Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Shocking Truth About Imported Olive Oil

Buying the cheapest big-ass
olive oil you can find
is a false economy.
My book group had just finished its discussion of The Sound of Things Falling when the topic shifted to olive oil.

My friend Tania told us she had recently attended an olive oil tasting at the University of California, Davis (Go Aggies!) and learned that most of the olive oil Americans consume is rancid. Even the olive oil sold by trusty Trader Joe's and consumer friendly Costco.

I graduated from UC Davis and covered city politics for its now defunct newspaper, The California Aggie; so I donned my reporter's cap when I got home and was shocked by what The Google revealed. How had I not heard of this imported olive oil sham before now?

It turns out, olive oil is the opposite of wine and women. Which means it doesn't get better with age. So when you import olive oil from Italy or Greece that has to travel via a dirty cargo ship to the United States, you're likely getting oil beyond its prime.

But that's only the tip of the iceberg lettuce.

An article in the KCET public television food blog revealed that about 70% of olive oil on supermarket shelves is rancid before you even buy it. By the time the European olives are picked, processed, bottled and shipped, many moons have passed, which makes no sense for a highly perishable product.

About 97% of the olive oil sold in the United States is imported and does not meet the same quality standards as domestic olive oils. For instance, to call itself "extra virgin," imported olive oils need to contain only 20% extra virgin olive oil while domestic brands must contain 100% extra virgin olive oil.
See the illustrated New York Times expose "Extra Virgin Suicide: The Adulteration of Italian Olive Oil" to learn how many "Italian" olive oils are cut with soybean oil and worse.
Not surprisingly, when California legislators tried to convince their fellow congresspeeps to require imported olive oils to meet their higher quality standards, they were shot down by their New York colleagues whose constituents campaign contributors include (guess who?) olive oil importers.

The inferior quality of many imported olive oils has been known to foodie insiders for years. In 2007, NPR reported:
Italian extra-virgin olive oil has become so lucrative that adulterated olive oil has become the biggest source of agricultural fraud problems in the European Union.

Some oil labeled "extra-virgin" is diluted with cheaper olive oils or other vegetable oils. In some cases, lampante, or "lamp oil," which is made from spoiled olives falle from trees, is used, even though it can't legally be sold as food. One fraud ring is accused of coloring low-grade soy oil and canola oil with industrial chlorophyll, and flavoring it with beta-carotene.

This gives a whole new meaning to the song, "You Light Up My Life."

What's ironic is that Americans are so used to the taste of rancid olive oil, many actually prefer it to fresh, according to a study by the UC Davis Olive Center.

In case you're wondering how to tell good olive oil from bad, look for either the California Olive Oil Council or Australian Olive Association seal on the bottle, both of which require olive oil producers to meet higher standards than what is required by the politically handcuffed USDA.

Look for the harvest date on the olive oil label

Look for a dark bottle so that oxidation does not occur, and store in a cool, dry place. Better olive oils will also have a harvest date for the olives right on the label.

And don't buy the huge Costco container of olive oil unless you slug down quarts of the stuff each day. You want to use up your olive oil in six weeks or less.

Finally, learn how fresh olive oil is supposed to taste by conducting your own taste test at home. Like good coffee, bitterness and spiciness are good signs the oil has not oxidized, as are fruity notes such as "grassy" or "apple."

More from Diet Skeptic:

Why I'm Addicted to Chia Seeds

Why Fat Head Pizza Is the Holy Grail of Low Carb Pizzas 

The Shocking Truth About Imported Olive Oil

Making Cauliflower Rice in the Vitamix 

Why WebMD Doesn't Want You to Get Well

Follow Nancy's board Low Carb Recipes on Pinterest


  1. My mother joined the olive oil club on line and gets 3 small bottles of extremely fresh, variatal EVOO every three months. Half the year they come from the northern hemisphere (Italy, Spain, Greece, USA) and the other half of the year they come from the southern hemisphere (Australia, Chili), so that you get that hemisphere's fall's harvest very quickly. The olive oil hunter tracks down the best harvests and works with the growers and millers to blend the best oils. Plus each shipment comes with the story of each grower and miller.

  2. Christy, I read about this club when I was researching this article and it sounds wonderful. What a fun way to try different olive oils; and it sounds like these are really fresh and healthy. Thanks for adding this great tip.

  3. Nancy, what olive oil do you get? I am in Northern CA I should probably be buying only CA olive oil and looking at date on bottle. ...

    1. I buy California Olive Ranch. It's available at all of the supermarkets and approved by UC Davis Olive Council.