Extra Virgin Olive Oil Is Often Inauthentic—Here’s How To Find the Real Stuff

Photo: Getty Images/ d3sign
Whether drizzled over salad greens, blended into pesto, or featured in to the latest Starbucks creation, olive oil is a huge part of the culinary landscape. But did you know that much of what’s on the market is fake olive oil? In fact, alongside milk and honey, this popular fat is one of the top three most fraudulent foods. But what exactly does this mean and how does it affect you as the consumer? We’ll dive into these details as well as some of the environmental concerns surrounding the industry here.

Assessing the fake olive oil situation

Olive oil, though not often thought of in this way, is simply the extracted juice from whole olives, usually including the pit. The finest of brands will simply stop here to create the culinary staple so many of us rely on everyday.

However, when it comes to inauthentic olive oil, the term “fake” can be interpreted in many different ways. David Neuman, professional oleologist, author of Extra Virgin Olive Oil: The Truth In Your Kitchen, CEO of Dave’s Gourmet, and founder of EVOOGuy.com, explains, “Fake olive oil was an issue many decades ago when some unscrupulous producers cut olive oil (not extra virgin) with seed or nut oils to make extra profit—that's fake,” he says. And while these fake practices do still occur nowadays, though less commonly, the main concern today is mislabeled extra virgin olive oil, according to Neuman. “This is a different product than ‘olive oil,’ which according to the USDA Olive Oil Act of 2010, is defined as a blend of virgin grade olive oil and refined olive oil and not best used raw,” he shares.

Extra virgin olive oil (often abbreviated as EVOO) “is the highest grade of olive oil with no perceptible defects and a myriad of chemical parameters to meet,” explains Neuman. This is the kind of fruity olive oil best used for salad dressings, dipping bread, and finishing dishes. In the US, the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a set of standards all EVOO must meet to be labeled as such. However, the US government isn't managing this standard, says Neuman, so countless bottles of misbranded olive oils are hitting the market unbeknownst to the consumer—and oftentimes the retailers purchasing them.

Another element here is that the US is the largest olive oil importer in the world, bringing in 375 thousand metric tons between 2021–2022. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is charged with inspecting these imported foods. However, they openly state on their website that only one to two percent of the foods imported into this country are physically inspected. Neuman adds, “The International Olive Council (IOC) oversees olive oil standards in most of the world but not the US and is far more rigorous than the FDA. Thus, the mislabeled products that are harder to sell overseas are easy to dump in America.”

A 2010 study done out of University of California Davis really brought public attention to this issue, finding that 69 percent of imported olive oils didn’t meet international standards of identity for extra virgin olive oil. And while in 2016 Congress directed the FDA to start testing these imported olive products, no one really knows if that is actually taking place today—especially given the information we now know about how frequently this government agency publicly admits to inspecting imported products.

Downright rancidity of olive oil products is another aspect of this issue, with many options at the grocery store already gone bad due to poor transportation practices and lack of protective packaging.

But how does all of this actually affect you as the consumer?

From a health perspective, there shouldn’t be too much fallout. Pure olive oil is rich in heart healthy fats, plant compounds, and vitamins that help to improve cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation, and even fight off cancer. And while you’ll get the best of these benefits from EVOO when compared to other olive oils due to its lack of refinement, even varieties cut with nut and seed oils will still offer some of these benefits. Despite some cautionary tales that these nut and seed oils are toxic and their omega-6 fatty acid content can increase bodily inflammation, there’s lots of evidence that tells us just the opposite.

However, arguably the most immediate impact of dishonest olive oil production is its effect on your eating experience. When you’re expecting a fruity EVOO to come out of the bottle and are met with a rancid, bitter, or sour flavor…well your dinner could be downright ruined.

How to tell if you’re olive oil is legit

So how can you avoid the let down of tossing a carefully curated salad dressing due to inauthentic or rancid EVOO while also supporting honest producers? Thankfully, there are a few different avenues.

Neuman offers, “Since bottles of EVOO are sealed, its buyer beware. Learn how to taste and identify simple defects like rancidity. In general, smell and then sip any olive oil before you use it.” He continues, “If it smells dank or smelly—like plastic, tennis shoes, sweaty socks, over ripe bananas, even cat pee—it's probably defective and shouldn't be consumed.”

He also suggests avoiding any “Med Blends'' (or Mediterranean Blend olive oils) and products whose labels cite sourcing from multiple countries. Oftentimes, he says, these options typically result in “damaged” oil – plus have a larger environmental impact. A final recommendation he shares is avoiding plastic bottles, “no quality EVOO has ever been sold in PET or plastic. Cheap packaging equals cheap oil.”

Looking for single country origin, harvest dates on the bottle, and even single estate grown and processed products are all good signs. Local and organic brands will also be optimal for not only quality but sustainability. Pompeian olive oil is grown in North America as are Fresh Press Farms’ and Brightland’s products.

Plus, you can look for third-party verifications to ensure purity standards including European Union's Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), Italy's Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP), the "COOC Certified Extra Virgin" seal from the California Olive Oil Council for California-made oils, and North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) Certified Quality Seal. Additionally, sites like Neumans’ Dave’s Gourmet offer lots of olive oil brand suggestions that meet high quality and production standards.

There are even at-home tests you can conduct with the olive oil you already have, though they won’t be as surefire as purchasing a reputable product in the first place. For example, place your oil in the fridge—the real deal should get cloudy. Here are a few best olive oil for health options to get you started.

So, while the picture of fake olive oil production and associated sustainability concerns is as murky as EVOO should look in the fridge, there are so many ways you can support the honest producers that are around every corner of the industry. Through understanding what to look for you can not only procure olive oil that tastes incredible, but champions the environment and the producers who are doing right by it.

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