Faced with an entire shelf of olive-oil options, all with different labels and price points, how do you choose? Start with these pointers from the California Olive Oil Council (COOC), a nonprofit organization that recently petitioned the USDA to develop clearer olive-oil standards:
- Opt for “extra.” As a rule, you’re best off choosing extra-virgin olive oil, which gives you more nutrition and flavor for your buck. Just plain “virgin,” while cheaper, tends to be less flavorful and have fewer health benefits.
- Don’t be dazzled by claims. The labels “cold pressed,” “cold extracted” and “first press” have little meaning when attached to extra-virgin and virgin olive oils, all of which must be processed that way to earn the virgin or extra-virgin designation.
- Avoid also-rans. The labels “olive oil,” “pure olive oil,” “light olive oil” and “refined olive oil” are lower-quality olive oils that do not meet virgin standards and have been refined to make them palatable.
- Look for the harvest or milling date, which indicates when the olives were picked; it should be within the last 12 months. If there is no such date, estimate the harvest date by looking for the “best by” expiration date, which is generally 18 months to two years after the harvest.
- Steer clear of imposters. Even the hallowed label of “extra-virgin olive oil” can be misleading. According to a recent report, more than two-thirds of imported extra-virgin olive oils (and one in 10 California extra-virgin olive oils) are actually lower-quality olive oils that may also be cut with other kinds of oils, such as canola, safflower and peanut. Read on for tips on how to spot the real stuff.
- Look for the USDA seal. The presence of the USDA seal indicates that the oil has been produced in accordance with the new regulations governing the use of the label “extra-virgin olive oil.” If you’re buying domestic, look for the COOC’s “Extra Virgin Seal” for oils made in California, which produces 99 percent of domestic olive oil.
- Buy from a reputable source. Better grocery stores and specialty retailers are less likely than big-box bargain outlets to sell low-quality oils from questionable sources. Specialty retailers are also much more likely to let you taste the oil before you buy it.
- Beware of too-good bargains. Although you can get a liter of certified California extra-virgin olive oil for $10 to $25, says COOC’s executive director Patricia Darragh, if you see a liter of imported extra-virgin olive oil for under $10, it’s probably too good to be true: “The Euro is currently strong, and then you add in fees associated with shipping across the Atlantic and suddenly you’re only spending a few dollars for ‘extra-virgin olive oil’? It’s not financially feasible.”