Are You Using Fake Olive Oil?

October 18, 2016

By Anna Varriano

I recently returned from a three week vacation in Europe, which included a 10-day Mediterranean cruise. What a fabulous time! During the trip, I had the opportunity to visit two family run operations that grew olives and produced olive oil … and taste their products. I learned a lot of interesting things about olive oil, and wanted to share a few of them with you so that you can avoid buying fake, most likely rancid (and therefore health-damaging) olive oil.

What Is Olive Oil?

olives-and-oil-on-spoonOlive oil is made by pressing olives – and since olives are fruit, olive oil is ‘fresh-squeezed’ olive juice. Just like other juices out there, there are good ones and bad ones. The ‘king’ of olive oils is authentic extra virgin olive oil, or EVOO for short.


What Exactly is EVOO?

Both producers I visited said the only olive oil worth using is EVOO. When properly made, there are no chemicals or other processes used to ‘squeeze’ the oil from the fruit. I was told to beware of ‘extra-extra’ virgin olive oil, ‘natural’ olive oil, ‘pure’ olive oil, ‘light’ olive oil, and even ‘organic’ olive oil.

EVOOs have to pass a number of tests to be labelled EVOO; for example, tests related to acidity levels and peroxide levels. If they do not meet the standards here, they are not to be labelled EVOO. There are also more subjective ‘taste tests’ performed by olive oil tasting experts.

EVOO For Health

EVOO is one of the healthiest fats we can consume. Numerous studies have touted the health benefits of EVOOs which are imparted to the oil by its high levels of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. One of the most popular health benefits associated with EVOO is that it reduces the risk of heart disease.


Most EVOO is Fake!

A 2011 report on independent tests conducted at the University of California found that up to almost 70% of all store-bought imported EVOOs in the US were ‘fake’; that is, they were cut with cheaper, lower quality oils, such as canola or sunflower oil, and therefore did not meet EVOO oil standards, even though they were labelled EVOO. Here are some of the more popular brands that were identified by the study as failing to meet EVOO standards:

  • Bertolli
  • Carapelli
  • Colavita
  • Filippo Berio
  • Mazzola
  • Mezzetta
  • Newman’s Own
  • Safeway
  • Star
  • Whole Foods

real-food-fake-foodThe book “Real Food Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating and What You Can Do About It”, states that most people have never tasted the ‘real thing’ and that EVOO is the single most commonly referenced adulterated food (according to the Journal of Food Sciences). Olive oil is a multi-billion dollar market that a lot of ‘cheaters’ want a piece of! Producing authentic EVOO takes a lot of time, money, and labour; however, since most people have never tasted the real thing, they can’t tell the difference when cheap adulterated versions hit the grocery store shelves. (Side note: the book Real Food Fake food is a must read if you care about how your food is grown, produced, and the impact it can have on your health and the environment. You can purchase it by clicking here.)

The Art of Olive Oil Production

Producing olive oil starts with the art of growing olive trees – some of julius-caesarwhich have been around for thousands of years! Imagine … the olive oil in your pantry could have come from the same olive trees that provided Julius Caesar with olive oil!

The trees are split when they’re young so they don’t grow too tall, as shorter trees makes harvesting the olives easier.

There are many factors that can affect the quality of oil, with three important ones being:

1. The variety of olive grown. This can depend on the soil and weather of the region the olives are grown in. Similar to growing grapes and producing different varieties of wine, olives take on specific characteristics and flavour profiles depending on where they’re grown.


The places I visited were in the heart of beautiful Tuscany. I can’t imagine ever tiring of the landscape there…


2. The ripeness of the olives at harvest time. The flavour of the oil and the levels of the substances that give EVOO its numerous health benefits peak when the fruit is not quite ripe enough to fall off the tree, kind of like the darker olives in this photo:


This makes harvesting more labour intensive and more expensive; especially when you consider that an olive that is not quite ripe will yield less oil than an olive that is fully or overly ripe. You have to gently shake each tree with a special tool, so that only the olives that are at their peak will fall to the ground, kind of like this:


Some farms save time and money harvesting by just waiting for the olives to get so ripe that they fall off the tree. The problem here is that at that point, the olives have past their peak in terms of flavour, quality, and health-benefits. In fact, many can be rotten.  At the farms I visited, specially trained kittens are used that can tell if the olives are at their peak for harvesting by checking out the texture of the bark.


Just kidding about the kittens – but this picture was so cute, I had to think of a way to use it!

Olive oil can be made from either green or black olives. What’s the difference? Green olives are unripe black olives. They tend to have a more intense flavour. High quality EVOOs made with green olives should be green! You should also notice a slight ‘sting’ or ‘burn’ as the oil hits the back of your throat. This is an indication of the oil’s freshness and health benefits. EVOOs made with black olives have a milder and smoother flavour and they are gold-coloured.

3. The elapsed time between harvesting and pressing. Just like most other fruits, the freshness and nutrient-content of olives starts to decline the minute they are picked. The farms that I visited pressed their olives within 12 hours of harvesting.

How To Shop For The Best EVOO

Here are a few tips that can help you choose a high quality EVOO:

  • Look for a harvest and/or production date. High quality harvest-date-labelEVOOs often have a harvest and/or production date on the bottle or tin. It should be no more than a year earlier than the date you are buying the oil. You should also aim to use the oil within 12 to 18 months of the harvest date. Unlike some wines, olive oil doesn’t improve with age. The flavour and health benefits are best immediately after it is pressed and start to decline within 3 to 6 months of packaging.
  • Look for the country of origin. Australia has become one of the most consistent producers of high-quality olive oil due to government laws and farms that are designed to allow a very short time between harvesting the olives and pressing them. Unfortunately, some countries in the EU mix old olive oils that are already rancid or close to being rancid, with more recently pressed olive oil. This sneaky practice is called ‘carry over’. Most North Americans buy Italian olive oil because they think Italian olive oils is best; however, not all olive oil from Italy is 100% Italian! While Italy is the world’s largest exporter of olive oil, it is also the world’s largest importer, importing oils from around the world, and making ‘blends’ with them (often with lesser than EVOO quality oil). If you want to make sure you are buying 100% Italian olive oil, look for the statement “100% Qualita Italiana” on the label.
  • Look for dark bottles. Like most delicate oils (e.g. fish oil, flax seed oil), olive oil can be easily denatured by exposure to light. Buy olive oils in dark bottles and avoid ones that are on shelves that are being hit by direct light.
  • Size matters. Some EVOO experts recommend only buying as much EVOO as you plan on using in 6 weeks as the quality of the oil will start to decline as soon as you open the bottle and expose the oil to air.
  • Price. Just like most things in life, you get what you pay for when it comes to high quality authentic EVOO. You won’t find any for $5.99 a litre.
  • Look for certification. Look for the words ‘certified extra virgin olive oil’, or look for the following seals from the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) or the Australian Olive Oil Association.



Storing EVOO

You should have bought EVOO in a dark glass bottle or a tin container to minimize the possibility that it has been exposed to light. You should continue to keep it out of the light when you store it at home, so store it out of direct heat and light in a cool, dark pantry or cupboard.

EVOO Cuisine

To truly enjoy the flavour and reap the health benefits of a high-quality, olive-oil-cuisineauthentic EVOO, use it raw; that is, do not heat it or cook with it. Instead, drizzle the raw oil on salads, raw or cooked vegetables, hummus, dips, spreads, and on cooked dishes once they have been removed from heat/served. While you can cook with EVOO, use low heat as high heat can break down the oil’s health-boosting properties and could potentially denature it.

How Much Is Too Much?

In Greece, the annual per capita consumption of olive oil is 24 litres. In Italy and Spain it is 12 litres. In North America it is 1 litre, thanks to decades of low-fat/no-fat ill-founded nutritional recommendations. North Americans have been taught to fear fat, even healthy fat, and as a result, they have skyrocketing levels of obesity. The truth of the matter is that you need to eat healthy fat to loose fat! The topic of fats is one of the most misunderstood topics in nutrition, and being misinformed can be hazardous to your health, potentially increasing your risk of weight gain, heart disease, and numerous other health issues. To learn more about fats, check out my Skinny on Fats pre-recorded webinar.


Bon appetito … and take control of what you can!



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