Is Your “Extra-Virgin” Olive Oil Really Extra-Virgin? Here’s How to Find Out.

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 27 2014 1:18 PM

Is Your “Extra-Virgin” Olive Oil Really Extra-Virgin?

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Lots of olive oil labeled "extra virgin" really isn't.

Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images

If you picked up the New York Times yesterday, you may have learned an alarming fact from an entertaining graphic in the Sunday Review section. “Extra Virgin Suicide” by Nicholas Blechman—which has been deftly GIF-ified on the Times website—explains the problem with extra-virgin olive oil made in Italy: Most of it is neither extra-virgin nor made in Italy. Instead, Spanish and North African olive oil is shipped to Italy, cut with soybean oil and beta carotene, and nefariously mislabeled. “The ‘olive oil’ is shipped around the world, to countries like the U.S., where approximately 69 percent of the olive oil for sale is doctored,” writes Blechman.

The fact that lots of “extra-virgin olive oil” is actually adulterated has been well reported for years. Tom Mueller, the journalist on whose research Blechman’s cartoon was based, even wrote a book about it. But there’s nothing like a stark infographic to drive facts home. Blechman’s graphic doubtlessly inspired many readers to try to avoid getting duped in the future. The question is, since labels often lie, how can you tell whether a bottle is real or fake?

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Luckily, olive oil expert Mueller maintains a list on his blog of supermarket olive oils that are legitimately extra-virgin—both private labels like Cobram Estate and store brands. Whole Foods, you may be surprised to learn, sells only one legitimate extra-virgin oil under its 365 label, the California 365. Trader Joe’s, however, sells three decent oils—Greek Kalamata, California Estate, and “Premium”—but its other labels are “winey-vinegary” (Mueller’s preferred adjective for the flavor of adulterated oil). Mueller’s list is by no means comprehensive, but it’s a good starting place. Of course, if you have a decent palate, you can determine on your own whether your “extra-virgin” oil is really extra-virgin—but if you want to take the guesswork out of olive oil purchasing, you might want to bookmark Mueller’s list.

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong.