Healthy eating experts may disagree on the merits of carbs, coconut oil, and butter, but extra-virgin olive oil is about as controversial as leafy greens; virtually everyone feels pretty darn good about it.
But here’s the thing: Not all olive oils are created equal. It turns out that there’s a lot to know about selecting and buying the best one. To start, it’s a good idea to understand what the “extra-virgin” term often attached to olive oil actually stands for. “The key to a virgin oil is that it’s an olive oil that’s extracted from the olive by mechanical means only, with no chemicals or heat added,” explains Joseph Profaci, executive director of The North American Olive Oil Association.
It turns out that EVOO really is the best type of olive oil for your health, too. “Extra-virgin is a term unique to olive oil and signifies the oil was cold pressed from the first pressing of olives, which results in the purest, least acidic oil as well as the best-tasting oil,”The Real Food Grocery Guide author Maria Marlowe explains. But that’s not the only thing to look for.
Keep reading for five key factors for choosing high-quality olive oil.
1. Type of bottle
“The three enemies of olive oil are light, heat, and air,” says Profaci. “You want to absolutely look for a dark bottle if it’s extra virgin because the dark bottle protects it from light.”
“And a clear bottle is not necessarily a bad thing. Some of the world’s finest olive oils are packaged in clear bottles but they will also be put into boxes,” Alexandra Devarenne, co-founder of The Extra Virgin Alliance adds. The box protects the oils from light, which is why if you do find a bottle-and-box oil you’ll want to be sure you keep it stored in both containers. That also means it’s best to store your olive oil in your pantry and not sitting out in the kitchen where the sun can shine on it. Otherwise, it could go rancid.
Beyond that, the North American Olive Oil Association suggests that you check the olive oil bottle or any signs of drips or leaking, dust on the bottle, a broken or loose seal, or an orange tint to the oil–all signs that the oil’s quality was compromised at some point in the manufacturing process.
If you have an opportunity to test out an olive oil before buying it, do it. Here’s how to be an EVOO sommelier, according to Devarenne. “At the end of the day, that’s what matters because just like if you are buying food and you don’t like the taste, then what’s the point right?” She explains that if it’s fresh, it should smell and taste like fresh olives—grassy, green, and some varieties can taste fruity. If it’s rancid, you’re more likely to taste notes of crayon, or it will smell and taste like rancid walnuts. (Um, yum…)
“If your olive oil has any of those characteristics then that means it has been compromised somehow in its life. It’s either been exposed to heat at some point or it’s old, or it’s been exposed to light,” says Devarenne.
And if you taste a peppery bite, bitterness, or even pungency, that’s a good thing since it’s one indicator that the oil is rich in phenols and polyphenols. “Pungency is the peppery quality in the throat and that and bitterness, both of those are characteristics of usually greener style oils, and those indicate the presence of phenols. So if you’re looking for a higher polyphenol oil, what you’re going to want to look for is oils that are bitter and peppery,” advises Devarenne.
“It pairs exceptionally well with foods, and you may realize some fruity, peppery notes, too. If your EVOO has a sour off-taste, smells stinky, or has a bad-nutty scent, it may have turned rancid. It can happen when the EVOO has been exposed too long to air or was stored at warm temperatures too long,” says Daniel Angerer, a chef at Paleo cult-fave Hu Kitchen.
3. Best by date
Like everything else on the shelves, olive oil comes with a “best by” date, and unlike when you’re looking for a good wine, the fresher the olive oil, the better. “If a bottle does not have a best by date on it, I wouldn’t buy it,” says Profaci. “In putting a best by date on a bottle, a company is representing that under proper storage conditions, this oil will be extra-virgin until the end of the best by date.” No date means risking purchasing an olive oil that’s less than fresh (and who knows what else).
“If it has a ‘pressed on’ or ‘harvest date’, it’s likely to be a higher quality oil, and if you see the name of the producer or estate, or the variety of olive used, it’s likely legit. The more specifics, the better,” adds Marlowe.
4. Check out the type of oil
Another reason why you might opt for virgin or extra-virgin olive oil (over regular olive oil or light olive oil) is because it means the oil is not refined or as processed. Key terms to look for when trying to spot a refined vs. unrefined oil? If the bottle says “light tasting,” or just plain old “olive oil,” sans the virgin or extra-virgin, chances are it’s refined or processed.
And, have you ever heard that extra-virgin olive oil isn’t the best to cook with? Well, even virgin or extra-virgin oils are totally fine to cook with. In fact, according to the Olive Wellness Institute, extra-virgin olive oil is stable to cook with most of the time. And, according to the institute (which cites a study in which several different types of oils were tested) smoke point is actually not the best predictor of how an oil will hold up in the cooking process. And extra-virgin olive oil retained most of it’s antioxidant properties when it was heated and used to cook within normal cooking situations.
Marlowe also gives the tip to look for seals, indicating a quality standard has been met. (BTW, she says Australia has the strictest standards when it comes to quality.) She also adds that—just like with everything else—it’s best to buy organic, when possible.
5. Look into the polyphenol levels
The whole point of choosing a quality olive oil is to get one that packs the healthiest punch, right? So when you’re tasting an olive oil, one way you can tell if there are higher polyphenol levels is to taste the oil on it’s own. The flavor profiles you’re looking for? Bitterness, pepperiness, and a pungent taste. It may sound counterintuitive, but if the oil has more of a bite to it, that’s usually a sign there are more polyphenols. Some brands do label polyphenols, but according to Devarenne and Profaci, there is no set standard for labeling this, so it’s not super reliable.
“Look for oils that are distinctly bitter, and pungent in flavor. And those are the ones that are going to have higher phenol content,” says Devarenne. But if you do prefer an oil doesn’t have that bite or peppery taste, no worries; those are still healthy, too. “It doesn’t mean that it’s a lower quality oil, it could be a very fine and delicious oil it just doesn’t have the high polyphenol count.”
Bottom line, if you want to reap all of the body-loving benefits of EVOO, be sure to check out that label (and bottle). After all, just like wine, it may take you a bit longer to find the right bottle–but once you do it’s well worth it.
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