How to choose the best Extra Virgin Olive Oil
ALL OLIVE OILS ARE NOT CREATED EQUAL
After you read the descriptions of the various grades of olive oil, you will still probably be wondering what this means to you as a consumer.
Although there are many grades and definitions, we would like to emphasize only a few points that we think are most relevant to you as a consumer. The most important factor is to understand how the oil was obtained from the olive. Virgin olive oil is obtained from the olive only, using solely mechanical or other physical means, in conditions, particularly thermal conditions, which do not alter the oil in any way. It is pure fruit juice, so to speak. It also meets a set of chemical standards.
Refined olive oil is obtained by treating low quality or defective virgin olive oil with the use of charcoal and other chemical and physical filters. An obsolete equivalent is "pure olive oil". Note that no solvents are used in the refining process.
Though it may be confusing, you should be aware that the term olive oil, when used alone, refers to a blend of refined olive oil and virgin olive oil.
Pomace is the ground flesh and pits left after the extraction process. According to the IOOC, all olive-pomace oils are obtained by treating it with solvents or other physical treatments. Within the olive-pomace oils category, oil specifically labeled as olive-pomace oil is a blend of virgin olive oil and refined pomace oil.
WHAT DOES EXTRA VIRGIN MEAN TO YOU AS A CONSUMER?
Extra virgin is the highest grade of olive oil. As with all virgin olive oils, it is made mechanically, without the use of chemicals or excessive heat and meets some chemical and organoleptic standards.
The chemical characteristics of extra virgin olive oil (as with all vegetable oils) give an indication of the care with which it was made and stored: how the fruit was grown, transported and harvested, how it was milled into oil, and how the oil was packaged and bottled. Chemical testing can also help determine if the oil is adulterated. The chemical standards for extra virgin olive oil are the highest of all the grades and, as such, offer a minimum guarantee of quality.
In addition to chemical characteristics, extra virgin olive oil also has certain organoleptic characteristics: it does not have taste defects yet is not totally flavorless. This does not guarantee it will taste good to you, however.
Having said all that, it is important to recognize that there are huge differences among extra virgin olive oils in terms of their quality, taste, aroma, color, health benefits, shelf life, presentation, and or course their price. Extra virgin olive oils can be anything from very delicate and mellow to quite bitter and pungent. Their anti-oxidant content varies considerably.
It is sometimes hard to tell just from the label what you are looking at on the shelf, even if the oil is labeled extra virgin. You cannot even be certain that the oil is truly extra virgin as, at this point in time, there is no federal standard to guarantee that oil labeled as extra virgin is indeed extra virgin. The USDA is working on new standards. New laws now exist in some states. The California Olive Oil Council certifies oils as extra virgin. Look for the COOC seal and try to buy oil from the most recent harvest. In addition, there are many claims made on labels such as first pressed, cold pressed, stone milled, hand crafted… The list is as long as the imagination of the marketing people. Use our Olictionary to understand which terms are meaningful, obsolete, or totally meaningless.
Finally, as we are often asked for a sound bite description of what extra virgin means, we would say that Extra Virgin = High Quality Olive Juice + Good Taste.