Overview of olive oils in US supermarkets
Olive oil is flourishing in the US. More and more people are aware of the many health benefits of this major pillar of the Mediterranean diet, so praised by doctors, dieticians and scientists.
Olive oil is the fat best assimilated by the human body. It contains polyphenols, antioxidant agents, vitamins A, D and E and helps to decrease bad cholesterol (LDL) and increases the good one (HDL). It also prevents some cancers, Alzheimer disease and osteoporosis. Scientists are still researching to discover more beneficial properties of this liquid gold.
Recently, there have been several scandals about the quality of olive oils sold in US supermarkets. Several studies have uncovered the truth about misleading advertising concerning olive oil.
We have had the opportunity to check this in some US grocery stores and supermarkets in Florida last winter. This article aims to clarify the information you can find in labels. Hopefully it will provide nuance to strong marketing techniques, as well as to help you choose your olive oil and know how to use it.
Labeling: in fact there are only two main types of olive oils
One of the first impressions when we get to the olive oil section is to feel overwhelmed by the number of different types of oils, brands and ways to call them. They all look excellent and healthy, so which one to choose?
For instance, what is the difference between extra virgin and extra light olive oil? They are sitting side by side, sold by the same brand and at the same price! You may think extra light sounds healthier, and for sure has fewer calories inside!
Actually, anything called olive oil, 100% pure olive oil, extra light (tasting or in taste) olive oil, classic olive oil, light flavor olive oil, puro olive oil, extra delicate flavor olive oil, mild taste olive oil, is exactly the same product, just with different marketing strategies. All these are refined olive oils, to which a little of virgin olive oil has been added to give some flavor and color.
“Refined” may sound nice, but it is actually “lampante” oil (an olive oil full of defects, used before to burn in lamps) which has been chemically treated and deodorized to neutralize strong tastes and defects. Concerning the calories, they are the same in refined olive oil and extra virgin olive oil, as they are both olive oil. The refining process does not affect the fat content, but it corrects the bad flavors and odors that a defective oil can have.
The other types of olive oils that are usually found on the supermarket shelves are extra virgin olive oil, also called premium select extra virgin olive oil, and 100% extra virgin olive oil. We have also heard about extra extra virgin olive oil, but haven’t seen it ourselves. The labels of these oils mention first cold press, cold extraction or cold processed. What do these mean? Which one is better?
A truly extra virgin olive oil is obtained from the first extraction of freshly picked olives. The extraction must be done at a cold temperature (under 27 degrees Celsius or 80 degrees Fahrenheit), so the oil can keep its delicate flavors, as well as all vitamins and nutrients. Nowadays most olive oil producers don’t use a press anymore, but a centrifuge to extract the oil. “First cold press” is an obsolete term that is used just for marketing. The terms “cold extraction” or “cold processed” are somehow redundant because they are intrinsic to the term “Extra Virgin”. Additionally, in order to be called extra virgin, the olive oil must be fruity, have no defects in taste, smell, and color, and have a low free fatty acid content, lower than 0.8 degrees.
Some labels mention “unfiltered”, which means that the oil didn’t go through the last process of filtering before bottling. Usually its appearance is cloudy, with or without sediments at the bottom of the bottle. This kind of oil is traditionally appreciated by some people involved in the production of olive oil. Nowadays it’s becoming more popular as the oil looks richer and genuine, and for some consumers it is more appealing than a transparent filtered olive oil. However, it is good to know that if you consume unfiltered olive oils you can expect sediments decanting with time in the bottle and for sure this oil will not last as long as filtered oils. If you consume it soon, why not! It is a personal choice!
There are also organic olive oils. This means that no pesticides or chemical fertilizers were used to produce the olives.
Best for frying, dipping or baking? What and how to use it:
The olive oil labels in the US hold a lot of information; more than what we see here in Spain. Most of them indicate what it is the best use for each one. It is a nice idea, as it helps the consumers to choose depending on what they are going to use the oil for. Probably this reflects a cultural component of labelling. In Spain, especially in the south, people use olive oil for everything since the beginning of time, so they know how to use it for cooking, frying, or directly with bread (at breakfast), salads, gazpachos etc. People are mainly used to traditional olive varieties in their village, or their family’s farm, and know how to use the oil in a thousand different ways. In some way there is a lot of work to do concerning labelling in Spain.
Refined olive oils (light, pure, and all the mentioned above…) are presented as best for sautéing, grilling, frying, and baking.
Extra virgin olive oils are presented as best for sauces, pastas, dressing, and marinating.
Depending on your concerns regarding taste, flavor and health benefits, you can prefer one or the other. Refined olive oil is almost tasteless. That is why some people prefer to use it for frying, baking or grilling, as they don’t want the flavor of extra virgin olive oil to interfere with the food they are cooking. Refined olive oils are usually cheaper. That is why many restaurants that use large quantities of oil prefer to use refined oils.
Contrary to popular beliefs, extra virgin olive oil can stand high temperatures as it has a low fatty acid level and can be used several times. It is possible to fry five or six times with the same oil, being careful not to burn the oil and removing any residues after frying. Extra virgin olive oil can perfectly be used for frying and baking, and it is for sure healthier than refined olive oil.
We have also noticed a Spanish olive oil brand that recommends matching its oils with a certain type of food. The olive variety “picual” is recommended for beef/lamb, “hojiblanca” for poultry/fish, and “arbequina” for vegetables.
This may be a more accurate way of understanding how to use your oil and it can be very helpful if you are a beginner. These recommendations are based on cultural factors. The best thing is to test them yourself; for example having three bottles of different olive oils and trying them while cooking. In the end, it is your personal taste that matters. Here we love picual olive oil to dress fresh summer tomatoes. You can add small pieces of grilled garlic or basil and a little of sea salt. Try it!
Thankfully, nature provides everything! Within extra virgin olive oils there is a full range of flavors and intensity! You can go from very smooth, buttery, almost sweet, and ripe fruit-like olive oils to intense, fresh, green, bitter, and peppery oils.
Some are delicate, others are bold and strong. There is one oil for each palate and one for each meal! All these differences are the result of a combination of many factors as climate, olive varieties, soil, rainfall, irrigation, harvest time, etc. In this sense, it can perfectly be compared to wine.
Countries: imported olive oils/ California olive oils
On the supermarket shelves most of the oil is imported, and mainly from Italy, the most famous olive oil producer. It’s good to know that Italy is the 2nd biggest producer of olive oil with 20% of the world’s production. Spain is the first producer with 40% of the world production. Third is Greece, fourth Tunisia. The whole Italian production only covers half of its internal consumption! That is obviously why most of the Italian olive oil that is exported is mixed with oils from other countries, mainly from Spain, Greece and Tunisia. The labels should mention it, and most of the time, they do (in small print at the back of the bottle). But we also know now that there is fraud, some oils imported to Italy suddenly become Italian oils, which are then exported as such. So we have big doubts about where the oil is really from as well as the olive oil quality inside the bottle. Even if it says extra virgin olive oil, is it true? Well, it seems that 69% of the oil sold in US supermarkets as extra virgin is actually lower grade oil! And sometimes it is mixed with seed or nut oils! To avoid this, be careful with the very cheap olive oils. It maybe be safer to go to a specialized store where the staff knows about the products they sell, and guarantee a good quality olive oil.
There are quite a few brands of Spanish and Greek olive oils on the supermarket shelves, most of them from huge bottling companies, with a few nice exceptions. We saw a few other oils from Tunisia, Chili, South Africa, and Australia. There are very few Californian olive oils, mostly good quality oils, processed with modern technologies. We have tasted some of them: they are fresh, slightly green flavored, with a touch of pepper in the end. Good value!
Blends of vegetable oils and olive oils
What to think of mixed oils, like extra virgin olive oil with canola oil, soybean oil or other seed refined oils? The supermarket shelves are full of these blends, assuring that they are the best value, best taste and healthiest benefits that exist. Surely they are good value for the ones who make the blend, as they contain very little of extra virgin olive oil and they can be sold at a higher price than just seed refined oil. All the health benefits come from olive oil, like antioxidants, vitamin E, low saturated fats, omega 3, etc… but instead of 100% extra virgin olive oil, it is only 15%, you have the same benefits but quite diluted!
Well, choosing an olive oil can be confusing and complex! Marketing issues in labels are prominent and we have to be wise enough to read through it! If we are concerned about health, extra virgin olive oils are definitively always the best option. To make sure you are buying a good oil, avoid big brands, blends and cheap deals. When you open the bottle take a tablespoon and taste it straight. It must do something to you. It must be fruity… if it dries your mouth and makes you salivate it is a good sign, it shows its antioxidant properties, and if it makes you cough, it’s even better! It means it is a fresh oil with many health benefits!
We hope this article helps you better understand the many ways olive oils are labeled, and helps you make your own personal choice!
Cheers and enjoy your meal!