Updated: Oct 2, 2019
Have you ever stood in the supermarket aisle wondering which olive oil is the best one to buy? I have. And I have just ended up buying the cheapest one in the past. But now I've got the goss to make a better choice. I spent some time recently with old friends whose family owned an olive grove and ran the business for many years. What they shared finally made all the jargon make sense.
I'll tell you straight up, so you don't need to read to the end. Always buy extra virgin cold pressed olive oil. But if you want to know why, you can read a little further. For those of us who care about our health, olive oil is a prince of oils. In a clinical trial known as PREDIMED, "researchers observed lower rates of cardiovascular problems, which include heart attack, stroke, and death from heart disease, in people following the Mediterranean Diet with either extra virgin olive oil or nuts, as opposed to a control diet." (*) Some of its health properties are destroyed with high heat, so leave the expensive stuff for salad dressings, dipping bread and making dips. And keep the cheaper olive oil for cooking. It doesn't have a high enough smoke point for deep frying, but hey! we don't cook like that in our house anyway.
So let's get some of the jargon under our belts. Simply put, when olives are harvested, the first 'pressing' is called extra virgin. It is just the pure fruit crushed to squeeze out the precious oil. This is classified as unrefined oil. Can you believe, the leftover pulp is then gathered up and sent to another kind of process and pressed again! As you can imagine, not much oil will be produced unless heat and chemicals are added. Typically the flesh is crushed multiple times and at higher temperatures to extract more oil from the fruit. This is refined oil. The colour will not be as dark and it is seriously devoid of the original nutrients of the extra virgin pressing.
The good quality virgin oil is dark in colour and full in flavour. But there are different varieties of fruit that mean that colour alone is not the only way olive oil is graded. There are sensory and chemical testing and it is also tested for its level of oleic acid. This is an indication of how much the fats have broken down into acids within the oil. The highest quality extra virgin olive oil has less than 1% oleic acid.
Olive oil comes in refined and unrefined varieties. The oil is further refined to remove unwanted qualities but leave the oil with virtually no colour, aroma, flavour or nutrients. If you are like me - someone who loves whole-food, plant-based eating, we know that refining something usually takes too much away. In the case of olive oil, you lose a lot more than flavour. You lose the antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory properties that make olive oil so desirable.
If the bottle is labelled 'pure' olive oil or just plain 'olive oil', you can assume this has been mixed with refined olive oil. The oleic acid content is higher at about 3-4%. If you see the term 'light' or 'lite' olive oil on the label, don't be confused. It has nothing to do with being lower in calories. It simply is describing the lighter colour of the oil and once again it is a refined oil.
Choice magazine tested 23 extra virgin olive oils to determine the best olive oil you can buy in Australia. Some degradation can happen due to poor storage after bottling. See the link at the bottom of this article for more details into their testing. After experts performed sensory and chemical testing, these are the top three oils on their list:
There were 5 oils labelled Extra Virgin Olive Oil that failed the testing - Minerva, Minos, Squeaky Gate The All Rounder Classic and Fruity, Bertolli Organic and Pukara Estate.
So the next time you are hunting for that perfect bottle of olive oil, here are some final points to look out for:
*Extra Virgin, cold pressed is unrefined and of the highest nutritional quality
*Dark bottles preserve the oil from sunlight which is it's enemy
*Country of origin - if multiple countries are listed, this should send up red flags
*Date of harvest - olive oil should be consumed within 2 years