All About Olive Oil (and How to Choose the Best!)

Olive oil is a staple in the Mediterranean diet and a growing favorite across the world. Italy is one of the top producers of olive oil, and it’s hard not to imagine the golden liquid when thinking of Italian cuisine, but it turns out there’s more to the world of olive oil than just an E.V.O.O. title. Since the 2011 publication of journalist Tom Mueller’s book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, the world has been turned on to the huge business that is adulterated olive oil.

Italy is the second largest producer of olive oil, making the olive tree a common sight. Photo by Stew Dean

Italy is the second largest producer of olive oil, making the olive tree a common sight. Photo by Stew Dean

The U.S. is the best place in the world to sell fake olive oil.

In the past and, unfortunately, still today, lower-quality oil mixed with artificial food coloring is passed off as extra-virgin olive oils. While there are laws in place to monitor the use of “virgin” or “extra-virgin” on olive oil labels, the United States has considerably less, with very few strict regulations on labeling. And, since olive oil is one of the fastest-growing industries, with Americans joining the Mediterraneans in their love of the liquid gold en masse, the market is ripe with knock-offs. The truth is that virgin means it is made with natural, physical processes – not by chemistry.

Lower-quality or adulterated olive oil isn’t as good for you as the real stuff.

Extra virgin olive oil has a slight “bite” to it. That’s a good thing: It’s from a molecule called “oleocanthal” that works as an anti-inflammatory and reverses the effects of protein byproducts that are thought to contribute to Alzheimer’s. And that’s just one out of a cocktail of potent ingredients. The polyphenols in olive oil, for example, prevent cancers of the colon, breast, ovary, and prostate; diminish risk of thrombosis, stroke, and heart attack; aid the immune system; and improves cognitive functioning and memory.

Nothing like olives drizzled in delicious olive oil! Photo by CeresB (flickr)

Nothing like olives drizzled in delicious olive oil! Photo by CeresB (flickr)

You can’t trust a “Made in Italy” label.

The U.S. still largely thinks to Italy when it thinks of olive oil – and for a good reason! Italian olive oil is considered some of the best in the world and is often a first choice for consumers looking for high-quality olive oil. It’s easy to see how a “made in Italy” label helps sell the product, unfortunately, though, it’s not always true. The Italian industry is worried about its brand reputation as food fraudsters continue to introduce low-quality blends on the market under the Italy title, giving the entire nation a bad name. Not only that, but food fraud can be dangerous as well as dishonest. With a misleading label we can’t be 100% sure about the processes, product or what exactly the food contains, possibly exposing people to allergens and other food-related illnesses.

It’s not possible for real, extra-virgin olive oil to be cheap.

You know that cheap olive oil you manage to find? Not real. The market is flooded with foreign oils that are sent to Italy to “just be bottled,” meaning it can then legally be labeled as “made in Italy” oil. Olive oil is a high-cost production and often true olive oil harvest make very little profit. There’s the expense of caring for the trees during the year, hiring workers to prune, fertilize, irrigate and control for pests and insects. Then there’s the milling, bottling, marketing, shipping. Add permits, salaries, government controls and chemical exams and you can see how a 1,90 euro bottle of “pure, extra-virgin olive oil” seems a bit hokey. In fact, it is.

Try taste-testing your olive oil before you buy!

Try taste-testing your olive oil before you buy! Photo by Jessica Spengler

So how can I choose real extra-virgin olive oil?

It’s not easy, but there are some steps you can take to be more sure you’re paying for the real deal. First, like we mentioned above, be more willing to pay. Look for containers that block natural light and look for bottles with a date of harvest – any olive oil is better used within two years of its harvest. Then, try a taste test. Like we said, the oil will have a slight bite, you’re looking for oil that is suitably fruity, bitter and even a bit peppery. Finally, your best bet is to know your vendor. Buy as locally as possible – we know you’re attracted to the Made in Italy label, but hold out for your trip to the boot to eat the real deal!

If you’re visiting Rome and want to know a little bit more about real Italian olive oil, check out our Rome Food Tour. During our trip to Campo dei Fiori market we visit one of our favorite stands, run by a family who have been selling their own olive oil here for over a century! The tour also includes numerous tastings of local produce and a pizza-making session at a local pizzeria. For details visit our Rome Food Tour.        

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