OLIVE OIL FAQs
Olive oil can be a very mysterious item. And, "your mileage may vary" certainly applies with freshness, health benefits, and taste. We demystify olive oil by addressing top questions from our fans and customers.
If you prefer to listen to this information, we discuss all these items in this episode of the “WHEN IN SPAIN” podcast. Listen to this episode of the WHEN IN SPAIN podcast
THE THREE DESTROYERS of EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
There are three well known things to avoid with olive oil that, if not observed, will diminish the health-promoting benefits: heat, light, and oxygen.
- Avoid heat: Avoid putting olive oil near a heat source (e.g. stove).
- Avoid UV sunlight: Store extra virgin olive oil in dark green or brown glass bottles to avoid light.
Avoid oxygen: Oxygen will expedite the decomposition of the olive oil and its nutrients (just like when an apple is cut, it quickly decomposes and turns brown).
This decomposition starts as soon as the bottle is opened and the oil is exposed to oxygen.
To maximize freshness and health-promoting benefits, I recommend consuming fresh olive oil within 6 weeks of opening. Purchase smaller, rather than larger, bottles: whatever you’re able to reasonably consume within 6 weeks. And don’t leave olive oil sitting around in an open container.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT GRADES OF OLIVE OIL?
In the US and in Europe (and just about around the world), there are specific requirements or criteria to define extra virgin olive oil, like the amount of oleic acid, process requirements, existence of defects, etc. This wide brush approach of olive oil classification is very helpful to ensure consumers are choosing the right product.
EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) - this is the most pristine grade, least interfered with. It’s the most natural form of olive oil, the healthiest, no heat, and no chemicals in the production. It’s purely the “juice” from the olive. Orange juice is “squeezed” from oranges, like olive oil is “pressed” from olives. A more appropriate name would be “olive juice”.
VOO (virgin olive oil) - this oil is produced at the mill the same way as EVOO, but it has more defects in the oil (taste, smell, etc). This could result from not adhering to preferred agricultural practices, harvesting practices (even letting the olives sit for more than 24 hrs after collecting), and even milling practices (lacking quality control checks along the process).
OO (olive oil) - oil blends, combinations of lesser grade oils with EVOO or VOO. These lesser grade oils are often "refined" meaning they've used chemicals to eliminate defects but also removes most if not all nutrients and taste.
WHAT IS OLIVE OIL AND WHAT MAKES IT EXTRA VIRGIN?
Olive oil is the juice that is extracted from the olive fruit. Extra virgin olive oil is the raw fruit juice resulting from the harvesting and milling process that uses mechanical means only, no heat, no chemicals, no industrial solvents, and is free of "defects". There are other characteristics, i.e. acidity, that constitute whether an oil is considered extra virgin or a lesser grade. Extra virgin olive oil is the purest and unadulterated (least interfered with), as the name implies.
HOW IS OLIVE OIL PRODUCED?
There are three main steps that take us from soup to nuts.
- Agriculture: planting, manicuring, pruning, fertilizing, etc.
- Harvesting: the collection of olives from the tree.
- Milling and bottling: cleaning, grinding, extraction (centrifuge, not pressed), storage, filtration, bottling
IS THERE FRAUD IN OLIVE OIL?
There is olive oil fraud all over the world, taking on many different forms, and predominantly in countries where there is limited consumer education on olive oil, as in the US. This excerpt from a New York Times article says it all.
One thing is clear: it’s the large brands found at the supermarket that are the most susceptible to fraud because of the widely distributed supply chains: the oil passes through way too many hands before it arrives on the shelf.
Two great reads from reputable sources:
WHAT ARE THE HEALTH BENEFITS FROM EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL?
There are great health-promoting benefits from FRESH extra virgin olive oil, especially from the antioxidant-rich early harvest type.
Please see our EVOO Health page, and know that the fresher the olive oil, the greater the health-promoting benefits.
SO, AS LONG AS I'M CHOOSING EXTRA VIRGIN, THAT GUARANTEES THAT I'M GETTING THE BEST STUFF?
Selecting extra virgin will at least increase the chance that you're not buying the lesser grades of olive oil.
However, just like with choosing wine, consumers must look for characteristics (e.g. harvest dates, filtered vs unfiltered, olive variety, etc.) that impacts taste, quality, freshness, shelf life, and price. Unlike wine, olive oil deteriorates in quality, taste, and health benefits over time. And since olive oil is harvested once yearly from any particular region, we recommend getting the current year's harvest. This will ensure you're getting the freshest, healthiest, version of that olive oil possible.
Going by the "best use by date" is provided to ensure you don't consume the product when it is rancid or harmful, but it doesn't tell you when you should consume it to maximize freshness and quality. In essence, consume olive oil as close to the harvest date as possible to maximize freshness, quality, taste, and health benefits.
HOW DO I IDENTIFY GREAT OLIVE OIL, AND SELECT OIL AT THE SUPERMARKET?
Be wary. Be very wary. According to Forbes.com and NY Times, up to 80% of olive oil in the U.S. is neither Italian nor extra virgin. Yikes! Do your own research on this one, it's easy to find.
In this section, I provide the criteria to find fresh world-class olive oil that should be used raw, for drizzling and finishing food. For cooking with olive oil, this info will also help you select an adequate olive oil at the supermarket or at a box store. But please, lower your expectations for supermarket olive oil, as you'll only find one or two of the below characteristics at the supermarket. That's by design: supermarket products are operating on quantity, not quality. Any olive oil in supermarkets that claims to have three or more of the below characteristics is either inauthentic or late to realize they're executing the wrong business strategy.
The more of these you find in an olive oil, the better chance that you're paying for a superior and fresh product.
- Only consider it if the label reads "Extra Virgin Olive Oil" (you'll meet this criteria in supermarkets). This is a baseline requirements, as will ensure you don't buy processed or refined olive oils, which.
- Single estate is best (seldom found in supermarkets). Most olive oils you find in the supermarket list multiple countries sourcing the olives for that single bottle. The bottle may look like it comes from Italy (cute flag and all), but if you look at the country of origin, they often list up to eight different countries!! They do this in order to compete in the supermarket space. However, this sourcing strategy has a greater chance of being adulterated, and has no chance of having uniform and consistent quality control processes. For example, how in the world can these companies credibly list a single harvest date on the bottle, when it was harvested from up to eight different places of the world. Would you ever buy a Merlot sourced from multiple countries and estates? It's the unique terroir (unique natural environment) of the grapes that makes that wine so special. Single estate means it comes from a single grove. We find this yields the best outcomes with olive oil (and wine :)).
- Early harvest is the healthiest (not available in supermarkets). The olive oil we find in the US is NOT early harvest, and instead is late harvest, when they turn black and contain the most amount of oil. This is done to extract the maximum amount of oil and have the highest yield (quantity). With early harvest, farms will harvest their olives when not yet ripe, green, when the olives peak with polyphenol antioxidants (quality) and taste. This is what makes early harvest the healthiest version of extra virgin olive oil available. Aside from the health-promoting benefits, early harvest also provides for a much richer taste for that olive variety. If the label doesn't explicitly state "early harvest", then it's not. And if it states that it is, then it might be.
Freshness is king, so ensure it lists the harvest date (very difficult to find in supermarkets).
To me, fresh means from this season's harvest, within 12 months of the harvest date. The closer to the harvest date, the fresher it is, and the healthier it is. I work directly with olive groves in Spain, and I get to taste the oil directly after milling, literally hours old, and it is incomparable to what we can buy in the US. And once you open the bottle, use it up quickly, within six weeks. See FAQ below that describes the four key dates: harvest date, open date, consume date, and best use by date. Different timetable for unfiltered extra virgin olive oil altogether, since unfiltered contains bits of organic olive and has a shorter shelf life.
- Organic is always better (limited, but available in supermarkets). Not only is organic a healthier alternative that mother nature intended for us to have, it also shows that the olive oil producer cares about the environment and our health.
- Seek smaller bottles (available in supermarkets).Olive oil depreciates over time, and quickly once the bottle is opened. For fresh world-class olive oil, I recommend consuming it within six weeks of opening. Considering how little olive oil we consume in the US, it's best to open a fresh small bottle, than to have a large bottle that will oxidize and lose it's freshness quickly.
- Seek dark glass bottles (limited, but available in supermarkets). UV light is among four things that deteriorates olive oil. So, the darker the bottle, the better preserved it’ll be, the fresher it’ll be when you receive and consume it. Glass is better than plastic.
- Beware of the sale (always available at supermarkets). If it's on sale, it's probably because it was last year's harvest, which means it's not as fresh. They're trying to "move" the product off the shelf to make room for the upcoming harvest. See FAQ below that describes the four key dates: harvest date, open date, consume date, and best use by date.
ARE INFUSED OLIVE OILS GOOD?
I've made my own infused (i.e. rosemary) olive oils, and they taste delicious. I'm skeptical of buying them because of the potential for fraud: it's easier to blend lesser grades of oil in the mixture since the infusion will alter the taste and composition of the oil. In fact, since infusing involves boiling the oil for 10-20 minutes, the oil can no longer really be called extra virgin (no longer free of defects and in its natural state). There is some degradation of the health benefits and taste whenever extra virgin olive oil is cooked. The only way I will consume infused olive oil is if I make it myself starting with a really good extra virgin olive oil as the base. Clearly, I would not use early harvest world-class olive oil to make infused olive oil.
FILTERED vs UNFILTERED EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
Unfiltered extra virgin olive oil is delicious, but it has a much shorter shelf-life than filtered. It contains part of the fruit, as it hasn't been removed through the milling process, so that pulp will decay more quickly than the juice. So, while I love unfiltered olive oil, I consume it within about three to six months of the harvest date.
I love unfiltered olive oil for two reasons: I feel closer to the grove, closer to the fruit, the way nature intended. I love seeing the natural sediments at the bottom of the bottle. And, I personally think unfiltered olive oil is less likely to be adulterated because fraudsters want to maximize their money by making a product that has a longer shelf life like with filtered olive oil.
WHAT IS EARLY HARVEST & WHY DOES IT COST MORE?
The olive is a fruit that grows on trees (I know, you know this already). All olives are green and then black, just like we are kids and then adults. It’s all the same olive, only harvested at different points in its maturation and ripening process. If a green olive is left on the tree, it will turn jet black.
In the US, the olive oil available to consumers via supermarkets and box stores comes from harvesting the jet black olives.
However, through sensory and chemical studies, we know that when the olive is green, it has the highest levels of antioxidants and robust flavor. These antioxidants, called polyphenols, have very well documented health-promoting properties. Early harvest refers to the olive oil resulting from the olives at this prime stage.
Why does it cost more? It takes 3 lbs of black olives to produce 250 ml of olive oil, and takes 10 lbs of green olives (early harvest) to produce the same 250 ml bottle. This means the farmer must charge more for early harvest, or not sell it at all. And to come full circle, this is why in the US we don’t see early harvest: it’s easier to sell something less expensive (oil from black olives), especially if the consumer doesn’t know it’s an inferior product.
SHOULD I COOK WITH EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL, AND SHOULD I COOK WITH YOUR EARLY HARVEST STUFF?
Despite what you'll hear from competing industries (coconut, sunflower, avocado, etc.), extra virgin olive oil is great for cooking as its smoke point is much higher than any domestic cooking temperatures in our kitchens.
If this weren't true, the Mediterranean diet wouldn't be know for its health, as all their cooking is done with olive oil. The Mediterranean diet, and fresh extra virgin olive oil as a key ingredient, is the reason behind Spaniards having one of the longest life expediencies in the world.
However, I personally reserve the early harvest world-class stuff for drizzling and finishing my foods, raw. It's a finisher. I will occasionally fry an egg in the good stuff, but it becomes cost prohibitive for most people to use it for cooking. Every oil will degrade while cooking it. The good stuff has more opportunity for degradation because it's packed full of antioxidants (compared to box store olive oil). So, using the good stuff raw will be the healthiest, and I love drizzling it on fried eggs, salad, pasta dishes, salmon, chicken, etc.
For frying, I tend to use other extra virgin olive oil from the supermarket, and always from small bottles for lasting freshness.
WHAT ARE HARVEST, OPEN, CONSUME, and BEST USE BY DATES?
There are four important dates to consider with extra virgin olive oil, and you won't find them all on labels. We list them here in our recommended chronological order for filtered world-class and fresh extra virgin olive oil (much shorter durations for unfiltered).
- Harvest date: the date the olives were harvested and produced into olive oil.
- Bottling date: Because mills have great storage technology (they create a nitrogen blanket in the silos that prevents it from oxidizing. So, companies now use the bottling date to assign the “best use by” date, as opposed to the harvest date.
- Open date: Once opened, this is when your clock REALLY starts to click: consume fresh olive oil within 6 weeks of opening to ensure the oil keeps its freshness and provides the best health-promoting benefits.
- Best use by date: for fresh extra virgin olive oil, this is usually two years from the date it was bottled (not harvested).
WHY SPAIN, WHY DOES THAT MATTER?
Spain is the world capital of olive oil production, producing half of the world's olive oil. Spain produces more than the next ten countries COMBINED (Morocco, Turkey, Greece, Italy, etc.)!!
That's why :).
HOW DOES OLIVE OIL CONSUMPTION DIFFER AROUND THE WORLD?
I find the consumption differences around the world to be awesome! Here are just a few example averages per person per year:
- United States: 3 Olive Oil Grove bottles
- Spain & Italy: 60 Olive Oil Grove bottles (20 times that of US)
- Greece: 100 Olive Oil Grove bottles (33 times that of US)
- UK: 4 Olive Oil Grove bottles (about same as US)
WHAT OLIVE VARIETIES EXIST?
There are approximately 2,000 varieties (cultivars) in the world, and 260 in Spain.
The 14 main varieties in Spain, and the top five most popular are: Picual, Arbequina, Hojiblanca, Cornicabra, Manzanilla.
WHY DO YOU SOMETIMES RUN OUT OF OLIVE OIL?
Since we work with small farms, it is very possible that we’ve simply run out of the harvest for this year. We apologize that this happens, but it’s just part of what makes the olive oil we source so special: we have a limited supply because of the nature of seeking quality over quantity.
HOW DO YOU USE YOUR OLIVE OIL?
I drizzle olive oil on just about everything except ice cream! I use it as a finisher on fried eggs, steamed chard or steamed spinach, salads, chicken, salmon. I’m not ready to try it on ice cream just yet.
WHAT IS THE POLYPHENOL ANTIOXIDANT COUNT OF YOUR OLIVE OIL?
The most recent analysis by an independent 3rd party showed that the olive oil we source from Cortijo Espiritu Santo has a polyphenol antioxidant count of 545 mg/kg