Why Your Olive Oil Isn’t What You Think It Is

olive oil

Embraced almost universally, olive oil has become the darling of oils. Lauded for it’s health-promoting qualities, versatility, and taste, it’s often the go-to oil for the health conscious and foodies alike. But are you sure that the extra virgin olive oil you’re buying is really what you think it is??

“Extra virgin” olive oil is considered the highest grade of olive oil according to standards established by the International Olive Council (IOC) and the USDA—olives are pressed mechanically and the oil is to have superior taste, some fruitiness, no defects, and no more than 0.8% free acidity, which results from the degradation of the oil.

But a year-long study done at U.C. Davis in 2010 determined that 69% of imported olive oil sold in California is either not olive oil at all, or it’s olive oil that has been adulterated with cheaper vegetable oils like soybean oil. The top five selling brands of imported extra virgin oil (Colavita, Star, Bertolli, Filippo Berio, Pompeian) repeatedly failed sensory as well as chemical tests by the IOC.

Much of the olive oil boasting Italian origins actually comes from other countries like Spain, Morocco, and Tunisia, where production is cheaper. This in and of itself isn’t a problem, but the freshness of the oil produced in different countries then shipped to another for packaging is almost always compromised. Olive oil is pressed from olives weeks and sometimes months after harvesting, then is shipped to Italy. Cheap refined vegetable oils, like soybean oil, also labeled as olive oil, are smuggled into the same Italian ports. Some producers mix olive oil with these cheaper oils, while others just take vegetable oil and mix it with beta carotene and chlorophyll to make counterfeit olive oil. These oils are then labeled as extra virgin olive oil and shipped to the United States and other countries with labels saying “imported from Italy” or “packed in Italy.”

In fact, fraud is so rampant that there’s a branch of the Italian national police that’s dedicated to investigating and raiding refineries, but bribery, corruption, and powerful mob connections usually mean the producers are rarely prosecuted. This means that despite awareness, the problem continues to be widespread. In 2008, over 60 people were arrested, 85 farms were confiscated, and 7 oil production plants were impounded in connection with large-scale schemes involving the relabeling of olive oil to hide countries of origin or adding chlorophyll to sunflower or soybean oil and selling it as extra virgin olive oil.


Ok, so many of us have been buying fake or adulterated olive oil, and most of us aren’t trained like the sensitive testers at the IOC. Now what? Are we doomed to just taking our chances at the grocery store (our odds aren’t very good…)?? No! Luckily, armed with a little knowledge you can make sure you’re buying the good stuff!

1 .  Know where your olive oil is coming from and who made it. As with all food that you buy, the closer production is to you the better. Those of us living in California are fortunate because we live in a Mediterranean climate (for now) and have many high-quality olive oil producers right here in our home state. 

2.  If possible, smell and taste first. It’s ideal to be able to use multiple senses to measure the quality of the oil. The oil should taste fresh, grassy, fruity, bright and flavorful, not necessarily sweet and mellow. There should be a nice balance between sweet, bitter, and pepper. Don’t be put off by sharp bitter and pungent flavors, which are an indication of freshness and high antioxidant content. Amphora Nueva is a great little olive oil shop in Berkeley in which you can taste some delicious olive oils.

But let’s be realistic here, not all of us have the luxury of doing a proper smell and taste test before we buy our olive oils. There are still things you can look for…

3.  Look for a harvest date on the label. Olive oil is oil pressed from the olive, which is a fruit. This makes olive oil very perishable—it begins degrading the moment it is made. It is composed of over 85% unsaturated fats, which are unstable and prone to oxidation, especially in the presence of light, oxygen, and heat. If there’s no harvest date, look at the “best by” date, which is usually set 2 years from harvest, so the closer to 2 years before the “best by” date the better.

 Harvest date and COOC seal of approval

Harvest date and COOC seal of approval


4.    Look for “extra virgin” on the label. Although this is no protection from fraud, oils with labels like “pure,” “light,” or “olive oil” mostly have been chemically extracted or mixed with cheaper vegetable oils.

5.    Buy your olive oil in dark bottles in quantities that you can use up quickly, usually within 6 months. 

6.    Read the fine print. The main label may advertise that it’s an Italian or Californian olive oil, but it may just be packed in these places, which may obscure the fact that it’s actually produced in other countries. You’ll notice that these are the oils that often won’t have a harvest or “best by” date because they can’t guarantee freshness since the oil has multiple origins.

 We thought this was from California! Hmm...no harvest or "best by" date either

We thought this was from California! Hmm...no harvest or "best by" date either


The California Olive Oil Council upholds high standards for California extra virgin oil through its seal certification. Olive oil production is a growing industry in California—as of January 2014, 35,000 acres were growing over 75 varieties of olives dedicated for olive oil and it’s estimated that 3,500 more acres will be added each year.

How to store your olive oil:

  • In the dark. Light promotes oxidation of the oil.
  • At low temperatures but not in the fridge. Many people choose to store their olive oil above or very close to the stove for convenience, but remember all that heat just accelerates the oil’s degradation.
  • In small bottles. A large, half-empty bottle means lots of the oil’s surface area is exposed to another enemy, oxygen, which…yup you guessed it, promotes oxidation and rancidity.

For more information on olive oil:

California Olive Oil Council
Olive Research and Education Center at U.C. Davis
Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller
Tom Mueller’s website 



This month's recipe depends on a high-quality olive oil to make it shine. Labneh is a part of the Middle Eastern meze, a smattering of small dishes that begin the meal. Yogurt is strained through muslin overnight to make it thick, creamy, and rich. It's often mixed with za'taar, a spice mix, sprinkled with sumac, and topped with generous pools of delicious extra virgin olive oil to be scooped up with flatbread, but just as good with some veggies.

 Straining yogurt. Keep the whey!

Straining yogurt. Keep the whey!


Ok, ok...you're on to me! I just so happen to be straining a lot of yogurt right now in preparation for this Saturday's class that includes fermented whey sodas, which leaves me with a lot of thickened yogurt, so what better way to eat it? If you strain your own yogurt, don't throw out that whey! It's full of probiotics, which can be used to make salubrious fermented whey sodas. How, you say?? Glad you asked!



Learn how to make naturally fermented beverages and how to prepare properly prepare grains so they're not harmful!

Sign up for Soaking, Sprouting, Sourdough, and Fermented Beverages this Saturday, March 14, 5-8 pm at Berkeley Kitchens, in which you’ll learn, among many other things, how to make your very own sourdough starter as well as your favorite naturally bubbly fermented beverages, such as kombucha and kefir sodas. 





1 quart whole milk yogurt
a big pinch of salt
za’taar (or fresh herbs of your choice)
extra virgin olive oil

Into a muslin cloth-lined strainer set over a deep bowl, pour all of the yogurt. Cover with the cloth and leave to drain overnight in the refrigerator.

Put the thickened, strained yogurt into a bowl and stir in salt and za’taar or herbs. (Save the whey for your fermentation projects or to soak your grains!) Put into a shallow serving bowl, make some deep swirls into the top, sprinkle with sumac, and add a few generous glugs of olive oil.


mailto: rosie@rosewatercooking.com