Olive Oil Types & Their Differences | Buying Guide
Despite its revered status, olive oil is the most misunderstood oil that is found in the average kitchen. The average person goes into a supermarket and encounters terms like Extra Virgin, Organic, Cold-Press, Certified and Refined. And…more times than not, the customer doesn’t know what those terms actually mean. We read the labels and pretend like we are making an informed choice. This choice affects both the taste and aroma; and if you benefit from the unique health attributes of olive oil.
We, as consumers, aren’t clueless. By checking the prices, it is easy to conclude that Extra Virgin is the highest quality. That is true, but it is by no means the end of the story. There are other terms that are helpful in making a smart choice. We hope the following answers make you more confident about choosing the right olive oil:
- What do the terms “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” and “Virgin Olive Oil” mean?
- What are the differences in taste and flavor?
- Why are olive oils differing colors?
- What technical attributes determine olive oil quality and classification?
- What does Cold-Press mean?
- Who enforces these standards?
- Why does the color vary?
- What does the Organic label mean?
What do the terms Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Virgin Olive Oil mean?
These terms describe the quality of the olive oil. Extra Virgin Olive Oil should meet certain international standards, which the USDA has recently adopted. Virgin Olive Oil has its own standards too. Lower down the ladder is plain Olive Oil, which is a mix of both Virgin Olive oil and refined olive oil. As we get more specific, we will try to explain in more detail what the terms mean.
Quality in Flavor & Aroma
First off, Extra Virgin Olive Oil does not have any defects in taste or aroma. This type of oil is expected to be free of musty, fusty, winey-vinegary, muddy-sediment, and rancid attributes. Extra Virgin Olive Oil is supposed to have either a taste or aroma that can be described as olive, apple, green, sweet, grass, nutty and tomato (some of the positive attributes the USDA mentions ). An olive oil which is free of defects and possesses one or more positive, fruity attributes is considered by the USDA as excellent.
Virgin Olive Oil does not have to be perfect. It can have at most two defects. Still it must have a positive (or fruity) attribute. Plain Olive Oil and Refined Olive Oil do not have quality standards.
Olive Oil Color
Extra Virgin and Virgin Olive Oil are for the most part greener than regular Olive Oil and Refined Olive Oil, which is usually light yellow. However, Extra Virgin and Virgin Olive Oil can have a golden color too. The reason for the differences in color will be discussed below.
What does free fatty acid percentage say about olive oil?
This is one way to test the quality of the olives and the processing of the oil. The chemistry of Olive Oil is unique and that is why it is normally associated with being a very “healthy” cooking oil. It is made up of more than 50% monounsaturated fats ( which are much healthier than saturated and trans fats).
Normally, the fats in olive oils are grouped together in 3’s called triglycerides. With an inferior olive oil, the oil has a significant percentage of free fatty acids, meaning that the oil has started to breakdown and is not bonded together as a triglyceride. This is a telltale sign of fruit fly infestation, extraction delays, damaged fruit, fungal diseases, prolonged contact between oil/vegetation water and careless extraction methods. It is the easiest way to assess quality and there are standards for different grades of olive oil.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil cannot have more than 0.8 % free fatty acids. Virgin Olive Oil cannot have more than 2% free fatty acids. Counter-intuitively, Olive Oil and Refined Olive Oil cannot have more than 1% and 0.3% free fatty acids, respectively. The reason for that is because the removal of free fatty acids is part of the refining process.
There are a few other standards which are very technical. But those three above are the ones that have the biggest influence on the labeling.
What does Cold-Press mean?
Cold-Press or first press olive oil comes from the days when most olive oil was made in vertical presses. The first press was done without the assistance of excess heat and was of the highest quality. To extract more oil, hot water or steam was used to extract more oil (but lower quality). Now most olive oil is processed at room temperature (olives are harvested in winter) and involves centrifuges. Cold-Press still refers to olive oil extraction that isn’t above 81 degrees Fahrenheit.
Who enforces these standards?
Olive Oil standards are under-enforced throughout the world. For example, some olive oils that are made in Italy can be a combination of olive oil from many other countries with only a fraction of Italian olive oil. Even worse, some large producers of olive oil mix olive oil with other vegetable oils and call it extra virgin olive oil. This can be very hard to test for, and normally only a professional taster can detect the fakes.
The USDA, however, does certify producers that are willing to pay the agency to inspect their farms and facilities. You will see a certification on the bottle if they do get Certified by the USDA but few actually do. The only real enforcement comes from fraud cases that have been mostly unsuccessful in completely ridding the industry of this practice.
The key is to have a trusted producer. Extravirginity.com is a good place to start in seeking fine olive oil.
Why does the color vary?
The color varies based on when the olive was harvested and the amount of chlorophyll that ends up in the oil. The greener olive oils are composed of unripe olives, while golden ones use ripe olives, but neither is necessarily better. The green olives give an olive oil a slight bitter taste, sometimes compared to peppers. They also have a strong aroma. On the other side of the spectrum, yellow olive oils are made from ripe olives (which are black) and produce a milder, buttery taste. The green emerald olive oil is the traditional style of Italy, while Spanish olive oil is golden and has a milder flavor and aroma.
What does the Organic label mean?
With Organic Olive Oil, the growers don’t use pesticides, herbicides or fungicides to guard their crop from threats such as flies and fungus. This is better for the environment, and may be better for the consumer of the olive oil. USDA Certified Organic Olive Oil is olive oil where the grower proves to the Department of Agriculture that they have not used any chemicals on their crops.
Olive oil is one of the healthiest, if not the healthiest, cooking oils you’ll find. And unlike other cooking oils, it has a distinct, enriching taste. Today, there are olive oil tasting bars across the world, just like wine bars. We take pride in using Extra Virgin Olive Oil in the preparation of our food, as we believe it continues to add great flavor and a healthy twist to our food. We welcome you to share any comments or questions with us below.
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