How to Choose High-Quality Olive Oil

With all the olive oil scandals abounding, how do you choose one that’s legit? Read on to find out.

Lara McGlashan MFA CPT | December 15, 2015

EVOO. This acronym for extra virgin olive oil has become a millennial staple and anyone who’s into health and wellness knows about the benefits of this dietary oil, such as a lower risk of heart disease or stroke; healthier skin, hair and nails; and even cancer prevention.

But is the oil you’re using actually up to snuff? Maybe not. Right now several big-time olive oil producers are under investigation for passing off lower-quality products as “extra virgin” olive oils, and the EVOO you’ve got in your kitchen could very well be a fake.

“The quality of ingredients and method of production of olive oil is of the upmost importance,” says Vicky Vlachonis, chief wellness officer for Gaea, a Greek olive oil company. “For example, levels of antioxidants and other compounds such as polyphenols are lost during the refining process, and one of the main purposes of eating a high-quality EVOO is to reap the benefits of its high polyphenol content.” Polyphenols have been linked in several studies to cancer prevention, leading Americans to seek it out in droves. And EVOO is the queen bee in this respect, since it’s the freshest and highest in these naturally occurring, beneficial compounds. “A study performed at the University of Eastern Finland showed that polyphenols in natural, unrefined EVOO are much stronger at reducing cardiovascular risk as well,” says Vlachonis.

True EVOO also contains natural chemicals called phenolic compounds that have anti-inflammatory powers, the strongest of which is oleocanthal, similar in effect to a natural ibuprofen. “This is not to say that your salad dressing is going to cure your back pain, but researchers believe eating some olive oil every day blocks the prostaglandin cascade, tamping down inflammation on a regular basis, which may prevent diseases like Alzheimer’s and be helpful for managing chronic pain,” says Vlachonis.

Now circle back to the EVOO in your kitchen cabinet — does it contain all these compounds? Maybe. Maybe not. Many popular brands are under investigation after having been found to be inferior in laboratory testing. Some were blended with lower-grade oils, others with nut and seed oils, and some had actually been refined. In the refining process, acids, alkalis, steam and other agents are used to remove the aroma and flavor from the oil, which also destroys its natural antioxidants. Engineered antioxidants such as BHA and BHT are then added back in to extend the shelf-life of the product. Refined oils should be labeled “pure,” “light,” or simply “olive oil”, not “EVOO”.

The bottom line: Choose your EVOO wisely. “Where the olives come from matters, how they are picked matters, how the olive oil is made and how it is bottled matters,” emphasizes Vlachonis. Here are some tips from David Neuman, the CEO for Gaea North America, an EVOO expert and certified olive oil taster, to help you find a legitimate, quality product.

How do you choose an EVOO in the store?

There are a few things to look for:

  • When purchasing EVOO at the supermarket make sure it’s not in direct sunlight in the display, since light and heat are two of its biggest enemies. Dark bottles and cans are good protection from light, but not heat.
  • Look for a harvest date and a “best before” date to make sure it’s not too old.
  • Look for EVOOs from a single source. It can range from single estate production, to a particular region or country. The sketchiest oil is one that says, "May contain olive oils from Spain, Italy, Greece, Tunisia, Turkey, Argentina and Australia." This means that you are looking at an oil from an industrial packer (who is shopping the bulk market), not an olive oil producer.

How much should a good EVOO cost?

If the price is so low it’s hard to say no, it’s likely a fake. I suggest buying 17-ounce bottles of single-country production, quality EVOO and expect to spend more than $10 per bottle. But beware: a high-priced oil can still sit on the shelves for years and be completely rancid, so check for “best before” dates.

How should EVOO look?

The color has a lot to do with the variety of olive being crushed, the stage of the harvest the olives were picked and the time and temperature of the malaxation process, and is not necessarily an indication of quality. Some oils are dark green, but there are also wonderful oils from Sicily that are yellow. I think a better judge of the oil is the aroma, the taste and the mouth feel.

How should EVOO smell, taste and feel?

A quality EVOO should taste fresh, green, peppery and grassy – not greasy – leaving the mouth and pallet clean after the tasting. EVOOs may have different consistencies based on their processing, but universally quality products are pleasant to the mouth and finish clean with no waxiness on the lips (like a lip balm).

When you open the bottle it should smell green and grassy or even a bit tropical. Look out for fustiness. If you are reminded of a gym locker, sweaty socks, stinky football pads, cat pee, feet, cheese, or a compost heap that is too wet, that oil has not been made with fresh, healthy olives.

How do you know if EVOO is rancid?

Rancidity doesn't show up in the aroma until it's fairly advanced, but you will taste it as soon as the oil is in your mouth. You’ll get an impression of crayons, wax, window putty, old linseed oil or oil paint, rancid walnuts or peanuts. And it will have a greasy, fatty mouthfeel.

How long does quality EVOO last?

Most EVOO are packed with 24 months “best before” date. Unopened, a bottle can be kept in a cool place — wine-cellar temperature — for up to a year from purchase. Opened, a 17-ounce bottle should be consumed within a month.

About the Author

Lara McGlashan MFA CPT

Oxygen Fitness Editor Lara McGlashan has more than 15 years of experience as a writer and editor, who specializes in health, fitness, and nutrition. 

Lara is an ACE-certified personal trainer and fitness consultant. Her sports background includes skiing, snowboarding, flying trapeze, yoga, competitive beach volleyball, dance, mountain biking, hiking and running, to name a few endeavors. She is currently exploring the world of CrossFit in her home base of Connecticut, where she lives with her 2-year-old son, Alex.

You can follow her on Facebook at LaraFitnessEditor.