In my New York Times bestselling book Real Food, Fake Food, I examine the many scams, swaps and counterfeits that pervade almost every category of the foods we buy at stores and eat at restaurants. But in the world of Fake Foods, few commonly used items have as colored a track record as extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). A comprehensive study in the Journal of Food Science showed that olive oil was the single most commonly referenced adulterated foodstuff of any type in scholarly articles over a recent 30-year period from 1980-2010. A much publicized 2010 study by the University of California-Davis’ Olive Center found that more than two-thirds of imported oils labeled extra virgin, the highest possible grade, failed to meet the extra virgin legal requirements.
The Olive Center test and subsequent follow-ups it performed on food service oil and the biggest supermarket brands got widespread media attention, triggering more investigations, including one this year by 60 Minutes. Subsequent studies have had similar results – most recently, the National Consumers League conducted laboratory testing of extra virgins from major Washington, DC area retailers including Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Safeway and Giant, and found that 55% was mislabeled. In November, Italian authorities tested the 20 top-selling brands in Italy and found nine to be fraudulent. Just this year, 2000 tons of counterfeit EVOO worth $14.5 million was seized by Italian authorities in one raid – there have been others. In France, where acclaimed Provencal olive oil commands high prices, authorities caught smugglers bringing 120 tons of cheaper Spanish olives to Provence to mill and pass off as the genuine article. By midway through 2016, oil scammers were busted from Ghana to Taiwan.
In perhaps the most disturbing event of the year, highly regarded German consumer protection organization Stiftung Warentest tested 26 extra virgins and exactly half, thirteen, failed to meet extra virgin standards. Worse, five were highly polluted with mineral oil hydrocarbons, possibly traceable to motor fumes, along with technical oils. Other oils contained carcinogenic impurities, plasticizers, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and styrene, while pesticides were found in the vast majority (77%). By law, extra virgin olive oil can contain nothing but the juice obtained by pressing olives.
The silver lining in this dark cloud is that despite all these horror stories, it is easier than ever for American consumers to buy real extra virgin olive oil, in part because of all the scandals. That’s important because EVOO is considered the healthiest widely used fat, with proven heart benefits as well as countless studies suggesting other benefits, ranging from anti-carcinogen to anti-Alzheimer properties to better digestion of vitamins. Real high-quality extra virgin also tastes great, and is so much better than low-quality knockoffs that several chefs and experts told me most Americans have never had the good stuff. Once you have tasted superior oil you can’t go back, which is why folks in Greece, the highest per capita consumers on earth, literally drink it. The instructor at the Culinary Institute of America responsible for olive oil told me that good EVOO tastes like ripeness, or the sun itself – “it is literally liquid sunshine expressed in fruit.”
Congress just ordered the FDA to start testing all imported olive oil for both quality and adulteration, a step that could be a huge boon to American consumers when the process begins in 2017. Several states, including Connecticut and California, have passed stricter than Federal olive oil standards, and higher-quality California producers began adding a special seal that consumers can look for, California Olive Oil Council (COOC) Certified Extra Virgin. High-quality domestic producers in Italy (most olive oil from Italy is not made in Italy, just “bottled” there after being imported, then re-shipped to other countries) have added a similar seal, Qualita Italiana, and the Italian mint is rolling out a new tamper-proof label to identify the good stuff. High-quality Greek and Tunisian oils are becoming more widely available in the States, and best of all, New World oils are quickly becoming more common. Several experts I spoke to suggested that Chile and especially Australia were the most reliable quality producers. The latter has the strictest olive oil regulations and labeling on earth, and one widely acclaimed award-winning brand, Cobram Estate, just launched its oils into the US market at the national level. Cobram also purchased land in California and started producing oil here, so that they can offer Northern and Southern hemisphere harvests, with oil never more than six months old – in EVOO, freshness is everything.
Frankie’s Spuntino, a popular New York Italian restaurant with two locales and impeccable sourcing, has its own private label EVOO made on a single estate in Sicily, and sells it at the restaurants, where it gained a cult following. Soon they were selling their Frankie’s 457 extra virgin olive oil at Whole Foods, and it is now available nationally. It is pressed from a single olive variety (Nocellara del Belice) grown organically on 300-400-year-old trees that are hand-pruned and hand-picked, in a DOP certified area of Trapani, Sicily, consistently rated in the top 5 DOPs (Protected Destination of Origin) in all of Italy. Due to its popularity, Whole Foods asked Frankie’s to create a less expensive EVOO for its 365 house brand and new 365 stores. The result is Green Gold, a blend of Nocellara, Biancolilla, and Cerasuola olives, that sells for just ten dollars, about half the price of the 457, and is at both Whole Foods and 365 stores. With all of these new offerings, plus good existing options such as the Fresh Pressed Olive Oil Club and French Retailer O & Co., with stores of its own and distribution through gourmet shops, it is easier than ever to find high quality, delicious, nutritious – and real – extra virgin olive oil. If only the future looked so bright for all the other Fake Foods.
(Larry Olmsted is the author of the new hardcover book, Fake Food, Real Food (Algonquin) which takes the first comprehensive look at the world’s most delicious foodstuffs, why they matter, and how they are widely imitated, from supermarkets to Michelin-starred eateries.)
This article is a part of the Celebrating Food & the Harvest 2016 issue of Whole Life Times.