Know Your Oil

Olive Oil Grades

There are a wide variety of olive oils, all differing in their prices, for a consumer to choose from.  Amidst all the different labels and brands, choosing which olive oil is best suited to your needs and tastes can be an overwhelming task. Nevertheless, with a little inside knowledge as to what you should  look for, you will be able to make a more educated decision next time you go into a supermarket.

Unfortunately, nowadays, labels are no longer stamps of quality.  Especially with olive oil, one has to be very meticulous in his/her research for a good quality olive oil.  Although a little detective work will weed out most of the lesser quality oils, the final decision of which olive oil to buy is based on taste (link) and personal preference.  The aim of this piece is to make you a little wiser as to the acuteness of your pallet, and thus, your personal preference.

Generally speaking, an “extra virgin” designation and price are no guarantees of quality. Good inexpensive oils are mild in flavour and right for cooking. For cooking, oil labelled “pure” or “extra virgin” is usually fine.

When the oil is not used for cooking, but rather used in dressing or sauces, choose more expensive extra virgin olive oils, usually labelled “organic” and/or “cold pressed.” These are considered “condiment quality” or “finishing” oils, and range in taste from light and floral to bold and earthy and rich in antioxidants. It should have appreciable levels of pungency (i.e., pepperiness or a spicy sensation in the back of your throat), bitterness and fruitiness.  It should not taste musty or rancid. Nor does it need to come in a fancy package. Some producers of olive oil use this as a marketing gimmick (link) to entice the consumer to believe that their product is of superior quality when in fact, sometimes, that is not the case.  Selecting olive oil requires a combination of trusting your merchant, your own palate, and your good common sense.

Of course, having said this, price is not always an indication of quality.  Although a higher price is a good indication of quality – as the producers strive to make the best olive oil, which can slightly drive up costs and therefore price – it is certainly not definitive.  A consumer would have to do a little detective work to make a more educated decision: if finding out if the olives were harvested at the same place that the olive oil was produced and bottled, the date of harvest and/or bottling, etc. One thing remains certain, however: well-made extra virgin olive oil will never be dirt cheap (which is a major red flag).  Of course, as said before, your taste buds will also be a big decider as to the olive oil’s quality.

So, what are the different categories of olive oil?  The following designations are the grades of oil extracted from the olive. The classifications are theoretically strictly regulated, but sometimes, poor quality olive oil passes through the cracks.  Nevertheless, here they are in order of best quality as defined by the European Regulation on marketing standards of olive oil:

  • Extra Virgin: The best/superior quality of olive oil available is described as “extra virgin” and produced solely by mechanical means. Extra virgin is the highest quality and most flavourful olive oil classification. In chemical terms it is described as having a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid, of not more than 0.8 grams/100 grams and a peroxide value of less than 20 milliequivalent O2. It must be produced entirely by mechanical means without the use of any solvents, and under temperatures that will not degrade the oil (less than 86°F, 30°C).

  • Virgin olive oil: Olive oils described as “virgin” are those that have been obtained from the original fruit without having been synthetically treated and obtained directly by mechanical means. Once the olives have been picked, pressed, and washed, no other process has taken place other than decantation, and centrifugation to extract the oil, and filtration, and is usually up to 1.0 grams/100 grams of free acidity.

  • Olive oil: Olive oil is the pure oil obtained from the fruit of olive trees. No oil obtained using solvents, re-esterification processes, or mixed with other vegetable oils qualifies under this description, and is usually above the level of 1.0 grams/100 grams of free acidity.

  • Refined olive oil: This is the olive oil obtained from virgin olive oils by refining methods which do not lead to alterations in the initial glyceride structure.

  • Olive-pomace oil: oil comprising exclusively of oils obtained by treating the product obtained after the extraction of olive oil and oils obtained directly from olives.

*Organic extra virgin: Although this is not a grade under the regulation, it is a testament as to the way the olive groves were kept, and olives were harvested with sustainable practices in mind.  Some say that organic extra virgin olive oil contains all the vitamins and nutrients of the olive fruit, and if you get a premium organic extra virgin olive oil, it will taste better and have a full aroma.

*Cold-pressed: Nowadays, premium olive oil is cold pressed, which means the olive paste is gently warmed to room temperature to avoid losing taste, and pressing is done in winter, when it’s cold, to further retain flavour.

These are the main classifications of olive oil.  What occurs sometimes when olive oil gets through the cracks of regulation is that lower grade oil (e.g. pomace oil) becomes refined and mixed with some higher grade of olive oil to make it sellable under higher grade quality oil.  Watch out for other marketing terms put on the label to misguide consumers such as Pure Olive Oil or Light Olive Oil.  These schemes have created a bad name for the market.  However, now with this little bit of knowledge that you have, you are one step ahead of other buyers and can choose wisely a better quality olive oil based on valuable information.  Do your research on the olive oil before buying it, and you will gain all the benefits that true olive oil has to offer.