Gourmet shops sometimes carry several different types of truffle oil, some of which are labeled “natural.” Should one seek out natural truffle oil?
First, it helps to know that truffle oil isn’t typically made by steeping the fungus in oil, a process that doesn’t provide a shelf-stable product or extract enough of the more than 100 aromatic compounds in the truffle to provide reliably potent results. Instead, truffle oil is made by adding flavor molecules to oil (often olive oil). Some manufacturers harvest these compounds from fresh truffles, but many others choose cheaper organic sources to extract some of the same molecules to add to oil. Still other manufacturers create synthetic versions of flavors, most often 2,4-dithiapentane, the dominant flavor compound present in real truffles.
But the label “natural” on a bottle is no guarantee that the flavors you’re tasting came from actual truffles—or even from some other natural foodstuff—versus being manufactured in a lab. This is because the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates the term “natural” only when applied to cuts of meat and poultry, rendering the term meaningless on most other foods.
When we sampled 16 different truffle oils, seven of which were marketed as “natural,” we found no correlation between tasters’ preferences and this label. Prices ranged from $2.50 to $10.35 per ounce, and expensive oils didn’t necessarily translate into a better product either. In fact, most of the oils were disappointing, with a flat, one-dimensional flavor when compared with that of real truffles. Of the brands we tasted, Antica ($8.26 per ounce) and Urbani ($6 per ounce) had the best—if somewhat mild—flavor.