Three Things I Know About Olive Oil

By Caroline J. Beck
January 01, 2012

I am often asked how to make sense of all the different olive oils sprouting up on grocery and specialty food store shelves. Most people have pretty simple questions. “What should I look for when buying olive oil? How can I pick one brand over another? Does a higher price guarantee quality?”

Looking for equally simple answers, I’m reminded of advice I received many years ago when preparing for a new product launch: stick to three facts. More than that, you lose your audience. More importantly, they lose your message. So, let’s see if the extraordinary story of olive oil can be summed up in three memorable points.

  1. Extra virgin olive oil is a super healthy, perishable fat carefully extracted from fresh fruit.

  2. There is a wide range of flavors from smooth, mild and buttery to spicy, peppery and pungent, and many in between.

  3. If quality is important, don’t bother to buy any olive oil that isn’t labeled “extra virgin”.

You might wonder why I left out the part about olive oil’s deeply-rooted history in the diets of Mediterranean countries or indisputable facts about its many contributions to an overall healthy lifestyle. And what about olive oil’s impressive role in beauty and skin care? I could go on, you probably could too. But, most people are looking to make sense of a plethora of confusing information, not add more to it. So, let’s go back and review those three points since they deserve some explanation.

1. Extra virgin olive oil is a super healthy, perishable fat carefully extracted from fresh fruit.

  • Olive oil comes from juice squeezed from the fresh fruit of the olive tree. It is not animal fat. It is not vegetable oil. It does not contain any “bad”, artery-clogging cholesterol.

  • Fresh is important. Just like freshly-squeezed fruit juice, olive oil’s healthy qualities are perishable. The older it is, the fewer nutritional benefits it has. So savor it, don’t save it.

  • Careful storage is important. Just like wine, exposure to light, heat and oxygen are bad for olive oil. These environmental factors speed up the breakdown of olive oil’s healthy qualities.

2. Olive oil flavors range from smooth, mild and buttery to spicy, peppery and pungent, and many in between.

  • Olive oil can be made from many different varietals of olives – more than 500, actually. Grocery stores usually stock one generic style; tasting bars might carry as many as 25 popular options.

  • Two things affect flavor –what varieties are used or blended together to make the oil and how ripe the fruit is when harvested.

  • Pressing unripe, green olives typically produces a spicy, peppery and even grassy flavor. Waiting to press until the olives are ripe and black usually results in a milder, softer flavor.

  • Choosing any olive oil should be based on personal preference and the type of food it is paired with.

3. If quality is important, don’t bother to buy any olive oil that isn’t labeled “extra virgin”.

  • Two things affect quality –what condition the fruit is in when pressed and how it is handled through the distribution chain. You can’t get good oil from badly-handled fruit.

  • While the “EVOO” description doesn’t guarantee high quality, it is a reasonably good indication that it might be the real thing, not a processed or refined product pretending to be olive oil. Consider it the minimum baseline for choosing a brand.

  • If the label says” Virgin Olive Oil”, “Pure” or “Light”, don’t waste your money. These products will not provide the health benefits that you are paying a premium for.

  • Look for the date of production and/or a “best by” date. If a producer is willing to print this on the label, there is a good chance they care about product quality and “truth in labeling”.

  • If you are lucky enough to live where olives are grown, find a local producer and buy their oil. If not, look for a label that tells you where it is grown and produced, not just where it is bottled. Better yet, seek a domestic label certified by the California Olive Oil Council or an imported label certified by the Australian Olive Council or the international group, Association 3E.

Most consumers know that olive oil is supposed to be good for them. Some may even know that it is a heart-healthy alternative to butter. But, the industry would be well off if we recognized that many consumers are not experts. Explaining oleic acid and peroxide counts is “insider-speak” and fairly meaningless to the average customer. Helping them making sense of the confusion created by loosely-controlled labeling laws and overzealous marketers pitching olive oil-like products would serve the customer and the industry far better. So, whatever your three points are, let’s practice the KIS principle when it comes to explaining olive oil to the uninitiated…keep it simple.