When I was younger, I once asked my father why in the supermarket certain jars of peanut butter cost so much more than others. He pointed out to me that the cheaper jars of peanut butter used filler ingredients — peanuts are more expensive than sugar and corn syrup, and so the more filler there is in a jar of peanut butter, the less it costs the manufacturer per jar. Similarly, when you are dealing with vegetable oils, the way it should work is that you pay more for pure olive oil than you do for a blend of olive oil and other oils because pure olive oil is more expensive. Moreover, extra virgin olive oil (referring to the oil that comes from the first cold pressing of the olives) is even more expensive because of the quality of the oil that comes from doing this first cold pressing versus the subsequent oil that comes from further pressings and extraction methods.

It therefore came as a bit of a letdown to say the least when I discovered that there is a distinct possibility — one about which my brother warned me at least a year ago but I chose to ignore because the possibility was too painful to consider — that the olive oil that you (and I) are consuming marked as ‘Extra Virgin’ may be not only ordinary olive oil, but perhaps even a blend of olive oil and cheaper oils as well!

Since neither the U.S. Department of Agriculture nor the Italian equivalent really regulates the market, unscrupulous producers have developed numerous ways to adulterate extra virgin olive oil, according to Mueller. They cut olive oil with hazelnut or sunflower oil. They take musty oil made from rotting olives, deodorize it to remove the bad smell, and then add a bit of extra virgin oil to make it smell authentic. Then they slap fancy labels on glass bottles and sell it as extra virgin olive oil.

My brother told me at the time that I should consider the source when selecting extra virgin olive oil — and of course, if a price for a large container seems too good to be true, there’s probably a reason for it and it has nothing to do with dumb luck and everything to do with fraudulent oil blends in the name of a quick buck. Consider, too — instead of buying oil shipped all the way from Italy that may not be what it claims, buying extra virgin olive oil from California. You may pay more up front but you have a better chance of getting the good stuff.

6 Comments

  1. I read about this controversy a while ago and I had no idea my Extra Virgin Olive Oil might not be all that and I switched us over to Colavita and I love it. Colavita is green oil, not yellow, and it tastes like olives! You can eat it straight out of the bottle as a sort of healthy aperitif. It is expensive, though. I pay around $15 for 14 oz and I tend to use a lot more of it as I add it to everything to get all the taste and health benefits:

    http://www.colavita.com/oliveoil.htm

  2. I always remember the joke: what’s so special about Extra Virgin Olive Oil? It’s never even been kissed :).

    The French are very protective of local product names & quality, with many different labels and “appellation d’origine contrôlée” which means the origin name (Bordeaux, for example) is protected and the wine really comes from Bordeaux vineyards. Not sure where they are on olive oil though.

  3. Well this is not entirely true, there is the regulation but sometimes could be broken from unscrupulous people! The most common habit is to mix the extra virgin oil produced effectively in Italy with some extra virgin oil imported from places where the production itself costs a lot less (ex. Morocco). It is quite common in Italy to contact the trusted oil-mill itself to make the purchase, I buy my entire oil reserve (that last a year or so) directly from a very small producer in Abruzzo, a region in the center of Italy… It costs a little bit more but it’s quite guaranteed…