Bertoli parent company Deoleo agreed this month to pay $7 Million to settle a class action lawsuit accusing the company of misrepresenting the contents of some of its olive oil bottles sold in the U.S. as both “extra virgin” and “imported from Italy.” In addition to the cash, Deoleo has agreed to use only dark green bottles to prevent light degradation, to shorten the “best by” date window printed on each bottle, and to begin printing the date of the harvest on its extra-virgin olive oils.
The settlement is hardly a life-or-death scenario, but it does bring to mind how confusing navigating the olive-oil aisle can truly be for consumers. Similarly sized offerings differ dramatically in price from one company to the next, but are expensive olive oils really any better than more economical options? And what does extra virgin actually mean? Is it really any different than bottles labeled “table,” “robust” or just regular ol’ “virgin?”
Want to know the surefire ways to choose a proper bottle of olive oil? We’re about to cold-press some wisdom from the tree of knowledge.
The color of the bottle
First thing’s first: olive oil has some incredible health benefits. It’s rich in antioxidants and so-called “good fats,” monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs). It helps curb appetites by keeping you feeling full longer, and has been shown to help prevent diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer. Chiefly responsible for many of these benefits are compounds called polyphenols. The higher the polyphenol content, the better an olive oil is for you.
Heat, light and age take a toll on polyphenol content. So right off the bat, we can easily rule out plenty of bottles in the grocery store. Seek out olive oils in green bottles so dark that they almost appear black on the shelf. This green shade of glass (or plastic) protects the polyphenols within from harmful light exposure.
Cold pressed or extra virgin
Knowing all this now, you’ll also want to avoid oils that were pressed from the olive using heat. Even though it is possible to produce more from an olive exposed to heat, when it comes to oils – or even fruit and vegetable juices – cold-pressed is best. Lesser-quality oil companies aren’t going to come right out and say that their product is pressed using heat, but you had better believe the better ones are going to say either cold-pressed or – here it comes – extra virgin, which are one and the same.
Extra virgin (EVOO) is the highest grade an olive oil can receive. It means that the oil within was produced simply by pressing it out of the fruit mechanically, sometimes by first mashing olives into a paste that is then pressed. Oils not bearing the EVOO label can be arrived at by adding heat to the process, or sometimes by chemically extracting liquid from solid olives. Oils that make the extra-virgin grade will taste almost peppery, with a grassy, fruity nose.
Virgin vs extra virgin
Virgin and extra-virgin olive oil are processed similarly; virgin olive oil is also cold-pressed, unrefined and contains chemicals, but it is slightly less flavorful and has a bit more oleic acid.
According to the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA), “extra-virgin olive oil ranges in color from pale yellow to dark green, depending on variables like the olive variety, where they’re grown, climate and harvest timing.”
However, consumers should be diligent in researching brands that sell green olive oil; only freshly pressed olives create green oil, and more often than not, it soon turns gold in the bottle. Unless a bottle of olive oil manages to avoid being exposed to any light during production, shipping and stocking at the store, green oil could be a sign that chlorophyll or beta carotene dye was used to make it look fresher.
Country of origin
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When it comes to country of origin, Italy may seem synonymous with olive oil, but much of the world’s supply today comes from Spain, Greece, Tunisia, Turkey and even California. Spain actually grows nearly twice as many olives annually as Italy, which in turn makes much of its olive oil using Spanish olives. Italy, synonymous with quality olive oil, can sell oils at higher prices for the simple fact that it’s marketed as Italian – but like the case with Bertoli, just because it’s marketed as Italian, doesn’t mean all the oil in the bottle was actually made in Italy. If you check the fine print on your bottle, you’ll discover where the olives (and oil) actually come from – and it’s often more than one country.
If that sounds confusing to the consumer, it’s because it is. The olive oil industry is rife with both legal and illegal practices that can be confusing, misleading or downright fraudulent. On the misleading end of the spectrum, we have Bertoli. On the fraudulent end, lower quality oils have been found to be spiked with green plant dyes and then sold with dubious distinctions like “100% pure,” “table” or “robust.”
Much like winemaking grapes, olives pull attributes from the environment they grow within, or terroir. As such, it’s more important to buy quality olive oil that says on the bottle the particular region the olives were grown in, than it is to buy oil from any country in particular.
Summing it all up
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So what have we learned? You want to buy a dark green bottle of extra virgin olive oil, with a clearly denoted “best by” date, and preferably a recent harvest date (while not all brands include a harvest date, it’s just another measure consumers can take to ensure freshness – and after the Bertoli settlement requiring the oil giant to include a harvest date, don’t be surprised if more brands start including this on their labels).
Whenever possible, you want to grab a bottle that names the region in which the olives were grown, despite what it says about which country did the bottling. While there are great blends out there, finding a bottle with olives from a single origin protected by a Protected Designation of Origin label is the easiest way to ensure quality.
Oh, and one more thing: whenever possible, avoid buying bottles from the very top shelf. Being on the tippy top means more surface area is exposed to the harmful rays of fluorescent lights, which are often left on 24 hours a day.
If being armed with all this olive oil knowledge still leaves you with anxiety about choosing a bottle, you can always fall back on California Olive Ranch’s Arbequina Extra Virgin Olive Oil. This domestic company has produced an oil with their California-grown Spanish olives, and it consistently ranks among the best imported brands, but at a fraction of the price. Plus, you’re likely to find it on the shelves in many U.S. grocers. Bon appetit!
EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story claimed Italy was the largest purchaser of Spanish olives when it should have said “Spanish olive oil.” The article also stated that imported brands are often “labeled only with where the oil was produced, and not where the olives were actually grown.” However, all bottles must include the information about where olives were grown. That information is often in the fine print on the back or sides of bottles.