Have you ever looked closely at the label of an olive oil bottle? Strewn across the grocery store aisles, you’ll find bottles labeled with “first cold-pressed,” “extra-virgin,” or “product of Italy.” With so many labels, distinguishing the difference between these terms can be confusing. If you’ve ever wondered what these terms mean or how to choose a high quality olive oil, we’re here to clarify the confusion.
Extra virgin olive oil is made using a process called “first cold-pressed.” In simpler terms, the word “first” refers to the olives being pressed on the first round of extraction. “Cold” refers to the olives being kept no higher than 81.9 °F, and “pressed” refers to the method of extraction. This method indicates that no heat or chemical additives were used to extract the oil from the olives, which can alter and destroy the flavors and aromas of the olive oil. Without adding heat to the processing, the olive oil also retains its full nutritional value. Virgin olive oil has a slightly more acidic level and does not meet the same requirements . Regular olive oil is a blend of slightly defective or low quality olives. For consumption, these olives are refined and tend to have a colorless and flavorless profile. Light olive oil has undergone a similar process but is lighter in color and flavor, not calories!
So, was the olive oil actually “Made in Italy?
When an olive oil bottle is labeled with “Made in Italy,” this does not necessarily mean that it is a high quality product. For example, you can have a bottle of olive oil produced from several different olives, from several different regions. When olives are blended together, the mixing of olives produce off-flavors. This term only indicates that the olives came from Italy but does not guarantee the consumer that the oil was produced and packaged in Italy. The highest quality olive oils are made from one type of olive and preferably from the same region.
Are there ways to know the olive oil is actually made in Italy?
Yes, an example of this would be DOP certified, which stands for Denominazione di Origine Protetta (English translation: Protected Destination of Origin). This mark is a guarantee for the consumer that from its raw state to the finalized product, the olive oil has gone through an extensive and quality process. By law, the olives have been pressed, bottled and shipped out of Italy.
Is it true that the greener the oil, the better?
Many people think that the color of the oil is a reflection of its quality. However, this is a myth. Many producers know that consumers believe this and will add olive leaves to the olive press to release the chlorophyll content, so that the oil looks greener. The color has no bearing on the quality but is more of an indication of when the olives were harvested. Olives harvested earlier in the season tend to be greener, whereas olives harvested later may be more golden. Keep in mind that different olives also exhibit different colors.
Do high quality olive oils have higher amounts of antioxidants?
It may be difficult to think of oil as having anti-inflammatory properties but olive oil does provide many health benefits. One reason is that olive oil is a fruit fat. It is not made but found within the olive, in its finished form, and extracted.
The higher the level of antioxidants in an olive oil, the healthier it is for you. One can actually assess the level of antioxidants in olive oil by the peppery “burn” on the back of the throat. Thus, the more pepper-like burn the olive oil has, the higher its antioxidant content. In terms of culinary applications however, there are some dishes were you may not want a pair a high antioxidant olive oil (more peppery), with a light dish.
There are hundreds and hundreds of different types of olives across the world. You may not be able to tell, but every olive has a very different flavor profile that ultimately translates to your food. Some are delicate and some are strong. In many countries, olive oil is the ultimate sauce. If you drizzle olive oil over any dish, depending on the quality of the oil, it can either lower the taste or heighten the flavor. In countries where olive oil is the back-bone of the food culture, olive oil is viewed as one of the most precious items. Not only is it harvested once a year, it is also used in every single meal. So, what should one look for when searching for a high quality olive oil?
When searching for a high quality olive oil, look for a DOP certification and these specifications:
- Harvest Date – You want your oil as fresh as possible!
- Region – If you don’t know what olives are in it, you have no idea what it might taste like! Knowing the region of the olive oil is very important. Not knowing the region is like buying a bottle of wine and it just says “red wine” – it could be from anywhere! When looking for a high quality olive oil, look for olives that have come from the same region, made entirely from one type of olive.
- Type of Container – Try to look for an olive oil in a dark or tinted glass bottle, rather than a plastic or clear glass. Any light that enters the bottle can cause the oil to photo-oxidize and taste rancid or bitter. In general, heat, air and light are the enemies of oil. To prevent olive oil from going rancid, store it in a cool, dry area, away from the stove or other hot appliances.