Enjoy olive oil—it's good for you

But make sure you're getting the real thing!

Created date

July 28th, 2017
Olive oil being poured into a glass bowl.

Olive oil being poured into a glass bowl.

Olive oil is good for you. Study after study has proven that consuming this elixir of the gods has some serious health benefits. It is said to stave off cancer, lower your risk of heart disease, and might even keep Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases at bay. 

The health benefits of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) are so substantive, the Food and Drug Administration permits EVOO producers to make health claims on their labels.  

The cornerstone of the much-touted Mediterranean diet, EVOO is in high demand by health-conscious consumers, and sales have skyrocketed in recent years.   

The great EVOO scam

Unfortunately, the vast majority of consumers are getting ripped off. They think they are buying healthy oil, when in fact, they are buying something the Italians call lampante or lamp oil, a substandard form of olive oil that offers no health benefits whatsoever and, in some cases, might even cause harm.  

Investigations conducted by government agencies and consumer groups have repeatedly shown that as few as one in ten consumers who purchase EVOO gets the real thing. This problem is so pervasive, EVOO experts say it’s entirely possible that many Americans have never tasted authentic EVOO. This is especially true for those who stick with that pale yellow oil that typically sells for a few bucks in American supermarkets. 

An estimated 90% of consumers who purchase a product labeled EVOO get one of three things: EVOO diluted with a lesser oil such as sunflower seed oil; EVOO diluted with a lower grade of olive oil that has been chemically altered so it looks, smells, and tastes like the real thing; or EVOO that is produced on the lowest end of the quality spectrum (in other words, EVOO that technically passes inspection at the bottling plant but will be rancid before it reaches consumers). 

In all three cases, the fraudulent oil offers no health benefits. 

Fraudulent oil

Why so much fraud? A recent 60 Minutes tied the mafia to the sale of fraudulent oil. 

Sometimes, large profit-driven businesses with chemical expertise can create a fake that is so close to the real thing, even inspectors don’t realize they are being deceived. 

Although most people think of olive oil as an Italian product, and many bottles of olive oil bear the words “made in Italy” on the label, Italy does not produce enough olives to meet the global demand. 

While many supermarket olive oil labels promote their brand’s Italian heritage, not all of the olive oil in those bottles originated in Italy. Large tanker trucks bearing oil from olives grown and pressed in Spain, Turkey, Greece, and other regions in Italy travel to the big Italian refineries where the oil is processed and bottled. If the oil that arrives is compromised, it frequently goes undetected. 

Buying a good EVOO

Olive oil fraud dates back to ancient times. It was the Romans, after all, who coined the Latin term "caveat emptor" or "let the buyer beware." Here are some tips to help you choose a good EVOO.

A high price doesn’t guarantee quality oil, but a very low price is a red flag. Anything under $10/liter is suspect.    

One of the easiest ways to get genuine EVOO is to buy it from well-respected retailers like Eataly in Manhattan or Zingerman’s Delicatessen in Ann Arbor, Mich. National chains like Oil & Vinegar and We Olive are also good bets. Online marketplace
shop.bestoliveoils.com also offers award-winning EVOOs.

EVOO has a shelf life. If the label includes a harvest date, it should be no more than one year ago. The “best by” date is a fairly useless indicator of freshness. 

Once you open the bottle, store it in a cool dark place. Whatever you haven’t used six weeks after opening should be thrown out, so avoid purchasing giant containers.

Look beyond Italy. California producers like McEvoy Ranch consistently turn out high-quality oil. Also, Australia has become a major EVOO producer, and the laws regulating the Australian olive oil industry are the strictest in the world.

Educate your palate

To learn more about olive oil, visit extravirginity.com. It’s the website of Tom Mueller, author of Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil (Norton). The site has EVOO information along with Mueller’s picks from top olive oil producing nations like Italy and Spain along with some lesser-known oil producers like Germany.

For the most up-to-date news about olive oil, go to oliveoiltimes.com. 

Olive oil clubs are a great way to educate your palate. A four-month membership to Zingerman’s rare olive oil club (zingermans.com) is $200. Each month you’ll receive a bottle of oil and detailed information about that oil. There’s also “olive oil hunter” T.J. Robinson’s Fresh-Pressed Olive Oil Club (oliveoilhunter.com), which starts at $99/quarter for three 8.45-oz bottles. 

You may want to embark on your EVOO taste journey soon. Increasing global demand and a weather-related decline in olive production means higher prices in the months to come. Buon Appetito!