That all olive oils are not created equal is clear by standing in front of a shelf of different bottles, all labelled extra virgin or virgin olive oil – yet, the prices vary wildly, from $6 a bottle to $35. One has to wonder what the differences might be, when the starting product is the same one and no other ingredients are added.

First of all, Virgin olive oil is defined as oil extracted from the fruit of the olive tree by means that cause no alteration to the oil – no heat, no solvents or chemicals. Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) is obtained by cold press  method, a chemical free process involving cold pressure or cold centrifugation, thereby producing very low acidity.

There are many criteria used to determine whether an olive oil is extra virgin – color and flavor, whether chemicals were used and the acidity level. EVOO cannot have an acidity level higher than 1%  whereby regular virgin olive oil can fluctuate between 1% and 2%. The low acidity produces the fruity flavor that makes EVOO perfect for being consumed raw. A rule of thumb method to figure out if the olive oil in your pantry is Extra Virgin is to drop a small amount on a dish, refrigerate it for a few days and see what happens – if the oil crystallizes, it’s pure but if it becomes a solid block it means it was chemically refined.

Recently UC Davis and the International Olive Council based in Sydney conducted a double study on some Italian imported commercial brands and some California produced olive oils to see if they met the standards advertised on their labels. Some of the results were pretty disheartening. The bottled oils were bought in three different locations – San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sacramento – and were chemically analyzed, tested for flavor and acidity. 69% of the imported oils and 10% of the Californian did not meet the international standards. Some brands failed when purchased at certain locations but not others, meaning that how they were stored (in the heat or sunlight for prolonged periods of time) had affected the products by accelerating oxidation. Some oils were patently made with sub par olives to begin with or were adulterated. Of the household name brands that failed the tests, Bertolli, Carapelli and Mazola stand out. The ones that passed with flying colors were Lucero, McEvoy Ranch, California Olive Ranch and Kirkland Organic.

Confusing? Absolutely, as with everything to do with food these days. What I found amusing is that one of the oils tested was Rachel Ray’s (with mixed results). Now, we know the girl can’t cook but she is nonetheless wildly successful and I am extremely impressed as to how she is able to milk her success. I really would like to peak in that pantry where Rachel’s oil is stashed, probably next to Mario’s cookware, Emeril’s spices  and Nigella’s muffin mix. Boy has the Food Network changed America’s kitchens. Possibly not for the better.


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