-quality virgin olive oil as “extra virgin” olive oil.
If you want to spend your money on the best quality oils, you should likely avoid these brands.
Keep reading to discover more about the controversy surrounding olive oil purity, how to choose the best quality olive oil, and why you should avoid the 7 brands listed above.
Olive Oil Controversy
Olive oil is one of the most delicious, heart-healthy, and versatile cooking oils on the market.
Often referred to as “yellow gold”, there is a lot of money to be made in selling high-quality olive oils. But along with great financial gain comes great fraudulent activity.
All the way back in 2013, a report published by the European Parliament named olive oil as Europe’s most adulterated, tampered with, and counterfeited agricultural product.
One food writer, Larry Olmsted found that while much of the olive oil that we believe comes from Italy is only bottled there.
Instead, much of the oil sold as “Italian” is produced in Syria, Turkey, North Africa, and Spain. These oils are much lower quality and a lot cheaper than traditional, high-quality extra virgin olive oil.
Tom Mueller’s book, Extra Virginity, found that around 75-80% of extra virgin olive oils sold in the U.S. are not what they claim to be. Many are adulterated or cut with cheaper, less healthy oils and passed off as high quality.
With so much uncertainty around the quality of olive oil, it’s helpful to know what to look for when it comes to the best olive oil and what brands you should avoid.
What To Look For When Choosing An Olive Oil
What many folks don’t realize is that olive oil actually has a very strong, sometimes peppery taste, which is nothing at all like the flavor you find in most olive oils on the grocery store shelves.
Typically, these oils have been cut with cheaper oil, or they have been overly refined to remove the taste.
Here are some key things to look for when discerning whether olive oil is a high-quality product or a less flavorful, diluted oil.
1. Look For Extra Virgin Designation
While it should be simple enough to choose high-quality olive oil based on the Extra Virgin designation, unfortunately, some companies and brands tend to lie.
However, as a starting point, looking for Extra Virgin on the label can start to steer you in the right direction.
EVOO is made by grinding harvested olives into a paste. The paste is then pressed to extra the oil from the olive fruit.
There is no heating of the paste/oil involved so many of the polyphenols and other components of the oil that give its distinctive taste are preserved.
To prove whether a brand is actually an EVOO, there are a couple of things to look for.
2. Look For a Forest Green or Deep Yellowish Green Colored Olive Oil
Since Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) has not been refined further than the grinding and pressing process, the distinct color of the olive and its plant compounds should remain in the oil.
This process gives EVOO a beautiful forest green (sometimes a yellowish-green tint depending on the brand) color.
If you have an oil that has little to no green color left, then it has likely been further refined and so isn’t a pure EVOO.
If you are looking for the highest quality olive oil, you want that beautiful greenish-yellow color as an indicator that it hasn’t been overly refined and contains all the flavors, polyphenols, and nutrition of a pure EVOO.
3. High-Quality Olive Olive Should Have a Peppery Taste
We might think of olive oil as a relatively mild-tasting cooking oil. However, when it comes to pure, high-quality EVOO, these oils actually have a rather pungent and strong peppery flavor.
This flavor is caused by something called oleocanthal which is a phenolic compound.
Really high-quality olive oil has qualities called “pungency” or “astringency.” Oleocanthal may cause a bitter or peppery taste, tingling or burning sensation, or may even cause slight numbness on the palate.
Without this peppery pungency, you aren’t actually consuming an EVOO at all.
If the olive oil doesn’t meet the high standards set out for EVOO products, it is refined down to remove impurities so that you are left with a much milder tasting oil, without the pungency or pepperiness of an EVOO.
Some EVOO is added back in to give some of that flavor back.
4. High-Quality Olive Olive Should Have a Fruity Scent
Just like a high-quality EVOO will be rich in oleocanthal, which gives that distinct peppery taste and sensation, it should also have a strong, fruity scent.
The scent of the olive will depend a bit on how ripe it was when it was harvested and pressed.
The riper the fruit when it’s harvested, the less intense the smell and taste are going to be. So for a strong-flavored and scented oil, you want an olive that wasn’t allowed to get too ripe before picking and processing.
5. Look for Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) Labels
While these labels have been subject to some doctoring, it is a generally reliable way to distinguish which olives were actually grown in Italy.
The PDO label certifies that the contents of the bottle come from a renowned Italian olive oil region where they were subject to specific controls.
6. Look For Extra Virgin Olive Oil In An Opaque Glass Jar
While olive oil is a monounsaturated fat that isn’t too overly sensitive to heat, light, and air, the phenolic compounds that provide its distinct flavors and potent health benefits are.
That’s why you want to purchase olive oil that comes in an opaque glass bottle.
These bottles protect the delicate compounds from spoiling since light doesn’t pass through the dark-colored glass and the bottles can seal tightly to prevent exposure to air.
Keep your high-quality olive oil away from the stove and out of direct light for best results.
Bonus tip: A good quality olive oil will likely solidify slightly in the fridge as well
7. Look For A Harvest Date On The Label
The highest quality brands will proudly display when their olives were harvested because they want you to enjoy the oil while it is fresh and delicious.
Olive oil does not improve with age. In fact, the flavors dilute over time so fresh is best.
Looking for the harvested by date is a great way to ensure you are getting a high-quality, flavorful oil. Make sure to use it within 18 months of that date for the freshest results and best taste.
What Brands of Olive Oil Should You Avoid
Now that you know what to look for in high-quality olive oil, I wanted to outline a few brands that you should avoid if you’re looking to spend your money on a pure EVOO packed with flavor and nutrition.
This olive oil is one of the most popular brands in the US and can be found in grocery stores across the nation.
One of the reasons to avoid this brand is because an independent investigation found that their Extra Virgin Olive Oil didn’t meet EU labeling rules for EVOO qualification.
That likely means it was either overly refined or cut with less expensive oil, leading to a less bold and intense flavor.
Since it isn’t as pure as they claim it to be, you are also losing a lot of the nutritional value and the peppery flavor that is characteristic of a high-quality EVOO.
Another olive oil that Italy’s anti-fraud police squad in Turin has been investigating due to claims that their EVOO did not meet the purity and labeling requirements for qualification in the EU.
Like Bertolli, this means the product is likely overly refined, removing a lot of the beneficial nutrients and flavors.
It may also be cut with cheaper oil, common ones include safflower, sunflower, and canola oils, to increase profit margins.
These oils are not known for their health benefits or their flavor profiles, so if you’re going to spend your money on a pure EVOO, this brand is one to skip.
3. Santa Sabina
The anti-fraud police squad in Italy has been busy; Santa Sabina is another oil on the list of potential brands that are misrepresenting the purity of their extra virgin olive oil.
It was found that this brand did not meet the EU’s rigorous qualifications for purity in the EVOO.
While we don’t know exactly what was changed in this oil to call its purity into question, many of the accused brands will use cheaper imported oils to cut their olive oil, leading to a less robust flavor and a loss of nutritional benefit.
They may also overly refine their olive oil so that it no longer meets the purity standards of an unfiltered and unrefined EVOO.
Again, this will remove the phenolic compounds that give these oils their peppery flavor and amazing health benefits. So Santa Sabina shouldn’t make your shopping list.
Considering how much money there is to be made from selling premium olive oils, it is unsurprising that there are brands that may cut a couple of corners to get their product to market.
Coricelli is another Italian olive oil that the anti-fraud police in Turin are investigating for false EVOO claims.
When oils claim to be extra virgin, they must meet strict requirements outlined by the European Union and Coricelli’s EVOO doesn’t seem to meet those standards.
That could be for a variety of reasons including over refining the oil to remove impurities, thus diluting the taste and health benefits.
They could also be cutting their pure olive oil product with cheaper oils from other countries and may even be using oils such as canola, safflower, or sunflower to dilute the product.
Using these oils cuts that amazing pungent, peppery flavor of high-quality oil.
It also dilutes the health benefits that we see in EVOOs, which can protect the heart and provide loads of antioxidants for the body.
If you’re looking for a pure, unadulterated extra virgin olive oil that meets the EU’s stringent requirements for purity and quality, then Sasso may not be the best choice for you.
It is one of several brands that has been under investigation for fraudulent EVOO claims in Italy.
Oils that claim to be pure EVOO must meet strict purity standards that produce highly flavorful oil that is rich in polyphenols and other healthy nutrients.
If they are cut with cheaper, lower-quality oils they lose that amazing flavor and the unique health benefits characteristic of EVOO.
Another oil on the list of brands that have been selling lower quality olive oil as extra virgin olive oil, Primadonna is one you should avoid if you’re looking for purity.
When brands pass off their virgin olive oil as extra virgin, they are refining out a lot of the polyphenols and compounds that provide the health benefits and potent flavor of high-quality olive oil.
7. Antica Badia
The final brand of olive oil that is being investigated by Italy’s anti-fraud police squad is Antica Badia.
They have also been found to be selling lower quality olive oil labeled as extra virgin. To be labeled as EVOO, these oils must meet strict requirements.
When oil is mislabeled, diluted with lower quality oils, and/or overly refined or purified, then it loses a lot of the compounds that give the highest quality EVOO its beautiful color, powerful taste, and amazing health benefits.
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