Virgin? Extra virgin? Should you be worrying about how promiscuous your olive oil is, or the fat content, or about the mob selling you counterfeit oil? Here’s what you need to know before your next stir fry.
1. Refined Olive Oils
Olive oil is basically made by macerating olives, and spinning the paste in a centrifuge to separate out the water, leaving only the oil. But only about 30 percent of olive oil production ends there; the oil is usually then refined using solvents and high heat to neutralize the tastes of the oil. This lets manufacturers use olives that aren’t in the best condition, since the bad tastes from the mass production process are chemically removed. When you see bottles of ‘Pure Olive Oil,’ or just ‘Olive Oil,’ these are refined.
Unrefined olive oils, such as ‘extra virgin’ and ‘virgin,’ don’t undergo chemical refining, so the oil goes straight from the centrifuge to the bottle. Since bad tastes and contamination can’t be hidden with refining, producers of these oils need to use olives that are in good condition and carefully manage the process.
3. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
A virgin olive oil is better quality than a refined olive oil, but an extra virgin olive oil goes the extra mile with flavor and care. In these oils, the taste of the olive remains intact, and they have higher amounts of nutrients and thus more health benefits. Not just anyone can claim their oil is extra virgin, according to Olive Oil Times: “In order for an oil to qualify as “extra virgin” the oil must also pass both an official chemical test in a laboratory and a sensory evaluation by a trained tasting panel recognized by the International Olive Council.”
4. Fat Content
Is ‘good fat’ a real thing? Olive oil has a high amount of monounsaturated fats, which are considered a healthy fat and may lower risk of heart disease, as well as cholesterol. But even healthy fats have a lot of calories, so use it in place of less healthy fats like butter, but still use it in moderation.
5. Fake Olive Oil
Now here’s the juicy part: according to a study by UC Davis, about 70% of ‘extra virgin’ labeled olive oils were found to be fake, and actually cut with those refined oils I mentioned earlier, or totally different oils like canola. In 2008, Italian police cracked down on these fraudulent distributors in a move dubbed ‘Operation Golden Oil,’ wherein 23 people were arrested and 85 farms were exposed. Authentic extra virgin oil takes lots of time and money to make, whereas it’s more economical for skeevy producers to doctor it and turn a quick buck.
6. What To Buy
You’re probably no olive oil connoisseur, and even if you could detect the taste of a bad oil, most of us can’t do a taste-test at the supermarket before buying. There are lots of things you can look for when making your selection, but these three are the easiest to identify in a jiff: the harvest date, where it comes from (the specific region, not just the country), and the cultivars, or what olives the oil is made of. If the label is missing these things, then that’s a red flag that it’s not the real deal. Here’s a handy list of supermarket brands that aren’t a rip off.