Perusing the olive oil selection at your grocery store can be confusing to say the least. It’s hard to know which olive oil to choose, what with the different countries of origin, different types, and vastly different price points.
Is the $30 extra virgin stuff really three times better than the $10 light olive oil? How does the taste compare? Is one better for cooking? Most importantly, are you really getting what it says on the label?
Let’s break it down.
Types of Olive Oil
Virgin, extra virgin, light, blended… what does it all mean?
The differences come down to how olive oil is made and the quality of the final product. An agency called the International Olive Council, or IOC, is responsible for setting the standards against which olive oil is judged. The IOC subjects olive oils to a battery of tests to assess taste, acidity, and other chemical properties, as well as testing for adulteration with other oils. (The United Nations actually commissioned the IOC to help standardize and promote the industry—olive oil is serious business!)
Here’s what you need to know about the different types.
Virgin Olive Oil
Virgin olive oil is produced only by physical (mechanical) means, rather than by chemical treatment. The best stuff comes from ripe olives—green or overripe olives produce bitter and rancid oil, respectively—ground into a paste using millstones or steel drums.
By definition, virgin olive oil has not undergone any processing other than washing, decanting, centrifuging, and filtering. None of these are required for virgin oil, but nothing else is permitted. Some heat can be applied as long as it doesn’t alter the composition of the oil.
Olive oil labeled as virgin has an acidity below 2.0% and a fruity flavor.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Extra virgin olive oil is extracted from the olives’ first press. As with virgin olive oil, processing involves only washing, decanting, centrifuging, and filtering. Low heat can be applied as long as it does not alter the quality of the olive oil. It can also be unfiltered, which deepens the flavor and reduces shelf life, or cold-pressed. In the latter case, the pressing is slow and gradual, without generating much frictional heat, which results in better flavors.
Extra virgin olive oil is widely regarded as the pinnacle of olive oils because of its excellent flavor and high polyphenol content. According to the IOC, extra virgin olive oil must contain at most 0.8% acidity, with a “superior taste.” (Virgin oil is allowed to have minor “taste defects.”) It should be green or greenish-yellow in color.
Extra virgin olive oil will generally be more expensive than virgin olive oil of similar quality.
Light olive oil doesn’t have fewer calories than the other varieties of olive oil; it just lacks flavor and color. It may also contain less of the beneficial phenolic compounds that make olive oil so appealing.
This is because light olive oil is produced from olives after the initial (virgin) press. The extracted oil is further refined using heat and/or chemicals. As a result, it is more shelf stable than virgin olive oils but inferior in every other respect.
Olive Pomace Oil
Olive pomace oil is extracted from the olive solids (pomace) leftover from the pressing, usually using chemical solvents. This isn’t culinary olive oil, and it’s definitely not meant to be eaten. Most olive oil-based soaps you see are made with olive pomace oil.
Blended Olive Oil
Blended olive oils are, in my opinion, best avoided. While the blended oil could be a combination of different olive oil varieties, most often you’ll find olive oil blended with cheaper industrial seed oils like canola or some other vegetable oil. No thanks.
Choosing the Best Olive Oil
First thing first, the only olive oil you’ll find in my kitchen—and many cooks agree—is the extra virgin stuff. Despite what you might have heard, extra virgin olive oil is appropriate for most cooking applications (I just avoid high-heat frying). It has the best flavor for drizzling, plus the highest concentration of the compounds that impart the benefits for which olive oil is so renowned.
The one downside of extra virgin olive oil is that its peppery, sometimes biting flavor doesn’t pair perfectly with every dish. If you’re making an olive oil cake, for example, it can be too aggressive. You can get around this by having a few different bottles of extra virgin in your pantry with different flavor profiles. Some are milder than others.
When I do want a neutral-flavored oil, I’d never reach for refined light olive oil. Instead, I’ll go for avocado oil every time. It has similar health benefits to olive oil, a comparable fatty acid profile, a high smoke point, and a mild flavor that suits any dish.
That said, here are some tips for selecting among the many extra virgin olive oils out there:
Look at the packaging.
First and foremost, olive oil should always come in dark glass bottles or tins since light quickly degrades it. Avoid anything in clear glass or plastic.
Olive oil has a shelf life of about 18 to 24 months, so look at the harvest or best by dates and make sure it hasn’t been sitting on the store shelf too long.
Depending on where the olive oil comes from, you might see different seals of approval. European olive oils can carry a P.D.O. (Protected Designation of Origin) certification that basically ensures that the olive oil came from where it claims and hasn’t been adulterated in any way. In the U.S. and Canada, the North American Olive Oil Association tests olive oils sold to ensure that they meet the IOS standards. (Yes, Primal Kitchen EVOO is NAOOA certified.)
Speaking of adulteration, it has always been an issue of concern. The earliest known written mention of olive oil (from Syria, 24 BCE) describes how court-appointed inspectors would tour olive oil processing facilities to ensure quality, purity, and the absence of fraud. In ancient Rome, the vessels containing olive oil bore detailed information about the contents, including varietal of fruit used, place of origin, name of producer, the weight and quality of the oil, the name of the importer, plus the name of the official who inspected it.
So yeah, people have been trying to cheat the system forever. As for how widespread the problem is now, some studies point to it being a fairly pervasive issue, others not so much. Looking for seals from certifying agencies is one way of avoiding the issue. Buying locally produced olive oil from bottlers you can get to know, or shopping at high-quality specialty shops, are other (not entirely foolproof) options.
Do a taste test.
Just because something is labeled “extra virgin” doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good. Nor is every expensive bottle from Italy or Greece necessarily to your liking.
When choosing an oil, treat it a bit like wine and engage your senses:
Start with taste. That’s the most important after all. Take a half teaspoon or so into your mouth and swirl it around. Principally, it should taste like olives, obviously, but there are other flavors in the best oils. Grassiness, apples, even fennel are pretty common in really great olive oil. If it’s metallic-tasting or has a faint paint thinner scent, it’s probably rancid. If it’s light, delicious, and barely coats your mouth (without feeling greasy), it’s probably great stuff.
Smell it. It should smell like olives, very clean and “green,” almost like grass and apples.
Don’t rely too much on sight. The color of an oil is easily manipulated. Extra virgin olive oil should be in the green family, though. Brown oil is old and rancid. Toss it. Clear or light yellow oil has been refined or mixed with an inferior oil.
Finally, pay attention to my favorite part, the finish. The best oils from the first harvest with the highest antioxidant content will leave a spicy finish on your throat, like mild peppers.
Once you get it home, store your oil in a cool, dark place. Heat and light are now your biggest enemies. Extra virgin is the least stable, so keep it at a good temperature (somewhere between 57 and 65 degrees, like a wine cellar). You can refrigerate other olive oils if your kitchen is too hot, but refrigerating extra virgin olive oil can disrupt the delicate flavors. If you get extra virgin that’s tasty enough, of course, you won’t have to worry about long-term storage—you’ll be guzzling it straight out of the bottle.
That’s all for today. Let me know in the comments your favorite way to use olive oil!
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.