Is Your Pure Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Fake?

Fake or Real?
Fake or Real?

Is your extra-virgin olive oil fake?  According to the book by Tom Mueller called  Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, it probably is.  According to him,  70% of the extra virgin olive oil sold is adulterated.  The most common form of adulteration comes from mixing extra virgin olive oil with cheaper, lower-grade oils. Sometimes, it’s an oil from an altogether different source like canola oil.  Other times, they blend extra virgin olive oil with a poorer quality olive oil   The blended oil is then chemically deodorized, colored, and sometimes even flavored and sold as “extra-virgin” oil to a producer.  So, if a particular brand is found to be fake, it probably wasn’t done by the brand, but the supplier.  In Italy, 40 people were arrested for adding chlorophyll to sunflower and soybean oil and selling it as extra virgin olive oil, both in Italy and abroad.  Last year, researchers at UC Davis tested 124 different samples of extra-virgin olive oil from eight major brands.  More than seventy percent of the imported oils failed.

With so many people jumping on the bandwagon for the health benefits of extra-virgin olive oil, meeting demand became difficult because authentic extra-virgin olive oil takes a lot of time, expense and labor to make. On the flip side, it’s quick, cheap and easy to doctor.  So how can you tell if your extra-virgin olive oil is fake?  According to journalist Alex Renton, you can’t go by taste alone.  Here is his story:

“I conducted a blind tasting of extra virgin olive oils a few years ago for a national newspaper that wanted “the truth on expensive olive oil”.

We had a dozen oils, and a panel consisting of an importer, an Italian deli owner and a couple of eminent foodies: the results were so embarrassing and confusing the piece was never published. The importer went into a fugue after he was informed that he’d pronounced his own premium product “disgusting”; the deli owner chose a bottle of highly dubious “Italian extra virgin” as his favourite  and both the foodies gave a thumbs-up to Unilever’s much-derided Bertolli brand.”

(Bertolli’s scurrilous reputation among olive oil brands came from their intimate involvement with selling fraudulent olive oils.)

Since you can’t go by taste alone, here are a couple of other things you can do but even they are not fail-proof tests.

First, extra-virgin olive oil ought to be comprised of mostly monounsaturated fat that grows more solid when cold. If you put real extra-virgin olive oil in the refrigerator, it should  become thick and cloudy as it cools completely (some oils made from high-wax olive varieties will even solidify) .This is not a fail-proof test because adulterated oils may also become thick and cloudy in the refrigerator.  Some adulterated extra-virgin olive oils are blended with low-grade, refined olive oil. Those would still clump up. Other adulterated extra-virgin olive oils are blended with just enough of the cheaper oils that they’ll still be mostly olive oil, so they’ll have some clumping, too. If, however, the oil you put in the refrigerator  fails to thicken at all (still appearing as clear and runny as it did at room temperature), then you know something certain: that it’s fake!

Second, extra-virgin olive oil ought to be flammable enough to keep an oil lamp burning. Again, this isn’t a fail-proof test, and for the same reasons. But, it is certain that if your so-called “extra virgin olive oil” doesn’t keep a wick burning, it isn’t extra-virgin at all, but instead contains refined oils.

Since there is no fail proof tests, he suggests that you buy from your local farmers, but since we don’t all live by olive oil farms, that may be really hard to do.  He suggests that extra-virgin olive oil from California, Australia and New Zealand have better controls and more trustworthy labeling systems than Italy, Greece and Spain.  Spain is the world’s largest producer of olive oil but last year they such a bad year last year with both frost and drought that they are only producing at 44% this year.  This will increase costs to us and also make adulterating more attractive to them.

This is all really bad news to me because my family uses a lot of extra-virgin as well as virgin olive oil.   I mix it with lemon juice or balsamic vinegar almost every day for my salad dressing.  I am concerned that if it is indeed fake, I am eating an unhealthy oil and harming my health rather than helping it.   I am going to have to do some testing and research myself and see what alternatives I come up with.



Inside Your Food