If you have read The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Foods You Were Designed to Eat by Dr. Loren Cordain, you know there are only four approved oils for use in the diet: olive oil, flaxseed oil, walnut oil, and avocado oil (1). Of these four, he recommends the use of avocado or olive oil over the other two due to their high concentration “…73.9 and 70.6 percent, respectively) [of] cholesterol-lowering monounsaturated fatty acids” (1). However, since avocado oil is harder to find and more expensive, olive oil is your best bet for cooking, salad dressings, etc. Of course, not all olive oils are the same. Dr. Cordain recommends for you to “…always choose extra-virgin olive oil, because this grade of oil is produced by physical means only, without chemical treatment, and it contains the highest concentration of polyphenolic compounds, which protect against cancer, heart disease, and inflammation” (1). A recent study conducted by the U.C. Davis Olive Center seems to back Dr. Cordain’s stance on protecting the heart, noting that consuming two tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil may actually decrease your risk for heart disease (2).
Now, you’re probably thinking that’s not a problem, right? Extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) is easy to come by in grocery stores. Not so fast…
The U.C. Davis Olive Center also conducted two studies on EVOO and found some shocking results. Combining both studies, the research team “…analyzed a total of 186 extra virgin olive oil samples in the past year, offering a statistically significant picture of olive oil quality sold in California, the most-populous state in the world’s third-largest olive oil consuming nation” (3).
In the first study, the researchers analyzed 52 oil samples from 14 brands (4). The samples of EVOO sold in California retail locations did not meet both international (as established by the International Olive Oil Council) and American (as established by the United States Department of Agriculture) standards (4). In fact, with this study and the July 2010 study, 86 percent of the EVOO failed the standards “…for reasons that include one or more of the following:
- oxidation by exposure to elevated temperatures, light, and/or aging;
- adulteration with cheaper refined olive oil;
- poor quality oil made from damaged and overripe olives, processing flaws, and/or improper oil storage. (4)
In the second study, they analyzed 134 samples from 8 brands, 5 of which are the top-selling brands in California (3). Of those brands, the failure rate ranged from 56 to 94 percent, depending on the brand and sensory testing panel (3). Again, the oil failed for the same three reasons listed above (3). After the release of the first study, “…similar quality problems have been found in Andalusia, the world’s most productive olive oil region, by Spanish authorities” (3).
In the book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, (which is a very interesting read by Tom Mueller), selling low-grade or even adulterated olive oil as “extra virgin” is pervasive throughout the industry (5). According to the author, one of the most difficult kinds of fraud to detect is “…deodorization – [or] inferior olive oil that has been processed at low heat to remove unpleasant odors and tastes” (5). Indeed, there are even instances cited in the book where other oils were mixed in and sold as EVOO. One example occurred in 1991 when “…major olive oil companies bought oil from Domenico Ribatti that had been adulterated with hazelnut oil, and resold it to consumers as olive oil” (5).
The fact is, even though you may be buying a top-selling, well-known brand in your local store, you may not be buying real “extra-virgin” olive oil – or even pure olive oil at all.
This leads me to the point of this article. How does one guarantee they are actually buying EVOO? Well, the good news is there are reputable growers in California who submit samples of their crop each year for testing by the California Olive Oil Council (COOC). If the olive oil passes testing, the growers receive a certification seal they can put on their bottles to assure consumers the olive oil is truly EVOO. You can find a list of the 2015 certified EVOO oils here.
One of my favorite growers who offer certified EVOO is Pacific Sun Olive Oil by Pacific Sun Gourmet. They offer a variety of EVOO oils (locally grown and then milled on their farm) which I have come to really enjoy. At first, the flavor seemed to be considerably stronger than my American palette was accustomed to after years of consuming grocery store brands. Today, however, I find the store-bought brands to be rather bland. Real EVOO is actually quite delicious and will have notes of pepper, lemon, and other flavors, depending on the types of olives used and how they were grown. All of the EVOO I have purchased from Pacific Sun also comes stored in green glass bottles, which is better for storage, versus clear glass and plastic (6). I highly recommend checking them out. If you have never tried real, certified, EVOO, your taste buds are in for quite a surprise.
- Cordain, L. (2010). Lose weight and get healthy by eating the foods you were designed to eat (Rev. ed.). Place of publication not identified: John Wiley & Sons.
- Flynn, M., & Wang, S. (2015, March). Olive oil as medicine: The effect on blood lipids and lipoproteins. Retrieved June 17, 2015, from http://olivecenter.ucdavis.edu/research/files/blood-lipid_updated
- Frankel, E., Mailer, R., Wang, S., Shoemaker, C., Guinard, J., Flynn, J., & Sturzenberger, N. (2011, April 1). Evaluation of Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Sold in California. Retrieved June 17, 2015, from http://olivecenter.ucdavis.edu/research/files/report041211finalreduced.pdf
- Frankel, E., Mailer, R., Shoemaker, C., Wang, S., & Flynn, J. (2010, July). Tests indicate that imported “extra virgin” olive oil often fails international and USDA standards. Retrieved June 16, 2015, from http://olivecenter.ucdavis.edu/research/files/oliveoilfinal071410updated.pdf
- Mueller, T. (2011). Extra virginity: The sublime and scandalous world of olive oil. New York: W.W. Norton &.
- Wang, S., Xueqi, L., Rodrigues, R., & Flynn, D. (2014, August). Packaging influences on olive oil quality: A review of the literature. Retrieved June 16, 2015 from http://olivecenter.ucdavis.edu/research/files/packaging-influences-on-olive-oil-quality