When Shopping for the Best, Healthiest Olive Oil, How Much Does Price Really Matter?

Photo: Getty Images/jchizhe
Olive oil is metaphorical liquid gold in terms of health benefits. The amber glue that holds the almighty Mediterranean diet together, healthy food experts love to rave of its heart- and brain- healthy benefits.

Given the price of some olive oils, you'd think it's actual gold, too. While there are plenty of quality options on the shelves that fall between the $15 and $30 range, "trendy" olive oils like Brightland and Fat Gold cost more, at $37 and $44.75, respectively. Some even have price tags in the three digits. Lambda olive oil, for example, is $185 per liter, making it one of the most expensive olive oils in the world.

Curious as to if pricer olive oil has more health benefits than the inexpensive store-brand bottles I typically buy, I reached out to olive oil experts and high-end brands themselves to see if there really is a difference. Keep reading for all the intel.

Check out the video below to see why a registered dietitian loves olive oil so much:

"In terms of price, buying olive oil is not unlike buying wine"

The first person I reached out to for insider olive oil intel was Joseph Profaci, the executive director of the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA). "In terms of price, in many ways, buying olive oil is not unlike buying wine," he tells me, in that expensive doesn't always equal best. His general olive oil buying advice is to go with what you like the taste of—not the price it's selling for. "Every time I buy a new bottle of olive oil, I can't wait to get home and take a big swig of it right from the bottle," he says.

Profaci says that also like wine, olive oil tastes slightly different depending on the region it's from; olive oil from France doesn't taste the same as olive oil from South Africa. "But the region where it's grown doesn't mean it's better or worse when it comes to health benefits or taste," he says. "That would be like saying the best wine is from France; it's really about preference. You can make really good olive oil anywhere you can grow trees that bear fruit."

That said, he does say there are a few factors to look for to make sure that you're not getting scammed into buying olive oil that isn't good quality. Olive oils that are certified by the NAOOA are tested to meet standards set by the International Olive Council, indicating it has been tested for both authenticity and quality. It's worth noting that many inexpensive store brands have met the NAOOA's guidelines.

What the world's most expensive olive oil producers have to say

Spyros Dafnis, the owner and producer of The Governor olive oil, which costs $69, also compares buying olive oil to buying wine, and likens his goods to the finest. "The difference between a simple olive oil from a premium one is the difference between a good olive oil and an olive oil with character," he says.

Dafnis says part of what sets The Governor apart is that it's a "high phenolic olive oil," because of the way it's produced. The olives are cultivated from a specific type of (organic) centenarian olive oil tree called Linaolia trees that are only grown on the Greek island of Corfu. "Harvesting and production season takes between two and three months in which we have to work 18 hours per day," Dafnis says. "For a producer it's the most exhausting, but [at] the same time, the most beautiful time period of the year." The olives are taken to a mill fewer than three hours after they are picked, and are checked one by one to make sure every single olive is good quality. It's also cold-pressed to maintain the maximum health benefits. The effort by the producers—along with the fact that the land has been passed down through six generations—Dafnis says, is also what makes The Governor a premium brand.

Giorgos Kolliopoulos, the CEO and founder of the aforementioned Lambda, says they also source their olives from centenarian olive trees in Greece and credits the producers for what makes his olive oil so valuable. "The olives are hand-picked with care. Then the olive oil, a ultra-low acidity liquid, is bottled and labeled entirely by hand," he says. "Each and every bottle passes five quality controls. It takes eight pairs of hands and equal sets of eyes in order to ensure minimum oxidation and maximum attention to detail. It usually takes four people and up to five hours to produce 100 bottles."

Both Dafnis and Kolliopoulos say their olive oils are guaranteed to have robust nutritional benefits because of the care that goes into making sure the olive oil is pure and unadulterated. This is likely true, although to Profaci's point, there are certainly less expensive options with the same health benefits, even if not with the same producer pedigree and care.

How to sample olive oil like a sommelier

Astrid Liakou, an olive oil sommelier, says price often reflects the effort it takes to produce olive oil. "Expect to pay for quality," she says. "The production on pure, extra-virgin, high-quality olive oil is a very costly and labor intensive process. This will be reflected in the price."

Like Profaci, she says that olive oils with a certification will indicate that they've been tested and up to snuff. And she also agrees that it often comes down to a personal taste preference. "[Olive oils] go from a mild taste profile to a robust one with strong peppery and bitter undertones," she says. "The aromas vary considerably as well and can be quite complex in some very fine olive oils that have a high degree of fruitiness." She also says that growing methods, degree of ripeness when the olives are harvested, and pressing methods can affect the taste, too.

When it comes to sampling olive oil like a sommelier, the biggest tip is to try it on its own. Pour a tablespoon into a wine glass, give it a little swirl to release the aromas, and inhale deeply before taking a sip. "Contrary to common consumer belief, a bitter or peppery taste in the olive oil does not mean the olive oil is bad, but is actually an indicator that it's high in polyphenol antioxidants that are very supportive of human health," Liakou says.

The bottom line is that you can find a healthy olive oil at a variety of price points. Beyond finding one that's certified, the resounding advice is to stick with one whose taste you prefer. After all, savoring what's on your plate is another staple of the Med diet, too. They really do know how to live.

Check out this list for more Mediterranean diet staples. Plus, how lifestyle plays a role in the Med diet.

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