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Often dull or even rancid-tasting, supermarket olive oils never seem to live up to their extra-virgin designation. Have new industry standards improved the options?
Olive oil, which is simply juice pressed from olives, tastes great when it’s fresh. The highest grade, called extra-virgin, is lively, bright, and full-bodied at its best, with flavors that range from peppery to buttery depending on the variety of olives used and how ripe they are when harvested. (In general, an earlier harvest yields greener, more peppery oil; a later harvest results in a mellower, more golden oil.) But like any other fresh fruit, olives are highly perishable, and their pristine, complex flavor degrades quickly, which makes producing—and handling—a top-notch oil time-sensitive, labor-intensive, and expensive. But the results couldn’t be more worth it. We use extra-virgin olive oil as a condiment on grilled meat, fish, vegetables, and pastas; a source of richness and body in soups and sauces; and a star player in vinaigrette.
Unfortunately, the supermarket extra-virgin olive oils we tasted seven years ago were wan facsimiles of the good stuff. Most were either as bland as vegetable oil or, worse, funky, overpowering, and stale. We learned that Americans were literally getting the bottom of the barrel, and a number of more recent articles and books have pointed out a big reason why: With no meaningful U.S. standards for olive oil, lower-quality oils found a ready market here. In fact, one widely reported 2010 University of California, Davis Olive Center study revealed that a whopping 69 percent of tested supermarket olive oils sold as “extra-virgin” actually weren’t according to the standards set by the International Olive Council (IOC), the industry’s worldwide governing body. They were in fact lesser grades being passed off at premium prices.
Since then, the U.S. olive oil industry has taken steps to be more stringent. California, where olive oil production has grown tenfold over the past decade, passed its own standards in 2008 and tightened them last year. And in 2010, after the UC Davis Olive Center study and at the urging of domestic producers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) adopted chemical and sensory standards for olive oil grades similar to those established by the IOC. Among the chemical standards: An oil must not exceed certain levels of free fatty acids and peroxides, which would indicate olive deterioration, poor processing, and oxidation. To meet sensory criteria, an oil must taste not just flawless—or have what experts call “zero defects”—but also possess good fruity flavor.
To see if these new standards have led to better-quality oils in supermarkets, we decided to take a fresh look. We sampled 10 top-selling nationally available supermarket extra-virgin olive oils in a series of blind tastings: plain, with bread, over tomatoes and mozzarella, and in a vinaigrette served over salad greens. We also sent each of the oils to an independent laboratory for chemical evaluation and to 10 trained olive oil tasters to get a second opinion on their flavor quality.
Every stage of the process affects the quality of the oil. Producers must start with good fruit—that is, ripe olives that have been harvested carefully and aren’t bruised or fermented—and get it to the mill as quickly as possible, before spoilage sets in. Extra-virgin olive oil (sometimes abbreviated EVOO) must also be pressed—or, in modern terms, spun out by a centrifuge to separate the water from the oil—with clean equipment that won’t add impurities and without using high heat or chemicals. While heat and chemicals extract more oil from the olives, it’s at the cost of preserving important aromatics and antioxidants that help keep the oil fresh-tasting. That said, producing high-quality oil is only half the challenge. Because olive oil begins to degrade as soon as it’s exposed to air, heat, and light, producers must transport and store it carefully to preserve its freshness.
Any of these factors might account for the fact that, while all the oils in our tasting did just pass the lab tests we commissioned (a limited spectrum of some of the same freshness and quality tests required by the IOC and USDA), only one passed all the tests with solid scores. The rest showed spotty results that weren’t indicative of a truly fresh, high-quality oil. As for our sensory evaluations, these were even more discouraging. Both panels agreed that only two out of the 10 oils had good fruity flavor without off-notes. Our in-house panel found these remaining oils merely lackluster, but the experts were harsher in their criticism. Oils that we deemed simply flat or dull they decried as borderline rancid or “fusty,” an industry term for a fermented taste.
When we spoke about these results with Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne, an independent California-based olive oil consultant and educator, judge in international olive oil competitions, and author of Olive Oil: A Field Guide (2014), she confirmed what we suspected: “If this had been an official panel tasting, the problems in these oils would make them a lower grade. They would be virgin, as opposed to extra-virgin.”
But how could so many subpar oils labeled “extra-virgin” still appear in supermarkets, given the standards the USDA has put in place? The answer is simple: The standards aren’t enforced. In fact, they’re not enforced anywhere in the olive oil industry. A 2013 U.S. International Trade Commission report noted that even in Europe, the IOC standards are “widely unenforced,” allowing “a wide range of oil qualities to be marketed as extra-virgin.” (In the United States, a different reason might eventually force more compliance: Manufacturers of two of the oils in our lineup are the targets of class-action suits for misleading labeling. Both have denied the claims.)
Standard bottling practices and “best by” dates also might be part of the problem. Devarenne explained that the oils in our lineup may have had the necessary flavor profile to qualify as extra-virgin when they were first pressed, but the fact that oils are commonly stored in stainless-steel tanks for multiple years and given a “best by” date from the time of bottling rather than harvest may have meant that they weren’t especially fresh by the time we tasted them.
For Devarenne, the issue with most of the oils we tasted is not that they don’t have a place in the kitchen—she thinks most would be acceptable as cooking oils rather than condiment oils, and we agree. Instead, it’s what she calls “the ‘truth in labeling’ thing.” “If, overnight, all of the olive oil in the supermarket magically relabeled itself to accurately reflect what was inside the bottle, we would have a vigorous trade in virgin grade olive oil in this country,” she said. Instead, mislabeling cheapens the consumer’s impression of what a real extra-virgin oil should be.
So what about those better-quality oils in our lineup? Our runner-up was from Lucini, a supermarket brand of extra-virgin we’ve liked in the past. Our top-ranking sample was also the winner of our 2009 tasting of California extra-virgin olive oil. The latter stood out for its “fragrant,” “complex,” and “fruity” flavors. Not surprisingly, it also was the oil that bested the others in our chemical tests. So what does our winning manufacturer do differently that makes their product better than the others? Mostly, it boils down to the company’s control over every stage of the production process, which preserves the freshness of the oil as much as possible.
It starts with the source. Six of the 10 brands we tasted are sourced from multiple regions—and from one to as many as 11 different countries—which increases the likelihood that the oils were collected from a price-driven global bulk market that prioritizes cheap, not high-quality, oil. Conversely, our winner is made from olives that are grown within 150 miles of the pressing and bottling facility. The company knows exactly what types of olives go into its oils and is willing to share the information, whereas the bottlers of some lower-ranking brands wouldn’t reveal the varieties used in their products, making us wonder if they even tracked such information (one brand admitted that it didn’t).
Second, the company uses a relatively new growing and harvesting process called super-high-density planting, in which the trees are planted together much more tightly than they would be in traditional groves. As a result, the olives can be harvested by machines more efficiently than they would be if they were picked by hand or shaken into nets on the ground. (Speed is of the essence, since olives begin to change flavor from the moment they are separated from the tree and must be pressed as quickly as possible to ensure they retain the desired flavor profile.) Then, by bottling very close to the source, the company cuts out the risk that the oil oxidizes and spoils during transport to another facility. And unlike some producers that sell their oil in clear glass or even plastic bottles, which expose the oil to more damaging light, our winning manufacturer uses dark-green glass bottles that help shield the oil. The upshot of all these factors: fresher and cheaper olive oil.
We hope we’ll be seeing more choices like our winner on supermarket shelves. While it costs more than mediocre oils from industrial bottlers, it’s far less expensive than our high-end extra-virgin favorite which costs $1.12 per ounce. (We even found these oils comparable when we tasted them side by side.) In fact, its price is so reasonable that we can use it as a condiment, but we won’t feel bad about also using it in cooking.
These three things can help you assess the quality of an extra-virgin olive oil before you buy it.
We tasted 10 top-selling extra-virgin olive oils plain, with bread, over tomatoes and mozzarella, and in vinaigrette, rating the oils on their fruity, fresh, bitter, and peppery flavors and overall appeal. Information about source, olive varieties, and bottling location were obtained from manufacturers. We also had the oils tested at an independent laboratory for quality and freshness. (An independent group of trained olive oil tasters conducted a separate double-blind tasting of the oils, but we didn’t factor their assessment into our rankings.) Results were averaged and products appear in order of preference.
“Fruity,” “fragrant,” and “fresh” with a “complex finish,” this top-ranked oil is a supermarket standout. In fact, its flavor rivaled that of our favorite high-end extra-virgin oil. Not surprisingly, its lab scores for freshness and quality were also better than the other brands across the board.
Drizzled over tomatoes and mozzarella and as a dip for bread, this pricey Italian oil—our former supermarket favorite—tasted “incredibly rich,” “bright,” and “buttery” with a pleasantly “peppery aftertaste,” though those flavors became somewhat muted in vinaigrette. There, it was deemed “subtle.”
With a “fresh, light, green taste” and a “mildly peppery finish,” this oil earned acceptable but not stellar scores. Several tasters deemed it “mild—just OK,” especially in vinaigrette, where it was a little too “neutral.”
Notes for this Spanish oil ranged from “balanced, but mild” and “middle-of-the-road” to just plain “boring.” In vinaigrette, it made a “mellow and balanced dressing, but has no real distinct EVOO flavor.”
On its own, this blended oil tasted “mild” and “not that fresh” with a “bitter aftertaste”; in vinaigrette, it came across as “fine” but “heavy” and without “much character to it.” As one taster summed it up, “it could be any old regular oil off the shelf.”
While a few tasters appreciated this oil’s “slight peppery aftertaste” and even found it “smooth” in vinaigrette, many others detected “medicinal,” “vinegary” notes and a “greasy consistency”—possible signs that the olives weren’t processed quickly enough after picking or that the oil was on the verge of going rancid.
Disappointingly, this oil’s “bright [and] fruity” aroma gave way to a “flat,” “thin” flavor that “dissipates quickly.” Over tomatoes and mozzarella, it tasted more “punchy” but still “a little stale,” even though the “best by” date was more than a year away.
This “acceptable but not distinctive” oil “smelled brighter, grassier, and more peppery than it tasted.” In vinaigrette, it was “lost in other flavors” and offered little more than a “greasy mouthfeel.”
This oil was “neutral” and “timid” at best; one taster even said, “Nothing. I’ve got nothing here.” But the more alarming comments were about its off-flavors—“metallic,” “soapy,” and “acidic” among them.
Straight out of the bottle, this oil’s “dull” flavor and “quick finish” left tasters underwhelmed—and unlike many other samples, its flavor didn’t improve much when it met up with other ingredients. It tasted “greasy and flat” with tomatoes and mozzarella, and tasters found it boring in vinaigrette. “Nothing special. Could be vegetable oil in here.”