How to choose the right olive oil

How to choose the right olive oil

I don’t know why but sometimes I like to people watch…

Is this just something that I do or are there others out there who do this as well?

I find that sometimes you can learn something about yourself and others just by taking a few moments to step back and watch what others are doing. I was doing just that when I was at the grocery store this weekend picking up my groceries for the week. I happened to be in the olive oil aisle when I noticed something that was somewhat frustrating.

I was looking for a good extra virgin olive oil for salad dressing and bread dipping as I’ve been trying to eat healthier this year, but much to my chagrin I could not find a quality extra virgin olive oil in sight! While there were plenty of light oils and virgin oils galore I was limited to two extra virgin olive oil choices. Both were in plastic bottles and looked more I like vegetable oil than extra virgin olive oil. What’s up with that?!

Is it just me or has finding quality extra virgin olive oil been getting impossible lately? I guess this might have been why I started watching others who were in the aisle with me. As I was standing there I watched as patron after patron selected the cheaper oils and then one couple came by and I became a little alarmed as I overheard them talking about their going on a diet this year and how they should get the “light” oil instead!

Is this the reason for the decline of quality oils in the stores? Misinformation? Sadly I believe that it is. So to combat this as best I can I decided to write up a little refresher course for those of you who are in the market for olive oils.

How to choose the right olive oil

Buying olive oil has become somewhat of an everyday experience for most consumers. With the explosion of olive oil companies over the past couple of years; choosing the right olive oil can prove to be as daunting a task as picking a fine wine. Like most products quality does come with a higher price, but price does not always guarantee the highest quality. According to the IOOC (International Olive Oil Council), there are different grades of olive oil that are derived from the ways in which the olive oil is harvested.

What does Cold Pressing Mean?

First, let’s get one of the most commonly misunderstood and confusing terms out of the way. Cold pressing and first pressing are interchangeable terms. The first pressing of the olives will produce the finest grade of olive oil. This process is typically done by hand and without the use of heat or other chemicals hence the interchangeable terminology. To extract more olive oil in the refining process, hot water is typically passed through the olive paste to extract larger amounts of oil. The difference in the two processes is where the term Cold Pressing got its name. Hot is usually the second pressing and produces a lower quality oil.

How do olive oils differ from each grade and what does this mean?

According to the IOOC, there are many different types of olive oil. I have done my best to break down each type of oil that you will commonly encounter on your next shopping experience to arm you with the knowledge you will need to make an educated choice.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Extra Virgin Olive Oil is regarded as the highest grade of olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil is a direct result of cold pressing and will provide the most natural and flavorful taste of any olive oil. To be classified as an extra virgin it must have an FFA (acidity Level) of less than 0.8%. The olive oil must also have the perfect aroma, flavor, color and be free from all defects. The lower the acidity level, the higher the quality of oil and the more distinctive the flavor and aromas will be. Extra virgin olive oil is great for use with salads and when used for bread dipping.

Virgin Olive Oil

Virgin Olive Oil is the 2nd highest quality grade of olive oil. Virgin olive oil is also derived solely from the cold pressing of the olives but will typically have a milder, fruitier taste and odor. While there are no differences in the way in which the oil is extracted, virgin olive oil typically has an FFA (acidity) level of less than 2% and contains slight defects.

Olive Oil-Light Oil-Lite Oil

Typically these types of oil have been extracted using heat or hot water. The oil will generally have a high to very high FFA level and will contain obvious defects. Manufacturers will typically refine this oil which will make it colorless, odorless, and flavorless. To help give it some flavor, small quantities of virgin olive oil will be added; this is typically around 5%- 15%. Contrary to belief Lite or Light oils do not prove to be a healthier option than extra virgin or virgin olive oils. The FDA recently restricted oils previously labeled as lite or light to be relabeled as “Light in Taste” or “Lite Tasting”. Light Olive oil does not have fewer calories and the term light simply refers to its light color, flavor, and aroma.

Olive Pomace Oil

Olive Pomace Oil is extracted from the remaining portions of the olives after the pressing or “Pomace” by the use of solvents. The oil is then refined and mixed with a higher grade of virgin olive oil. This is again around 5%-15%.

Infused or Flavored Olive Oils

Infused or Flavored Olive Oils are generally extra virgin olive oils that have been processed with another fruit or vegetable to add flavor. The fruit or vegetable is typically placed with the olives as they are being pressed. The oil is then extracted in either the centrifuge or decanting state leaving behind its flavor. These can be wonderful alternatives to the “normal” extra virgin olive oil as they can add sweetness and make perfect toppings for a salad or fruit.

Here is where things can really start to get complicated. Since the United States is not a participating member of the IOOC, there is a different rating system to govern the US produced olive oils. The rating system is based on the acidity, absence of defects, odor, and flavor; it is graded as follows:

Olive oil with balsamic vinegar and rosemary
Olive oil with balsamic vinegar and rosemary

US Olive Oil Grades

  • U.S. Grade A or U.S. Fancy possesses a free fatty acid content of not more than 1.4% and is “free from defects”
  • U.S. Grade B or U.S. Choice possesses a free fatty acid content of not more than 2.5% and is “reasonably free from defects”
  • U.S. Grade C or U.S. Standard possesses a free fatty acid content of not more than 3.0% and is “fairly free from defects”
  • U.S. Grade D or U.S. Substandard possesses a free fatty acid content greater than 3.0% “fails to meet the requirements of U.S. Grade C”

One of the largest problems I find with this rating system is largely in part to the vagueness of means in which the olive oil can be produced. Because it is so vague it does not offer the same quality assurance that is received with the IOOC guidelines.

Unfortunately, because the United States is not a participating member of the IOOC, a vast majority of olive oils are being sold under false pretenses as terms such as “Extra Virgin” may be used without legal restrictions. Perfect…right?!

A good olive oil should look somewhat cloudy, especially soon after it has been harvested. If the oil appears clear it means that it may have been refined during the manufacturing process, either in a centrifuge or by decanting process, and will most likely have an additional reduction in quality.

The oil should also be packaged in a dark glass bottle to protect it from the damaging effects of light and surrounding aromas. Since the olive is a fruit, olive oil is a fruit juice. Air, heat, and light will cause the flavor or the oil to dissipate.

Finally, avoid buying extra virgin olive oil that is stored in plastic containers as they can absorb compounds in the plastic such as PVC (Polyvinyl Chlorides). The ideal storage temperature is 57 F although room temperature of 70 F works well if the oil is stored in a dark area. While refrigeration does not harm most oils, it is not recommended for expensive extra virgin olive oils as condensation may develop inside the bottle and will affect the overall flavor. I hope this gives everyone a little better idea of what the differences are and what to watch out for on your next shopping experience.

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