The next time you reach for that bottle of extra-virgin Italian olive oil in your cupboard, be aware that it’s probably not extra-virgin, it may not be from Italy and — here’s the shocker — investigations reveal that it may not even be 100 percent olive oil.
Here’s what occurs regularly on the open market: Spanish and North African olive oil is shipped to Italy, cut with soybean oil and beta carotene, and nefariously mislabeled. The adulterated oil is shipped around the world, to countries such as the United States, where it’s estimate that 70 percent of the olive oil offered for sale is doctored. That’s according to The New York Times, who in January of 2014 furthered the investigation after a string of shocking revelations over the past few years.
Journalist Tom Mueller first broke the story in the New Yorker in 2008, and even wrote a book on the subject. “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil” studies how the once symbol of purity has become deeply corrupt. Mueller has become an expert on olive oil and olive oil fraud — and the book tells a story of globalization, deception and crime from ancient times to the present, and is a powerful indictment of today’s lax protections against fake and even toxic food products brought into the United States.
The reports have inspired olive oil lovers to try to avoid getting duped in the future. But how can you tell if your olive oil is fake or real, extra-virgin or extra-tainted?
The University of California at Davis has conducted a series of studies on the topic of olive oil sold in California, and it can be read at http://olivecenter.ucdavis.edu/research/files/report041211finalreduced.pdf.
In short, the college found that domestic olive oil from single producers or co-ops was always real. In the foreign oil market, it helped to buy from growers who bottle their oil directly for retail sale.
So consumers who want pure olive oil can buy from a single-family farm or small co-op of growers. That’s because almost all olive oil fraud happens with the middle men — the people who buy olive oil in bulk from individual farmers and collect it in bulk to sell to corporate buyers, who mix, sort and sell it to grocery stores.
When it comes to domestic oil, California is one of the leading olive oil producing states. In order to give consumers some piece of mind when it comes to purchasing real extra virgin product, the California Olive Oil Council has implemented a seal certification program. This program ensures that every bottle with the certification seal is 100 percent authentic.
It’s North America’s only quality control program that actually exceeds the strict international standards for true extra virgin olive oils. For an olive oil to be seal certified, it needs to adhere to strict guidelines:
- All olive oil must be mechanically extracted without the use of chemicals or excessive heat.
- There must be less than .5 percent free oleic acid in the oil itself.
- Must pass a blind taste test, performed by a certified tasting panel, to ensure positive taste elements and no defects.
If you want an absolutely definitive test done on your store-bought olive oil, you can send in a sample to UC Davis’ Olive Oil Center. They will perform the same testing on your sample that they performed in their original study. For information visit olivecenter.ucdavis.edu.
Or you can develop your own taste test. Real olive oil — the good stuff — will be powerful and peppery and it will catch in your throat. You may actually cough, ad your eyes may water. But these are in fact good indications that what you’re tasting is authentic. It is also full of the reasons, especially flavor and health, that we’re drawn to olive oil in the first place.