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How Can I Tell if My Olive Oil is (or isn't) Extra Virgin?

Extra virgin is the most flavorful, healthful olive oil.  But the USDA's standard for extra virgin is totally voluntary.  And nobody is following up to see whether or not a producer is complying with it.

It's not surprising then that every bottle of olive oil at the grocery store says "Extra Virgin."  But, recent surveys have found that at least two-out-of-three bottles labeled extra virgin on the grocery shelves really aren't extra virgin at allNo wonder that you might be confused about what is or isn't "extra virgin".  

So, how do you really know?  Look for these clues on a bottle's label:

Third-Party Certification—To be called "extra virgin", a qualified third party must have found no taste or odor defects in the oil.  Who was the third party that certified your olive oil as extra virgin?

Producer's NameReal extra virgin olive oil is a handmade product, and as such, will have the name of farm that made the oil—not the name of the oil's retailer, distributor, wholesaler, or importer.  

PriceReal extra virgin olive oil costs somewhere between $25 and $30 a pint.  Real olive oils from Europe—Italy, Spain, Greece, and France, for example—cost even more because of shipping costs and the price of the Euro, which has been higher than the U.S. dollar. 


"Extra Virgin"  .   .   .  What's It Really Mean? 

Outside of the U.S., a lot. Unfortunately inside the U.S., not so much. The USDA, which grades and inspects olive oil, offers only voluntary standards for extra virgin olive oil.  

What should "extra virgin" mean?

Let's start with virgin olive oil. Like extra virgin, virgin olive oil is oil obtained from olives without using heat or chemicals.  The olives are pressed (technically crushed today) by mechanical means at room temperature—the famed "cold pressed".  

However, according to an independent taste panel, virgin olive oil has some taste or odor defects unlike extra virgin olive oil. 

Another quality control item, the acidity level (which essentially measures how good or bad the olives were before being pressed) will be below a certain percentage.  In Europe, the percentage is 0.80 percent. In California, it's even lower, 0.50 percent. 

How much olive oil in the world is really, truly extra virgin?

These requirements, the "cold" pressing, no taste or odor defects, low acidity, are strict.  As a result, it's estimated that worldwide, between 10 and 20 percent of all the olive oil produced each year qualifies as extra virgin.

All Things Olive sells only California olive oil because an independent third party—the California Olive Oil Council—perfoms the taste tasting and chemical analysis.  Those oils that exceed the Council's standards, earn its annual seal.  These are the only olive oils we sell.


How's Real Extra Virgin Olive Oil Made? 

To make their special olive oil, producers will generally pick the olives by hand so as not to bruise the skin or pulp.  The olives are then crushed and pressed within 24 hours.  Any longer, and the olives—as with any fruit—will begin to ripen or ferment, which will lower the quality of the oil.

At the mill, leaves or twigs are removed, the olives are rinsed in fresh, cold water, and then pressed at room temperature—the fabled "first cold pressing".  Using heat or chemicals will produce more oil, but at the expense of the oil's flavor and nutrients.

Extra virgin olive oil is not filtered.  Filtering extends the shelf life by removing the bits of fruit that remain in the oil. But filtering also diminishes the flavor of the oil.

Instead, extra virgin olive oil is allowed to settle or 'rest' in air-tight stainless steel tanks for a couple of months.  This allows some of the fruit particles and remaining water to settle on the bottom of the tanks.  The oil is then drawn off the top of the tanks as needed throughout the year to ensure a fresh supply of oil for bottling.  

A few producers bottle a small portion of their new oil directly from the mill.  This "olio nuovo"—new oil—is available only in late in November and early December. 



At The Olive Press in Sonoma, where malaxers slowly mix the crushed olives prior to the centrifuge extracting the oil

- Tasting Notes - 
Depending on the type of olive and the date of its pressing—mid-autumn to early winter—extra virgin olive oil can taste delicate and buttery, fragrant and fruity, olive-y and peppery, or leafy green and grassy.

The Taste of Extra Virgin Olive Oil 

Each olive, just like any other fruit, offers a distinctive flavor.  Think green apples and red apples.  Olive oil producers can make their oil using a single variety of olive, or they can blend a variety of olives to create a unique flavor.  Although many try to replicate the oils being produced in Europe, many others will blend to produce very distinctive oils.

The time of the year that an olive is picked and pressed will also affect the flavor of the oil.  Olives are picked in California beginning in mid November and continuing through to late January.  The olive typically starts green, and as it ripens, it changes color, moving from green-yellow, to red, to purple, all the way to black.  When pressed, green olives produce a much more pungent and robust oil than black olives. 

The ripest olives can be pressed to produce a mild and delicate olive oil that's often used as a substitute for butter.  You get the healthful attributes of olive oil, without a strong olive flavor.  This type of oil is ideal on toast or bagels, for scrambling eggs, or dressing fresh peas or potatoes.

The next notch up in the flavor category is the "fragrant and fruity" olive oil.  This oil is most often pressed from varieties that are almost, but not quite, fully ripe.  This category is a good choice to serve with green salads and steamed vegetables. 

The next category, "olive-y and peppery", is generally produced from olives that are still somewhat green  This type of olive oil—often referred to as a Tuscan-style—goes great on a crusty piece of bread, as a simple sauce for pasta, or grilled vegetables. 

The last category is leafy green and grassy oil.  This oil comes from olives, Spanish or Italian, that are pressed earlier in November.  They have a characteristicly strong olive flavor and peppery finish, which is great for salmon, tuna, lamb, minestrone soup, or other robust dishes—the oil's flavor will come through!


- Making The Grade -

Oil Quality
Taste/Odor Defects

Free Fatty Acid Level
(Oleic Acid per 100 gms.)

Extra Virgin


California - 0.5% maximum

Europe - 0.8%



2.0% maximum


Refining removes most flavor/odor



Unfit for eating

More than 3.3%


Keith Voight of All Things Olive with the Patty Darragh, Executive Director of the California Olive Oil Council.  All Things Olive supports California's efforts to hold imported olive oil to the same quality standards as USA olive oil.


California Olive Oil Council
Since we opened in 2004, we've been members of the California Olive Oil Council (COOC).  In fact, All Things Olive was the first East Coast member of the California Olive Oil Council. 
The Berkeley, California based COOC represents over 90 percent of all olive oil production in California.  Today, the COOC has over 400 members including olive growers and oil producers, service providers, and retailers.   
Among its most important contributions to the U.S. olive oil industry is its certification program.  Created in 1998, the program annually awards the COOC seal to those olives oils produced within the state that meets the COOC's strict standards for extra virgin. To earn the COOC seal, olive oil producers must send in samples of their olive oils each year for testing.  The olive oils we sell all carry the COOC seal. 
For more information about the California Olive Oil Council, please click here


How's Supermarket "Extra Virgin" Olive Oil Made? 

Most often, the olive oil labeled extra virgin at your local supermarket is really an industrially-produced product that has been heavily processed.  How's that possible?  The USDA's criteria for extra virgin are voluntary, and no one is following up to see if they were actually met.

Pressing olives without using chemicals—the famed 'cold pressed'—extracts less than 25 percent of the potential oil in an olive.  But by using petroleum solvents such as hexane, the processor can get almost all the potential oil in an olive.

However .  .  .  after producing olive oil this way, the oil must now be "fixed" the oil so that it can be consumed.  Here's how: 

Bleaching—Eliminates any natural pigments left in the oil.

Degumming—Removes the free fatty acids and small quantities of fruit and proteins and other natural substances. This step also raises the oil's smoke point.

Deodorizing—Takes out any remaining natural substances so that an oil won't go rancid, thus greatly prolonging its shelf life.

Hydrogenation—Adding hydrogen prevents oxidation or aging of the oil, again, extending its shelf life.

Refining—An alkaline substance (typically lye or often caustic soda) is used to transform the oil's remaining fatty acids into soap, which is then extracted from the oil via centrifugation.

Anti-oxidation—Synthetic vitamin E is added to further prolong shelf life.

Artificial color and flavor—Finally, after all this processing, what remains is an almost clear liquid with little flavor or aroma. To fix this problem, and to give the oil the greenish tint that consumers like, producers usually add a bit of real extra virgin olive oil.  Others will take an even lower cost approach and add chemicals and artificial flavors, such as chlorophyll and beta carotene.


A Word about European Olive Oil

Be wary about European olive oil. All the European countries are members of the International Olive Council (IOC), which sets standards for extra virgin oil.  It's up to each member nation, however, to enforce the IOC's standard.  And they do so by spot checking less than one percent of the oil on store shelves.  
The most authoritative sign to look for in buying olive oil from European producers is the European Union's denominations of origin program.  This is a labeling policy that means a certain product comes from a specific geographical area, and was produced under a rigorous set of clearly defined standards that have historically been used to produce the product.  Think Chianti or Champagne or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. 

Depending on the country, real extra virgin olive oil produced in Europe will carry its country's designations of origin.
 Some examples are:

France—Appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) 

Italy—Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP)

Spain—Denominación de Origen (DO)

Given the current premium of the Euro over the American dollar, authentic extra virgin olive oils from Europe will also be much more expensive than the other "extra virgin" olive oils on the shelf.  Figure on paying between $30 and $40 a pint. But they will be the real deal.

A word to the wise, olive oil labels that say "Imported from Italy" usually mean that the olive oil was produced within a country with 
lower labor costs and then shipped to an Italian port.  It's then bottled by an Italian company.  The tip-off is that the label also will mention that the olives used in the pressing came from a variety of countries, such as Tunisia, Turkey, or Spain.

Olio Nuovo - New Oil
Only available in December, toward the end of the harvest season, "olio nuovo" or new oil, is the freshest olive oil you can buy. 
Unlike traditional extra virgin olive oil, which is never filtered but is allowed to rest or settle for a few months after being pressed, olio nuovo is bottled immediately after pressing.
This produces an oil with a deep green color, delectable grassy character and a strong 'pizzacante' or peppery finish.  Olio nuovo's stronger flavors and extra pungency go best with minimalistic dishes, like raw salads, grilled fish, appetizer platters, or drizzled over pasta. 

Note that because olio nuovo is not filtered or 'racked', tiny bits of olive pulp remain in the oil.  For this reason, olio nuovo is best consumed within 45 days of purchase.


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