Quality olive oil is a lot like Kleenex—when you’re using it daily, it’s easy to take for granted. As soon as it’s gone, it becomes very clear just how badly you need it. And, if you skimp and buy the bargain stuff, it’s pretty noticeable.
I grew up in an Italian family (see: my last name and overly abundant body hair), and my grandparents were notorious for keeping two big jugs in their kitchen at all times: one filled with Chianti, and one heavy with extra virgin olive oil. The oil was green, flavorful, and went with everything. Fresh bread, green salad, backyard-grown tomatoes, homemade pasta—my nonna even baked cakes with it.
I have no clue where my grandparents “sourced” their olive oil—but there’s a pretty good chance that what they bought was fake. Experts estimate that a whopping 80 percent of all Italian extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) on the market today is fraudulent. Some time ago, Italy’s olive oil business was hijacked by the Mafia, and it has since turned food fraud into a $16 billion a year enterprise. While some refineries cut the pure, pressed olive oil with cheaper oils like soybean, others manufacture a totally fake product by combining vegetable oil with dyes and artificial flavorings.
The problem is enormous: Fake olive oil makes up a quarter of the food fraud cases discovered in the last 30 years. In a study of 11 brands of extra virgin olive oil found at Safeway, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and Giant, researchers found at least six didn’t live up to standards and couldn’t actually be considered “extra virgin.” (Extra virgin olive oil comes from the first pressing of olives) Not only are the fakes nearly impossible to spot, they also lack olive oil’s rich antioxidants, nutrients, and health benefits—and they don’t taste nearly as good as they should.
Freaking out about the bottle in your kitchen? You can make sure to never make the same EVOO mistake again with these simple tips.
Check the origin
It might sound obvious, but check the label on the back of the bottle to see where the product originated and was pressed. Ideally, you’re looking for olives grown in Italy or Greece and pressed and bottled at the same location. Cities like Sicily and Puglia—well known for their olive oil production—are great choices. If you can’t find a 100-percent Italian source, opt for an oil from Spain, Greece, or Tunisia—the three largest producers of olive oil.
Make sure it’s single source
Single source, or single family, brands are the best choice. That means the olives were farmed, pressed, and bottled in the same place, usually by the same people. Single source oils are far less likely to be tampered with, according to a study from the University of California, Davis. Single origin also ensures optimal freshness—remember, olive oil is a perishable product and does spoil eventually.
Opt for a better container
Light and heat are the enemies of EVOO. Your best bet is to choose an oil in a metal tin or dark glass container covered with a large label to block out sunlight. And don’t store it above your stovetop or oven at home—that’ll encourage rancidity. Rather, keep olive oil in a cool, dark place. Your fridge is even a good option, although some brands might thicken when exposed to cooler temperatures.
Pick the higher price tag
Yes, it’s cheaper to buy the off-brand option in a plastic bottle. But if you want a product that’s healthy, wholesome, and 100 percent authentic, you have be willing to spend just a little more. Thrive Market’s extra virgin olive oil is the best of both worlds: it’s organic and single-source, yet costs just $14.95. Perfect for bread-dipping, salad-drizzling, and cake-baking, we know you’ll love it.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho