How can we be sure that the olive oil we buy is really extra virgin and really comes from olives? What’s the best way to differentiate between “best of breed” and olive oils that might be lacking in even the most basic extra virgin qualities?
The truth is that although a certification seal is a guarantee of minimum quality, it does not mean that all high quality oils are certified. Many small, independent and new producers may not choose to go the “certification” route at all, primarily due to expense. This does not mean they aren’t equal to the best of the certified brands. If you only look for certified oils, you may be missing out on a lot of wonderful, high quality oils that are available right now. Why is that?
Most producers of high quality olive oil care enough to get their oil lab-tested to ensure that it meets the chemical standards. Lab testing is generally not expensive and can be handled by a number of labs in the U.S. Many producers also test their oils in-house with equipment such as CDR.
When it comes to deciding whether to have the oil formally certified extra virgin or not, the decision becomes a little more complicated. It is expensive and can be challenging. Even though a seal of certification can be an excellent marketing tool, the return on the investment may not be worth it, especially for small producers. There are several producers whose oil is so good that it sells out every year, without certification. In addition, there are now several organizations offering certifications, and deciding which route to take is not necessarily easy. Just as in organic certifications, there are wide differences in the process, the cost, and the requirements.
There are also excellent taste panels that provide olive oil evaluation services to producers, as opposed to a formal certification. They offer detailed taste profiles, which can be very helpful to the producer for improving their oils. They do not, however, offer a “seal”.
As a consumer, how can you navigate this maze? If you are lucky enough to live in an area where olive oils are produced, it’s best to get to know your local producer and taste their oils. If you have confidence in them, you can have confidence in their products. You may be able to taste different products when tastings are offered at your grocery store, tasting room or at an olive oil fair. You can look at results of olive oil competitions (although there is a lot of variation there too). In the end, a safe place to start is to buy an oil that is bears a seal of certification such as the California Olive Oil Council seal and see if you like it. That’s what matters!