Unlike wine whereby the label gives a clear indication of the quality of what is inside the bottle, the same is not true with EVOO. The international wine industry supports brand recognition of quality however, there is not the same control of the extra virgin olive oil market. Olive oil labels say the same thing whether they contain EVOO of a magnificent quality or something disgusting to the taste buds.
Real extra virgin olive oil is full of powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. It is a delicious juice from the olive fruit that promotes good health and well-being and infuses your food with flavour and goodness. Extra virgin olive oil is considered the best grade to deliver healthy benefits because it is the least-processed of all olive oils.
So what is EVOO and how can you tell if you are buying a high quality olive oil?
First lets consider the olive tree. The oldest known olive tree, the Olive Tree of Vouves is growing on the Greek island of Crete and is estimated at over 3,000 years old and it still produces highly prized olives. It's healthy old age is proof of the premium growing environment for olives in the Mediterranean area. Olive trees are hardy and drought and disease resistant and when destroyed by fire or frost will reshoot from the roots. Olives have broad and low root systems and the trees thrive in rocky, well-drained calcareous soils.
The Athenians fiercely protected the olive tree on the Acropolis which was believed to be planted by the Goddess Athena. In 480 BC the Persians burn it to the ground and soon after green shoots sprang from its roots reassuring the Athenians that their future was bright.
Olive oil since ancient times has stood for health, purity, and holiness. It is sacred and the whole process of olive oil production must be treated as such. The trees and processes need to be respected and the essence of a magnificent olive oil is the love that goes into its production.
A major focus of the International Olive Oil Competitions (IOOC) in recent years is on the health benefits of the EVOO. Many of the health benefits come from the phenolic compounds in the olive oil. The two most significant being oleocanthal which is anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial and the other is oleacein which is an antioxidant. Recent research suggesting that these phenolic compounds help prevent or treat diseases like Alzheimers, osteoarthritis, cardiovascular disease, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer and oxidative stress. Awards for health benefits are now a part of the overall assessment of EVOO. Samples are tested for their balance between saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, levels of total phenols and individual levels of oleocanthal and oleacein. Olive oil will no longer be evaluated for its taste (or organoleptic characteristics) alone. In the London IOOC in 2017 scores on the olive oil were 70% based on the phenolic concentration and 30% on the taste score. The phenolic compounds add a bitterness (pepperiness) to the olive oil and this must be balanced carefully so that the olive oil is strong and fragrant , balanced with a well-rounded bittersweet flavor.
So what makes a top quality EVOO?
1. The olives are carefully harvested at the time when the phenolic content in the olives is high and transported to the mill with extreme care. Olives harvested early contain less oil but the oil is of the highest quality and contains the highest levels of phenolic compounds.
2. The olives are ‘pressed’ or more correctly the oil is extracted by mechanical means without the use of solvents (cold extraction)
3. The olive oil is stored in a temperature controlled environment devoid of oxygen and light
4. The olive oil is repacked into tins which maintain the premium storage environment during their shelf life.
5. The key indicator of whether the olive oil is rancid is the acidity (free fatty acid content). To be classed as EVOO, the acidity must be less than 0.8%.
6. Peroxide level must be less than 20 milliequivalents per kg. This is a measure of how much the olive oil has oxidized (degraded by free radicals like oxygen and exposure to light)
7. High in polyphenols (more than 250mg/kg of phenols)
8. It must pass a panel test which measures the level of olive fruitiness and absence of taste flaws (there are 16 listed with the IOOC including mustiness, metallic, greasy and vinegary)
9. It must not be mixed with any other oils. Pure and unadulterated.
How can you tell if your EVOO is authentic?
1. Smell it and taste it. A balance of characteristics-aroma, flavors and after-tastes that appeal to your senses. It should smell fresh/fruity not musty or rancid nor should it have no smell at all. The olive oil will have flavours which are unique to the area where the olives are grown. A good olive oil is fruity, with a slightly bitter and peppery taste which is noticeable but which doesn’t distract from the enjoyment of the olive oil. Once you swallow the olive oil, a pleasant, clean taste should remain in your mouth. The colour is not an indication of the quality of the EVOO.
2. Buy an olive oil that has come as directly as possible from the olive mills.
3. Choose a container that protects the olive oil from light (tins are preferable to bottles)
4. Check the label- it must be labeled ‘extra virgin’. Check the acidity and peroxide content. Check the polyphenol content –should be above 500. Check the certifications for the production.
5. It must be fresh- check the expiry date. Buy olive oil from the recent harvest if possible.
6. ‘Packed in..’ and ‘Bottled in….’ doesn’t mean anything. Make sure the olive oil is made completely with olives from the region you are buying it. All Greek olive oil is 100% Greek olive oil. It is illegal to import olives or olive oil from any other region into Greece. Olive oil fraud is big business and is making it difficult for those who produce exceptional quality oils to compete commercially even though their quality is incomparable.
7. Buy EVOO that have scored well in international olive oil competitions.
8. If possible ensure there is no sediment in the bottom of the container.
9. Avoid bargain prices because producing genuine EVOO is expensive
10. Store in a place protected from heat, light and oxygen.
11. EVOO has a high smoke point and CAN be used for frying and cooking.
You will be able to taste the difference and once you have, you’ll never go back to cheap non-authentic EVOO.