Beware The Olive Oil Scam: How to Make Sure You Aren’t Paying a High Price for Fake Olive Oil

Beware-The-Olive-Oil-Scam-Part-1Have you ever been told that to eat healthy, you must cook with extra-virgin olive oil? Since olive oil became so popular, I began to use it for much of my cooking – and until recently I felt very good about this choice.

Using extra-virgin olive oil in your diet is no doubt an extremely healthy choice, but making sure you are getting high-quality oil isn’t straightforward and simple.

Labels and price tags don’t always reflect quality

If you are already choosing extra-virgin olive oil for your home cooking, you know that it isn’t cheap. Regular olive oil, or “light” olive oil, is far less expensive, but it is also far less healthy. And in most cases, the healthier option should be worth ever penny, right? That’s what I thought, until I came across the alarming news that I might be using a fake. Unfortunately, there is a large chance that the extra-virgin olive oil you and I have in our kitchens is not actually extra-virgin, at all. In fact, research shows that fake olive oil is alarmingly common, and it is not unlikely that we have all have been cheated by this kind of olive oil scam.

Study reveals many extra-virgin olive oils are not the real deal

Extra-virgin olive oil has been touted as one of the healthiest oils available, with benefits ranging from preventing Alzheimer’s to lowering your risk of heart disease. Extra-virgin olive oil contains healthy monounsaturated fatty acids, and has a high polyphenol content, particularly oleocanthal. This compound is anti-inflammatory, can fight cancer, and can prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

Extra-virgin olive oil must meet high standards determined by the International Olive Council (IOC) to be labeled “extra-virgin.” A study from 2010 at the University of California Davis Olive Center tested various olive oil brands, all of which claimed to be producing extra-virgin olive oil. The study found that 69% of imported olive oil samples and 10% of those from California that were labeled as extra-virgin failed to meet the standards required for the label.[1] A year later, they did another study on olive oils sold on the shelf in California, and again found that many of the top-selling brands failed the tests of IOC standards. For example, out of 18 samples from the brand Pompeian, 94% failed the tests.[2]

These failed samples contained defects that indicated that the olive oil was of poor quality; had been oxidized due to light exposure, aging, or high temperatures; and/or had been watered down with cheaper kinds of oils, such as canola.[1]

Which olive oils passed the test?

Only a few brands tested in the UC Davis studies passed the test, confirming that they were, indeed, pure extra-virgin olive oil. Those that were determined to be the real deal included:

  • California Olive Ranch
  • Corto Olive
  • McEvoy Ranch Organic
  • Kirkland Organic (Costco brand)
  • Lucero (Ascolano).[1]

So if you have access to these brands, they should be a good bet. But if you can’t find any of these choices, how can you avoid buying fake olive oil?

Tips for choosing the best olive oil

There is no guarantee that the olive oil you are buying off the shelf is genuinely extra-virgin; the International Olive Council standards are easy to pass, even if the brand waters down their olive oil with the cheaper, and far less healthy, canola oil. So avoiding fake olive oil labeling can be difficult. Fortunately, there are many steps you can take to decrease your chances of being cheated by an olive oil scam. When choosing your olive oil, keep these tips in mind:

  1. Be sure your olive oil is labeled “extra-virgin olive oil.” Although the research taught us that this label is definitely no guarantee, other options such as “olive oil,” “light olive oil,” or “olive pomace oil” are far poorer quality. These olive oils have often been chemically altered or diluted with other kinds of cheaper oils.
  2. Check the dates. Extra-virgin olive oil is perishable, and it is best fresh. Over time, it degrades, goes rancid, and loses many of its beneficial characteristics. One way to know if you are getting good, quality extra-virgin oil is to check the bottle for the date the oil was harvested. Harvest dates are not always easy to come by, but companies are starting more and more to include them on the bottle, as they are good indicators of quality. Your second best option is to look for a “best by” date. These are usually two years after bottling, so look for a “best by” date as close to two years away as possible.
  3. Taste first if you can. Try to purchase your oil somewhere where you can taste a sample before buying. If you notice rancid, musty, or other strange flavors or aromas, this is likely a sign of low quality oil. The oil should taste fresh and have fruity notes. Bitterness or spiciness is good; these flavors indicate the amount of healthy antioxidants in the oil.[1] Keep in mind that color doesn’t matter – good oil can range from green to deep gold to yellow. Try visiting a specialty oil shop, where you can ask about where, how, and when the oil was made.
  4. Look for these labels and seals. Oils with labels like PDO (protected designation of origin) and PGI (protected geographical indication) are more likely to meet the standards. Seals by olive oil associations such as the California Olive Oil Council (COOC), Australian Olive Association, or Association 3E are good indicators, as these associations have very high standards that are more likely to weed out bad oils.
  5. Pay attention to packaging. Because olive oil is perishable, it will last longer in a well-sealed dark bottle, stored in a cool, dark place. Don’t choose clear bottles.
  6. Don’t buy too much. Your olive oil is best when it is as fresh as possible, so don’t buy more than you can use in a few months. You might find a great deal for a large container, but if it will take you a year to get through it, it will go bad and won’t be worth the savings.
  7. Be prepared to pay for high quality. Extra-virgin olive oil is not cheap. Genuine olive oil is definitely more expensive, but it is worth it if you are getting the real thing.

High quality options

Studies by the UC Davis Olive Center found that California Olive Ranch, Corto Olive, McEvoy Ranch Organic, Kirkland Organic (Costco brand), and Lucero (Ascolano) are all products that passed their tests and were determined to be genuine extra-virgin olive oils.[2] If you are a Costco member, the Kirkland Organic is a good deal and is easily to find. Search online for other affordable deals on these approved brands. California Olive Ranch, for example, can be found at an affordable price through Vitacost. Alternatively, if there is a local oil shop nearby, stop by for a visit and discuss your options – and don’t forget to taste test before you buy!

Share your experience

What are your favorite brands of extra-virgin olive oil, and where do you buy them? Do you have any tips for finding high quality olive oil? Share your experience in the comments section below.

[1] UC Davis Olive Center Report. Jul 2010.

[2] UC Davis Olive Center Report. Apr 2011.

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  • I love California Olive Ranch. It’s available at my local grocery store (Giant in Pa.) and is a good price. I’ve read that there are similar issues with balsamic vinegar, too, but haven’t found the best brand yet.

  • My favorite olive oil is the Kirkland Organic from Costco – I have been using it for years because of the good price, and I was glad to hear it made the list of high quality options.

    I haven’t heard about balsamic vinegar issues. Does anybody know more about this or have a favorite brand?

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