We all know that extra-virgin olive oil is good for us. The delicious staple of the Mediterranean diet is loaded with healthy fats that help reduce our risk of chronic diseases — a big reason why U.S. consumption has tripled in the last 25 years.
But, how do you pick the right bottle — especially when faced with a supermarket aisle packed with seemingly more kinds of olive oil than stars in the sky? Add to that no shortage of producers putting out subpar oils and wrapping them in pretty packages, and it can get overwhelming fast.
“Most oils sold in the United States are fake,” notes Larry Olmsted, author of the recent book Real Food, Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating and What You Can Do About It.
So what’s a buyer to do? Arm yourself with knowledge! Olive oil is a bit like wine — it helps to know something about it before you buy a bottle.
Below are a few pointers to help guide you when you arrive at the olive oil aisle. Happy eating!
Know What ‘Extra Virgin’ Really Means
Most people know to look for “extra virgin” on the label even if they don’t know what it means. “Extra virgin” refers to the way the oil was extracted (it has nothing to do with the morality of the olives!). With EVOO, extraction is usually a mechanical pressing, versus other types which use chemical solvents to extract the juice. EVOO is not a guarantee of purity or quality although the designation does generally mean a fresher, higher-quality oil. That, in turn, means more of those fabulous polyphenols that are so good for overall health.
Check the Expiration Date
Like anything edible, olive oil comes with an expiration date, so shoot for the freshest EVOO possible (if there’s a harvest date listed, even better). Avoid buying EVOO that’s more than a year old and shop in places where the stock keeps moving – high turnover is a good thing. However, it’s important to consider the expiration date more of a general guide than a freshness guarantee, as olive oil easily goes bad with exposure to heat, air, and light — and there’s no way for consumers to know how their oil has been treated in transit. (And, don’t be fooled by labels with phrases like “cold pressed,” “pure,” and “light,” — they sound impressive but are virtually meaningless marketing catchphrases.)
Look at the Container
Be sure to only buy EVOO that is bottled in dark-colored glass — never plastic — to keep light and BPAs out of your oil.
Buy From Trustworthy Sources
To buy smarter, look for olive oils with the Non-GMO Project and/or Certified Organic label, to increase the chances that the raw materials will be of a higher quality right out of the gate. Another option is to buy from local, small batch, and artisanal olive oil makers to minimize the downsides of large-scale producers (i.e., old or poor-quality olives, additives like canola oil, pesticides, etc.).
Hit the Bar
Visit an olive oil ‘bar’ or olive oil specialty store and sample the wares. The good ones should have a fresh, grassy, bitter taste. When you find one you like, grab a bottle that’s tucked towards the back of the shelf where it’s darker and cooler, EVOO’s preferred environment. When you open it at home, taste it right away. If it’s lacking that fresh, peppery bitterness, your olive oil’s gone off — and you should march it back to the store.
Buy in Small Quantities
To guard against rancidity, buy smaller quantities of EVOO. Better to buy smaller quantities more often than to buy big and risk the oil going bad in the pantry.
Check Your EVOO’s Passport
As EVOO has increased in popularity, regions around the world are jumping into the olive oil pool, and, unfortunately, plenty of ‘fake’ or adulterated EVOOs are entering the fray as well. To help curb fraud, most regions are increasing purity and quality regulations and requirements for EVOO, good news for consumers. Among the designations to look for:
- The European Union’s PDO ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ stamp
- Italy’s new 100% Quality Italian stamp
- The California Olive Oil Commission’s “Extra Virgin Seal” for California oils
Not sure you’ll remember the best designations when the time comes to shop? When in doubt, notes Olmsted, buy Australian or Chilean EVOO, as many experts consider them to be the least likely to be adulterated.
Baby Your EVOO
Once you’ve got your new baby home, here’s how to protect it:
- Store EVOO in dark glass bottles to keep taste and nutrient-damaging light at bay.
- Always keep the cap tightly closed between uses.
- Keep EVOO far away from the heat of your stove.
- Use your EVOO frequently so it doesn’t get rancid.