What you will learn in this article:
- Medicinal value of extra virgin olive oil
- How to taste olive oil (demo)
- How to use these 7 selection criteria to pick real and top quality oil: Price points, smell and taste, freshness, labeling, bottle color, filtration and your intuition
- Behind-the-scenes of a top oil producer
- How and where to pick the top legit brands
Olive oil has not been the same since 2007 when Tom Mueller did a journalistic expose in The New Yorker on the industry’s shenanigans. This prompted the UC Davis Olive Center to conduct a study on many popular olive oils (evaluating sensory qualities and oxidation levels), confirming Mueller’s claims that 70% of imported olive oils sold in the United States are fake and diluted with cheap vegetable oils.
I came to Sicily to learn more about olive oil. I didn’t manage to catch the harvest season (I visited in July and the harvest is in late September and early October) but I managed to secure interviews and visits with some of the most awarded organic olive oil makers in the world.
The Fresh-Pressed Olive Oil Club founder (more on them below if you want to get top quality oils), introduced me to Frantoi Cutrera – a family-owned, highly awarded, DOP-certified olive oil maker who grows their olives at the fertile foothills of Mount Etna (the active volcano). The owners are fanatical about olive oil – and so it is no wonder they were picked for the Freshly Pressed Olive Oil Club last year. (Their suppliers change though, see more on this below).
Meeting the Frantoi Cutrera olive oil maker
Interviewing Frantoi Cutrera’s manager, Sebastiano Salafia – he’s demonstrating how to taste olive oil – demo video below in this article.
These ancient trees are protected by law in Sicily and can’t be cut down. Picking a few olives. During harvest, all the olives are hand-picked. No machines are used.
It’s July now and they are not ripe enough to be picked. I would have to come back at the end of September! Olives here are hand-picked when semi-ripe – this way, even though they don’t generate the highest yield, they contain the highest levels of the medicinal polyphenols. Many other olive oil manufacturers wait until the olives fall on the ground and have a higher yield – which is considered inferior oil making practice.
This is where the masticating and extraction of the oil happens. Olives have to be processed 4 to 12 hours from the time they are picked. The machines can’t get overheated – to maintain the title “cold pressed.”
A long list of awards they won, and even more on their website – an impressive display of accomplishments.
Let’s first take a quick look at the medicinal properties of a true extra virgin olive oil.
– EVOO can lower LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) and improve HDL (good cholesterol). The later is the “raw material” or precursor for the production of steroid hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, cortisol, DHEA, and testosterone.
– EVOO can lower blood pressure – based on 2 tablespoons per day
– The higher the phenol content in EVOO, the higher the healing and anti-inflammatory properties by reducing the oxidative stress in the body
If you want to know about other oils and fats, read my book Cooking for Hormone Balance.
If you are a mindful eater who wants the best food possible, not for snobbery, but for the best health possible (and perhaps to support legit hard-working farmers), I’ve compiled the below points for you to get to the bottom of “what is a good olive oil.”
Let’s dive right in.
7 Criteria for picking a good olive oil
1. Price points
A quart or a liter of EVOO should cost you between $8 and $40. I personally have found that the truly good oils hover in the $25 per bottle range and higher.
2. Smell and taste (not color)
This is what triggered Tom Mueller to investigate – the taste and smell of the supposed high-quality olive oils. Many people think that a good olive oil needs to be buttery and sweet – this is not correct. In fact, olive oil tastes this way when it has been diluted with tasteless vegetable oils.
A true extra virgin olive oil is pungent (from the presence of grasses, tomatoes, and artichokes) and bitter (from the polyphenol content). That can be off-putting – many people think it’s due to rancidity – it’s not.
A good EVOO is supposed to make your throat scratch a little.
Tom Mueller says: “Seek out freshness, choosing oils that smell and taste vibrant and lively, and avoid tastes or odors such as moldy, rancid, cooked, greasy, meaty, metallic and cardboard. Also, pay attention to mouthfeel: prefer crisp and clean to flabby, coarse or greasy.”
Want to conduct olive oil tasting in your own kitchen? Sebastian shows us how. This was my first time – it’s so simple, yet revealing!
Learn the Swirl-Sniff-Slurp-Swallow method
If you want to know a little more about the taste and aroma, watch this part of the interview.
Color is a non-factor – many crooked and fake olive oil makers add green colorant to the oil to make it look fresh. Furthermore, olive oil goes through a natural maturation process from bright green when freshly pressed to golden and then brownish with a green tint when it reaches maturity.
3. Freshness = High polyphenols
Tom Muller writes: “So real extra virgin olive oil is fresh-squeezed fruit juice – seasonal, perishable, and never better than the first few weeks it was made.”
Unlike wine, olive oil does not get better with age – it gets worse – both in taste and medicinal properties. The best practice is to consume it within the first year of pressing.
This is why you may find the Fresh-Pressed Olive Oil Club as interesting as I did – they deliver freshly pressed oils every quarter, rotating suppliers. For example, an Italian EVOO would be at its prime quality when sold in January-March timeframe. But, in other calendar quarters, the freshest oils would come from Chile or Australia.
In this video, Sebastiano Salafia of Frantoi Cutrera explains how freshness of the olive fruit and the processing time and method impacts the level of polyphenols (potent antioxidants) in olive oil.
“Extra Virgin Olive Oil” – For starters, the bottle must state “Extra Virgin Olive Oil.” That in itself is not enough as many crooks and fakers use it on their labels too.
Harvest date and “best by” date – you now know that freshness matters a lot. Scrupulous EVOO makers would display both dates. Harvest date is very telling because it’s best practice to consume the oil within 12 months from the harvest date.
The Frantoi Cutrera bottle shows both; harvest (B: 17/18) and best before date (A: 31/12/2019).
Certification – if buying oils from Europe, look for PDO and PGI certification. In Italy, PDO is labeled as DOP (see the bottle) – this means that specific protocols are overseen by a quality control committee. In California, the COOC (California Olive Oil Council) exercises rigid standards as well.
Organic (not that meaningful here) – to my big surprise it’s not a guarantee of quality. It just means the fruit was grown organically but it does not tell us other quality-impacting details such as: When the olives were picked (Sebastiano explained in the video that less ripe olives generate a lower yield but are higher in polyphenols), the time from tree-to-pressing, heat used during mastication, what else has been added to the oil – are just some of the factors that “organic” label does not guarantee.
Meaningless descriptors – Words that don’t mean anything and are used as marketing gimmicks are “Olive Oil”,“Light” Oil, “Made in Italy”, “Freshly Pressed”, “Bottled in Italy.” Also, pay attention to your own unconscious bias – just because a label shows enchanting rolling hills of a Tuscan estate, it does not mean the product is legit.
5. Bottle color
Pick a dark bottle. Olive oil gets oxidized quickly with the oxygen that is left in a half-empty bottle. Light penetration speeds up that process.
6. Filtered or unfiltered?
I used to think that unfiltered olive oil (due to its rustic, authentic look) was automatically superior to its filtered counterpart. This isn’t entirely true. UC Davis Olive Center says that the studies are inconclusive and that you need to evaluate additional factors including fruit maturity, type of filters used and shelf life stability.
According to Sebastiano Salafia from Frantoi Cutrera whom I interviewed, they use large filters as they found that unfiltered olive oil can deteriorate quickly if it contains too many unfiltered particles. This is clearly a large-scale manufacturer’s preventative decision. If you can get an unfiltered EVOO and use it within 6 to 12 months, you should be good.
7. Your intuition
Use your intuition to distinguish hype from the real deal.
Which product should you buy?
If you live in California, the Mediterranean, Greece, or Spain and close to a mill, this is clearly your best choice. You can inspect the oil with your own eyes and buy it right there.
The second best choice is joining an olive oil club that buys freshly pressed oils from around the world. They do exist :-). The Fresh-Pressed Olive Oil Club managed by TJ Robinson (I’m a member now, too) is one such option. TJ was the one who pointed me to Frantoi Cutrera. I went there partly to see for myself how committed they are to making truly top quality olive oil. He has an offer for us – see below.
Another option is to try getting your EVOO from a local specialty store you trust that does oil sampling and tasting – try the oil based on the parameters I’ve given you (and demonstrated by Sebastiano) and pick from there.
Most supermarkets use olive oil blends that have been stored for years before bottling. The law only requires them to put the “Best before” date on the day of bottling – creating a false sense of guarantee that the oil is fresh. I’m personally going to stop buying Whole Food’s EVOO just because I just don’t know enough about them and many of the things I discovered and wrote about is not stated on the bottles in most health stores.