We are a nation of label readers. We believe that food producers are legally required to disclose certain things. Ingredient listings tell us what’s in it. Nutritional information tells us why it’s good for us. The label should help us make intelligent choices about what we buy. So why does olive oil get a pass in this world of increasing transparency? In a word, it’s about two things: the power of marketers that promote brands and the impotence of regulators to protect consumers from fraud.
But, this is not meant to single olive oil out. There are plenty of products that engage in the same marketing tactics – like balsamic vinegar pretending to be 25-years old when it is manufactured in bulk in a fast-moving factory. And, it’s not a condemnation of the industry or the government which are trying their best to improve the situation. It’s simply a summary of what to think about when you read a label, how to decipher it and what should raise red flags when you choose a brand.
First, start with the basics. What’s printed on the front label? If it’s called anything other than extra virgin olive oil, it may be many things other than purely olive oil. When I see a grocery store shelf crowded with “Extra Light”, “Light” or “Pure” options, I’m reminded of Michael Pollan’s famous descriptor for processed products. He calls them “food-like substances”. There are probably just as many “olive oil-like substances” out there, promoted to appeal to your nutritional interests. For the record, there is no real food product called “Extra Light” olive oil. No matter what brand of real olive oil you choose, it all has the same amount of calories.
Second, let’s talk about nutritional claims. Olive oil is a healthy fat. It has high levels of anti-oxidants and polyphenols. It is naturally high in monounsaturated fat. Other oils, like canola, can also make this last claim, but can’t claim to be naturally processed from chemically-free milling. Marketers of these other oils might even promote that they are "Half the Saturated Fat of Olive Oil", but half of almost zero (olive oil’s amount of saturated fat) is still almost zero. Lots of competitive claims end up being totally meaningless, but in a confused consumer marketplace, they look pretty good on a label.
Third, it’s all about romance. Olive oil excels in one area of marketing that no other oil can take advantage of. There’s nothing terribly charming about corn oil, canola or Crisco. These marketers can’t tell a story about being grown in hills reminiscent of Tuscany, the romance of the hand harvest, and the glistening oil as it runs free from the mill. Some olive oils can, quite legitimately, make these claims on their label. Others use this unique opportunity to place their oils in a hand-crafted category when they may be anything but truly artisanal. There are a few signals on the label that can help you determine which is which. Look for the origin of production. “Bottled”, “Packaged” or “Product of” usually means it was processed in bulk, shipped to another country and packaged there for redistribution – generally a risky thing when trying to protect quality and freshness. Another handy clue is to look for a “best by” dated label that identifies where it was both grown and bottled. Some olive oil producers – from the largest to the smallest – have been able to integrate this label information into their process, but don’t go on this information alone. Plenty of ethical, mid-sized producers haven’t been able to afford this added labeling step and still deliver quality product. It will serve you best to either know the producer or know enough to trust their products.
Fourth, if you buy a bottle of olive oil and it smells or tastes rancid, muddy, fermented or moldy, return it. The more you make retailers aware that you won’t accept poor quality for good money, the less they will stock it.
There is hope on the horizon that things will improve as more and more states enact their own labeling laws, although enforcing those laws will still be a challenge. The biggest impact will come from anyone who is thinking about buying and using extra virgin olive oil. Now that you know what to look for on the label and what to expect in the bottle, be demanding about authenticity and truth-in-advertising. You are paying a premium. You deserve a premium product.