How to Pick a Good Olive Oil

Perhaps you have noticed terms such as Extra Virgin, Virgin, Pomace, Cold Pressed and Pure next to the words Olive Oil on the bottles in the supermarket.  Unless you are an expert in the taste, smell and feel of Olive Oil it can be difficult to know what you are purchasing, and labels can be misleading.  There are a few things in the title that are a dead giveaway as to the quality of the oil itself.

Which labelling terms are fool proof and which use clever wording that sounds good but is exactly that; just ‘Clever Wording

Let’s start from the top:

Extra Virgin Olive Oil (also known as EVOO).  This is the King of all olive oils because it is the healthiest and of the utmost superior quality.  It is from the first pressing of the olives mechanically extracted without the use of chemicals or excessive heat, and by law cannot contain any refined oil. 

Whether the oil is extracted from the first pressing of the olives makes all the difference in the health benefits of olive oil. 

Extra Virgin Olive Oil is legendary in the culinary world because it has no more than 0.8% acidity, it’s high in antioxidants and has a superior fruitiness.  In some countries the extraction of Extra Virgin Olive Oil is less than 10% of the olive oil production, Greece however has an 80% EVOO production; the highest in the world. Yay Greece.

Thanks to the polyphenols, monounsaturated fat and low acidity in Extra Virgin Olive Oil it is prized for its health benefits.

In my expert opinion Extra Virgin Olive Oil is the only way to go here is why?

  • Studies have compared the anti-inflammatory benefits of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) obtained from the first pressing of the oil to the anti-inflammatory benefits of virgin olive oils (non-EVOO) a lower quality oil with higher acidity.  The research indicated that EVOO lowers inflammation in the blood whereas non EVOO’s made no difference. 
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil is also associated with decreased risk of heart disease this is down to one of the main polyphenols in the oil; hydrotyrosol (HT) which has been shown to protect the cells that line our blood vessels enhancing them and keeping them strong.  
  • 75% of the fat in Extra Virgin Olive Oil is oleic acid (a monounsaturated, omega-9 fatty acid), this is comparatively high compared to 15% in sunflower oil and 50-60% in corn and soya oil.  Research has shown that an increase in monounsaturated fat can decrease the bad cholesterol (LDL) balancing the LDL:HDL ratio in the body.

Moving further down the quality line we have:  

Virgin olive oil - The name denotes that this oil has not undergone any refinement nor has it been mixed with refined oils; however the quality is compromised and it contains 1-4% acidity but it is still flavorsome with a natural aroma.

Refined/Pure Olive Oil - This type of Olive Oil is the most popular with the supermarkets and can be found in many different shaped and sized bottles.  It is a very low quality refined oil usually from the second pressing of the left over pulp from Extra Virgin Olive Oil.  It will have been refined with the use of charcoal and other chemical and physical filters to eliminate high acidity and defects in this second rate oil, a small amount of Virgin Olive Oil may have been added to add flavour.    

And finally we arrive at Pomace Olive Oil/Olive Oil, which is very cheap and nasty, even if it was given away for free I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole.  This is the scum of the scum left over from the food grade oil extraction mentioned above.  It is solvent treated and of a very low grade hence the cheapness.   I DO NOT recommend cooking with or eating this oil.

We’ve established that Extra Virgin Olive Oil is the way to go, however there are different varieties of that too. 

The olive tree has been cultivated for approximately 6000 years in the Mediterranean countries and has since spread to parts of America, Australia and elsewhere.  The trees are very resilient and thrive in dry hot climates with mild winters and can grow on mountain sides, in coastal climates, on limestone and can even survive drought.  The trees can live for centuries and if pruned correctly will continue to produce olives for just as long. 

Location and conditions can radically affect olive oil taste, colour and character.  When the olives are harvested and how they are pressed are also factors that affect the end result of the oil.

Extra virgin olive oils can be anything from very delicate and mellow to quite bitter and pungent. 

Some olive oils are somewhat sweet, fruity and mild tasting and others quite strong and aggressive with a touch of bitterness or pepper in them, or even very peppery indeed.

One of the greatest benefits of extra virgin olive oil is its antioxidant content and this can vary considerably.  What is quite often misunderstood is the flavour of the oil in relation to its quality. 

Antioxidants in olive oil are bitter!

The higher the antioxidant content, the more bitter the oil will be. 

Agourelaio which literally translates to 'unripe-oil' is derived from the first harvest olives hand-picked to prevent bruising.  It is prized highly as the best olive oil available in Greece because of its low acidity and high antioxidant content.  These oils tend to have a robust flavour with hints of bitterness and are a lovely natural green colour. 

Our Koroneiko Extra Virgin Olive Oil is extracted from the first harvest Koroneiko olives, it has a beautiful depth of flavour with a fruity aroma and peppery undertones, the deep green colour is just as you imagine Olive oil to be.  Our current stock has an acidity of 0.22% which is exceptionally low and means the antioxidant levels are high making it a very nutritional oil indeed.

Strong tasting olive oils may not however correlate with your taste buds, therefore a milder oil might be more fitting to your personal expectations.  In which case our Organic Manaki Extra Virgin Olive Oil is more suitable for the softer palate; a very smooth, mild, fruity olive oil which is a deep golden colour and has an acidity of 0.45%.

Tips for choosing and storing Olive Oil and useful definitions of terms found on the bottle:

  • Find an olive oil you like from a reputable company you trust, and stick to it. Do not go on price alone.
  • Store your oil in a dark, cool place away from the oven and other heat sources.  Ensure the packaging is non-transparent or dark because light and heat will make the oil rancid. A cheap clear plastic bottle offers no protection to olive oil therefore it is a sure sign that the oil has been processed and no longer needs protection from oxygen and light
  • Definition: Solely by mechanical means – The olives have been ground using machinery that uses friction or abrasion to extract the oil – If it is of solely mechanical means there has been no chemical interference.
  • Check where the oil is from. Just because it was packed or bottled in Italy doesn't mean the oil's Italian. Look for terms such as: ‘Italian Product’ or ‘Product of Italy’ to be sure it is from the country you are led to believe it is.  This will also ensure the oil has not travelled around the world before being bottled and sold and there is a lower risk of it being rancid.
  • Beware of terms such as ‘blended’ olive oil – this may indicate the mixing of cheap, non-olive oils.
  • Don’t forget that Extra Virgin/Cold pressed/First Pressed olive oils have higher levels of polyphenols (potent antioxidants) due to the fact that no heat or solvents were used when processing the olives.
  • If possible try before you buy or wait til you get home if the opportunity to try the oil first is not there.  Smell it and taste it to make sure the unique flavour of that particular oil agrees with your taste buds.  Some people can handle stronger tasting olive oil others cannot.
  • Olive oil is best consumed within 12 - 18 months. Ensure that the use-by date is well within the time that you will be able to cook with it.

If an olive oil is well researched by the retailer then there are a few descriptive words that may be used to help give an indication of what style of oil is in the bottle and how it was produced.

Early or late harvest:
Early picked olives give a stronger taste and flavour than you would find in an oil made from the same olives picked at the end of the harvest.

Delicate, sweet, subtle, gentle, mild, mellow, ripe and rich are all words used to describe lighter oils such as our Manaki variety which is extracted from end of harvest olives ripened on the tree.

Green, pungent, intense, bitter, piquant and aggressive are words used to describe stronger oils like our Koroneiko variety which is produced from early harvest unripe olives but is lower in acidity therefore higher in antioxidants.

First cold pressing: This phrase can only be used on Extra Virgin Olive Oils which have been produced at a temperature below 27oC using a traditional granite millstone and hydraulic press. 

Cold extraction: This is the phrase which is used on Extra Virgin Olive Oils produced at a temperature below 27C using percolation or centrifugation systems.

Unfiltered: These oils have not been subjected to any filtration process. They tend to be thicker in texture but there is no difference in taste and flavour from their filtered counterparts.

References

  • Papageorgiou N, Tousoulis D, Psaltopoulou T et al. Divergent anti-inflammatory effects of different oil acute consumption on healthy individuals. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2011 Apr;65(4):514-9. Epub 2011 Feb 16. 2011.
  • Lucas L, Russell A and Keast R. Molecular mechanisms of inflammation. Anti-inflammatory benefits of virgin olive oil and the phenolic compound oleocanthal. Curr Pharm Des. 2011;17(8):754-68. 2011.
  • Zrelli H, Matsuoka M, Kitazaki S et al. Hydroxytyrosol Induces Proliferation and Cytoprotection against Oxidative Injury in Vascular Endothelial Cells: Role of Nrf2 Activation and HO-1 Induction. J Agric Food Chem. 2011 May 11;59(9):4473-82. Epub 2011 Apr 13. 2011.

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