What's the Difference between Extra Virgin, Virgin and Regular Olive Oil? How can I Spot Fake Olive Oil?
Most of us have stood in front of a wall of Olive Oils at our local grocery store wondering what the difference is between all the various bottles of olive oils on display! Labels are full of terms that promise Virgin, Extra Virgin, Cold-Pressed, Organic, Single-sourced, Artisan and much more! But what do they mean? What is the diffrence between Extra Virgin, Virgin and plain Olive Oil? Are the olives picked by virgin maidens? Are they picked off the tree or harvested from the ground? Does it even matter? How will these terms help me spot fake olive oils?
Olive oil is sourced from many countries! Japan, Italy, Greece, Spain, South Africa, Tunisia, Australia and Chile are only a small sample of countries that produce Olive Oil. The European Union produced 67% of the world’s Olive Oil in 2020! With such a global market production, the challenge is maintaining the same standards of quality for all the olive oils on our grocery shelves! This need is partially being met by the IOC (International Olive Council). Each country of production will have its own additional regulations for the Olive Oil it produces with some being stricter than others and thereby creating confusion. The European Union has strict legislation that governs all Olive Oil produced in the European Union (including Italy, Greece and Spain). One of these regulations strictly dictates what can be classified as Olive Oil, Virgin Olive Oil and Extra Virgin Olive Oil (among other categories). These regulations, which have been adopted globally, offer one very valuable and consistent scientific method to identify “good” olive oil.
Olive Oil, Virgin Olive Oil and Extra Virgin Olive Oil. What is the Difference?
Simply put, the difference is determined by a chemical analysis. It does not matter how the olives are harvested, what cultivar of olives are used or where they were produced! The only determining factor that classifies an olive oil is a chemical analysis based on physico-chemical characteristics (such as level of acidity, polyphenols and fatty acid content) and organoleptic (sensory) characteristics (the taste and scent).
The 3 Main Categories of Olive Oil are:
Extra Virgin Olive Oil - Highest Quality (Cold Extraction)
Physico-Chemical Characteristics: Oleic Acidity of maximum 0.8 grams per 100 grams.
Organoleptic Characteristic: No defects. Perfectly fruity flavor and scent.
Virgin Olive Oil - Good Quality (Cold Extraction)
Physico-Chemical Characteristics: Oleic Acidity of maximum 2 grams per 100 grams.
Organoleptic Characteristic: Some sensory defects but at a very low level. Still enjoyable scent and flavour.
Lampante Virgin Olive Oil - Low Quality Virgin Olive Oil (non-alimentary)
Physico-Chemical Characteristics: Oleic Acidity of more than 2 grams per 100 grams.
Organoleptic Characteristic: No fruity characteristics and with substantial sensory defects. Poor flavor and odor and not fit for human consumption unless refined. Not available for retail. Once refined or mixed with other oils, it can be sold for retail and is deemed safe for human consumption.
Fun Fact: Lampante comes from the Italian word “Lampa” which means lamp. This type of oil, seen as unfit for human consumption, was used for lamp fuel for lighting!
If you would like more details on the European Union Commission Regulation of Olive Oils, click here for the official page!
Find more information on the designation and definition of Olive Oils as determined by the IOC (International Olive Council) here!
What about plain “Olive Oil”? This is where things get interesting! When you see a label that states “only” Olive Oil, you can assume that the oil has been refined. It is most likely a refined mixture of “Lampante Virgin Olive Oil” and “Virgin Olive Oil”. These refined oils must meet a certain level of acidity and physico-chemical characteristics which are often imposed by each country in which it is sold. As a general rule “Olive Oil” has a maximum oleic acidity of 1 gram per 100 grams (in its refined form). Each country however can adapt the requirements of “Olive Oil” according to their own legislation. One thing to keep in mind is that a label that reads only “Olive Oil” implies that the olive oil has been blended, refined and is not in its purest form.
Are Extra Virgin and Virgin Olive Oils Always a Safe Bet?
Unfortunately, No! While it is true that they help narrow the field, it is far from a safe bet! Assuming that Olive Oil merchants and brokers play by the rules, labeling the olive oil as extra virgin or virgin, does not ensure excellence. Here is why:
Meeting the basic requirements for labeling the olive oil as Extra Virgin or Virgin does NOT guarantee the following factors:
That the Olive Oil is new (it could be a few years old)
That the Olive Oil is unblended (new olive oil blended with older olive oil to use up old stock)
That the Olive Oil is Monocultivar (from one variety of olives). This means that a lower quality of cultivar of olive oil can be mixed with a good cultivar and thereby still meet the requirements for “virgin olive oil”
That the Olive Oil is from one single Geographical region (blended with oils obtained from various countries at the lowest cost; often with dubious cultivation practices and higher levels of pesticides)
That the Olives were harvested by hand (large plantations harvest their olives at night, by machines which kill millions of birds every season) Learn all about it here.
That the olives are cultivated without the use of pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals that can harm our health
That the farms the olives were sourced from are ecologically friendly and use sustainable farming practices to protect our environment
How can this be? Since the requirements for “Virgin Olive Oil” are not very stringent, there is enough wiggle room that allows for some creative practices that keep costs down while still legally classifying as “virgin olive oil”.
Furthermore, since the global requirements to classify an olive oil as “extra virgin” or “virgin” are based on only 2 main factors, it does not regulate the levels of other nutrients contained in exceptional, fresh olive oil such as: polyphenols (antioxidants), naturally occurring vitamins E, A and K, and monounsaturated fats (good fats that help keep cholesterol low). Hence, while you are enjoying your extra virgin olive oil, you could still be missing out on the true health benefits real olive oil can offer!
How to Choose a Real, Pure and Beneficial Extra Virgin Olive Oil?
The global community of artisan olive oil producers are putting a lot of pressure on the powers-that-be to encourage them to create more stringent regulations that can distinguish exceptional extra virgin olive oil from the pack. Smaller, artisan olive oil producers can’t compete in price with extra virgin/virgin olive oil brokers that employ some of the practices listed above in order to keep their costs low. Stricter and more importantly, enforced global olive oil regulations that distinguish real, artisan extra virgin olive oil from the rest will level out the playing field and give the artisan olive oil farmers a chance at survival!
How can you choose the “real extra virgin olive oil”?
Artisan farmers are fueled by pride, legacy and grit. They are proud to put their names, location, contacts and family tree on their bottles! They have nothing to hide!
Here are some tips for choosing good artisan extra virgin olive oil. Look for labels that besides “extra virgin olive oil” also state:
the location where the olives were cultivated
the location where the olives were milled/pressed
what cultivar of olives was used to produce the olive oil - monocultivar means only one type of olives was used
what year the olives were milled/pressed (not the “bottled on” date or “best by” date as these can be very deceiving)
website/social media account where you can learn more about their farms or milling business and read other customer’s reviews
Some artisan farms and mills even offer harvest tours and more! Milling your own olives one fall could be a fun vacation destination activity and build trust in where your olive oil originates! Check Out Papa Vince's Tours here.
Why Using the Real Extra Virgin Olive Oil Matters
Olive oil is one of the oldest commodities traded in human history (read more about Olive Oil's fascinating history here) and was often referred to as liquid gold! Its health benefits are astonishing and are still being studied to this day. It has been known to lower bad cholesterol, act as an anti-inflammatory, help in the prevention of heart disease, diabetes, depression, obesity, strokes and has some of the most powerful antioxidant abilities available! Read more about the proven health benefits of good olive oil here. But we can only take advantage of these benefits if we use high quality, fresh olive oil.
Olive oil is a living organism; as it ages it fades in nutrients and benefits. A famous Sicilian proverb states “New oil, old wine makes the heart rejoice!” The fresher the olive oil, the higher the count of polyphenols (antioxidants) and other naturally occurring vitamins and nutrients. Hence, to reap the true benefits of extra virgin olive oil, do you research: find an olive oil that is extra virgin, pure, unblended, new (less than a year old) monocultivar and from a mill or farm that can be verified! Just like this one!
Remember, there are over 6000 cultivars (varieties) of olives that each produce a unique olive oil! There is not “one real extra virgin olive oil” but thousands! And they each taste differently: based on the cultivar, the geographical region, climate, aridity, method of harvest, and so many more factors that contribute to each artisan olive oil tasting unique! Have fun finding your favorite one and remember, price is not the determining factor but excellence and benefits to your health are!
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