After more than 20 years as a consumer reporter, I’m always delighted when I get to cover a topic that’s actually new to me. So when the National Consumers League offered me the opportunity to be the first to report on its testing of olive oils, I jumped at the chance. Olive oil is widely considered one of the products most often mislabeled and adulterated. Here’s some insight into our reporting process, ways to make sure the olive oil you buy really is extra virgin and a list of the oils that passed the National Consumers League’s test.
The National Consumers League or NCL purchased 11 different brands of olive oil and had one bottle of each tested at a certified laboratory. The goal: to determine whether they were really extra virgin as claimed. In this small experiment, the oils passed the battery of chemical tests they were put through. However, when the lab subjected them to an elaborate taste test with professional tasters, six of the 11 olive oils failed. Olive oils must pass both the chemical and the taste tests to be certified as extra virgin, under rules set up by the International Olive Council.
Part of my job as a consumer and investigative reporter is to contact companies when they don’t pass such tests and ask them for their response. The companies in question pointed out that taste tests are subjective, even though the tasters are professionals trained to set aside personal preference. In the olive oil world, when an oil fails a taste test with one group of tasters, it is then submitted to another group for verification. That was not done in this case, so we decided not to name the olive oils that failed until we see further testing.
Several of the companies whose oils failed NCL’s test, immediately conducted tests of their own and showed us reports indicating they had passed. Manufacturers keep reference samples of their olive oils, so they were able to test the same lots of olive oil NCL did, yet they got different results. How can this be? Let’s set aside the skepticism inherent in a company paying to have its own product tested and consider other theories.
It’s possible that the olive oils NCL tested were, indeed, extra virgin when first bottled, but that they degraded somewhere down the line, whether on the truck, at the warehouse, or in the store. Light, heat and air cause olive oils to break down, so if transport and storage are not optimal, this can happen. By contrast, when the companies retested their reference samples, they were probably working with olive oils that had been kept in one place under ideal conditions. That could explain why tests of olive oils bought off store shelves could differ from tests of the same lot held by the manufacturer.
Why am I leading you into the weeds like this? Because consumers should be able to trust the extra-virgin label. That means olive-oil manufacturers should do what it takes to assure their products will remain extra virgin as long as they are purchased by their best by date. It’s possible that the failing oils in NCL’s test were not packaged as carefully as they could have been. In fact, according to Olive Oil Times an ongoing class action claims that the failure of some olive oil manufacturers “to package the oil in light-proof containers resulted in quality degradation such that even if the oil was ‘extra-virgin’ at the time of bottling, it was no longer so when it reached the consumer due to exposure to heat and light.”
Could a certain kind of bottling make all the difference? Remember, five other olive oils passed the NCL test handily. Here’s what you, as a consumer, can look for in order to have a better chance of purchasing olive oils with the taste – and health benefits – of genuine extra-virgin olive oil.
- Check dates for freshness. Think of olive oil as a fruit juice, because it is. Juice should be fresh. You know how you check the date on milk and eggs? Learn to do the same for olive oil. Look for oils with a best-by date that’s as far away as possible, ideally a year and a half to two years out.
- Check labels for source, certification. True extra-virgin olive oils are certified by outside testers who check them to make sure they have no off flavors. Another good sign is if you see the name of the actual farm that grew the olives and pressed the oil on the bottle.
- Buy olive oil in small, dark containers. Small bottles or tins are better because air degrades olive oil, so once you open it, you want to use it up quickly. And dark containers are better because light degrades olive oil too.
- Store olive oil properly. Keep your olive oil tightly capped in a cool, dark cupboard because heat also degrades olive oils. Don’t store your olive oil in a pretty, open decanter next to the stove like I did until I researched this story.
- Consider California oils. One option is to buy olive oils produced in California, because California recently passed one of the strictest mandatory standards in the world. By contrast, U.S. national standards are voluntary. Look for the California Olive Oil Council seal if you want to try it.
There were five out of 11 olive oils tested by the National Consumers League that passed both chemical and taste tests. NCL tested one bottle of each oil. The oils that passed are:
- California Olive Ranch
- Lucini Premium Select
- Trader Joe’s California Estate
- Trader Joe’s 100% Italian Organic
Click here for more details about the National Consumers League’s Olive Oil Testing.