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Is Extra-Virgin Just a Fancy Label?

The UC-Davis Olive Center has just released a report of its chemical and sensory tests on 10 California and 14 imported brands of supposedly “extra-virgin” olive oil. It concluded that many of the nationally available brands don’t meet the International Olive Council’s or the USDA’s quality standards for extra-virgin status.

The research team also reported that some newer chemical markers of fat oxidation being used in Germany and Australia matched sensory measures of low quality (fusty or rancid smell and taste) better than the standard IOC methods. It was a result almost guaranteed to raise hackles abroad.

The researchers compared the accepted IOC/USDA tests for oxidation and breakdown products with sensory panel evaluations (smell/taste/look/texture) and with a couple of new chemical assays from Germany’s and Australia’s government food quality labs. They had an Australian lab accredited for IOC tests conduct some of their assays.

Nine of the 10 California olive oils were evaluated as authentic extra-virgin oils by the sensory panels and had corresponding assay stats to confirm it.

Almost 70% or about 10 of the 14 international brands, most at least nominally Italian, failed the sensory panel evaluation and had some assay stats outside the acceptable limits for extra-virgin olive oil. Major brands that were deemed lower than extra-virgin quality in at least 2 of 3 sensory panel tests included:

Bertolli, Filippo Berio, Carapelli, Pompeiian, Colavita, Mezzetta, Mazola, Rachael Ray, Newman’s Own Organics, Safeway Select, and Whole Foods’ 365 house brand.

Surprisingly enough, Star and Kirkland Organics fared pretty well. No word yet on Trader Joe’s “Trader Giotto” olive oil–at those prices, though, I’m not holding my breath.

The producers of brands exposed by the report, along with the IOC itself, which was created by the UN in 1959 and is based in Spain, protested the research team’s methodology. Mostly they claimed that too few samples were tested to get statistically significant results, and that IOC tests find only 1% of more than 200 brands they test each year fall below extra-virgin standards. But the brands tested represent most of the common offerings for olive oil in American supermarkets, and results were reported separately for samples of each brand acquired in several cities apiece.

I don’t think, at least on a cursory glance, that the test parameters set for the study or the interpretation of assay results have been skewed purposely to favor Californian olive oils over Italian ones. Results for both were mixed and the researchers reported variations in results within the same brand–for example, some olive oils showed lowered quality in the Sacramento sample but not the San Francisco or Los Angeles ones.

What the researchers at UC-Davis found was not so much evidence of tampering (adulteration with cheaper oils like canola, though there might have been tampering with lower-grade olive oil), but rather higher than acceptable fat oxidation and rancidity due to aging, light exposure, poor (high-temperature) storage and shipping conditions, and possibly poor quality olives to start with.

What I would object to if I were going to find fault is that the study was funded by several members of California’s olive oil industry. Certainly if this were a clinical trial for a new drug instead of a food quality study, the fact that two of the study sponsors are also the producers of brands being studied would make me look twice at favorable results.

Where I think the study favors California olive oils over Italian ones is in the purchasing itself. It should be no great surprise if the imports on American shelves have been sitting there longer and were shipped under more damaging conditions and at higher cost than the California olive oils. It would also be no great surprise if many of them tested in better condition in the European labs before export than at UC-Davis’ labs months (or even longer) after they’d arrived in the US.

If the researchers had express-shipped pre-import samples of this year’s production from Europe to their labs at UC-Davis and their partners in Australia, and tested those results against similarly fresh California oils, the results might have been more to the IOC’s liking–or perhaps not. EU labeling rules allow Italy to claim that olive oil was produced there even if the olives or olive oil lots were acquired from other countries such as Tunisia or Morocco. I’m not knocking North African olives except to observe that they’re probably a lot cheaper than those grown in Italy. But even if they’re of equal quality, each delay in pressing or processing a harvest–not to mention repeat exposure to heat and light during shipping and warehousing from country to country–contributes to the breakdown of olive oil’s flavor components.

However, even if all the olive oil was pristine when tested in its country of origin, such a scrupulous comparison wouldn’t have reflected the real experience of California shoppers trying to get decent olive oil without having to drive out to an olive producer’s farm. Unfortunately, the California olive oils are not widely available in Los Angeles supermarkets (the researchers were stuck with Sacramento and San Fran for those) and most are not really being produced on a large enough scale to become national brands either. The imports are. If most of those really are losing quality through shipping and warehousing, should we be paying extra-virgin prices for them? Or should the companies ship and store them more carefully–and for less time?

One Response

  1. Yes… the results showing that California Olive oils are more accurate at labeling than Italian ones COULD be attributed to freshness or… just less tomfoolery on their part. Being an Italian, living in Italy I know from experience that companies try their best to get away with the most that they can… until they are busted!!!

    Debbie N:
    Hi Elle (your middle name wouldn’t be Minnow would it? ;>) )

    Well, of course the first crack that comes to mind is that they must resemble another oil producer currently sucking its way out of a slightly larger predicament in the Gulf of Mexico…

    Seriously though, the editorially correct thing to say here, and maybe even the actually correct thing, would probably be “Well, the results showed no direct evidence of tampering.” The main thing you’d see would be evidence of greater processing, heat, breakdown products of components that are supposed to be preserved in “first cold-pressed” extra-virgin olive oil, extra crud that gets in on the second pressing, etc etc etc. Not that different qualitatively from what the researchers reported, but it would be on a big enough scale to see a lot more of the chemical assays go out of acceptable range, and if you take a look at the data table in the report, most of them didn’t. It was the taste tests that revealed problems.

    The authors of the report flagged non-extra-virgin oils based on the sensory panel tests (which I think were double-blind) for flavor and odor first, and then looked for correlations in about 10 different chemical assays for specific components to see how well they reflected the overall taste/odor experience of the panel members. It was the human reaction that counted most in disqualifying faulty oils, and the chemical tests were conducted alongside for confirmation or in hopes of explaining the taste/odor flaws.

    I’d also point out that non-extra-virgin olive oil, if it’s real and not rancid or otherwise off, isn’t so terrible for day-to-day cooking. It’s just not gourmet, and I don’t want to pay $8-12 a liter for it.

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