Olive Oil: Know Your Label Lingo
All olive oils are not alike. First and foremost, olive oil is graded according to how it is obtained as well as its acidity level, so there’s a serious difference among grades. Second, different countries and different olive varieties bring different properties to oils. Where once olive oil aficionados insisted that the only good olive oils came from Italy or France, olive oils from Spain, Greece and California have gained recognition for their unique flavor profiles. Here’s your chance to make sense of the sometimes mysterious world of olive oil.
Extra virgin olive oil is the top grade of olive oil, but even so, there can be significant differences in terms of taste among oils labelled “extra virgin.”
All extra virgin oil is from the first pressing of the olives, and importantly, that pressing is “cold.” In other words, the olives are actually physically pressed, rather than having their oil extracted through the use of heat or chemicals. The result is that extra virgin olive oil has less than 1% acidity. While it is the most flavorful of olive oils, it is also the least stable. Since light and heat can turn it rancid quite quickly, store extra virgin olive oil in a cool, dark place. It’s unique flavor properties are greatly diminished by cooking, so extra virgin olive oil is best used in salad dressings and for drizzling on already cooked foods, rather than for cooking.
To ensure that the extra virgin olive oil you buy is truly the good stuff (unadulterated and fresh, as opposed to rancid), look for oils bottled by specific estates labelled with harvest dates and even olive varieties and sold by shops with a high turnover.
Virgin olive oil can come from further pressings, but it often comes from the first pressing. It is “virgin” rather than “extra virgin” because its acidity isn’t low enough to qualify as extra virgin.
Pure olive oil is not cold-pressed but is usually extracted from the fruit with heat or chemicals. It can, and usually does, contain refined olive oil (see below). It has a much milder flavor than extra virgin olive oil, is usually more stable, and can be used effectively in cooking. It must have an acidity level of less than 3.3%.
Refined olive oil is heated to remove flavor, color, and aroma.
Despite what many might want to think, “light” or “extra light” olive oil is not lighter in calories, just flavor. It is a refined olive oil, and some people prefer it for cooking because it lacks the distinctive flavor of other oils. Yet it is important to note that like refined olive oil, “light” olive oil tends to have few, if any, of the health properties of extra virgin olive oil.
Olive oils labeled “estate grown” or “100% estate olives” are made from olives from a specific property. While this isn’t third-party verified, it is a way for small producers of quality oils to differentiate their growing, harvesting, and pressing methods from industrially produced oils.
Producers are increasingly bottling single varietal olive oils, or oils pressed from a single variety of olives. Arbequina is one such olive, and it is known for its mild and buttery flavor (it’s a great oil for people who aren’t so sure they like the strong flavor of some olive oils).
Shop smarter! Check out all our “Know Your Label Lingo” articles!