What's Really In Your Olive Oil?
If you’re anything like us at Aurelius, then olive oil has become a huge part of your diet and you make sure to never run out. Olive oil, especially extra virgin olive oil, is highly valued over other edible oils for its taste, smell, and health benefits. Hopefully you have not had the experience of going to a grocery store, coming across a highly-promising extra virgin olive oil, only to take it home and realize while you’re cooking that it's in fact, not an evoo, but something else. You’re not sure what it is, but it doesn’t smell or taste like the evoos you know and you realize you’ve been duped. The label says “Extra Virgin Olive Oil,” so why doesn't it taste like one? Well, the bottle you’re holding in your hand may have some evoo or olive oil in it, but only a small portion, while the rest is lower-quality olive oil, or worse, a different oil completely.
Why Does Oil Adulteration Happen?
Extra virgin olive oils are valued for their nutritional benefits but since they come from the first press and can’t be refined, they yield much smaller quantities than other edible oils. The combination of these two factors and the fact that evoos sell for more money invites a tempting opportunity for fraud and adulteration.
First, that it is either cold-pressed or cold extracted, meaning that the process of retrieving the olive oil from the first press never exceeds 27℃. Second, the acidity of the olive oil never exceeds 0.8%.
As we explained in our EVOO Hierarchy blog, there are several standards an olive oil must meet to be considered extra-virgin. First, that it is either cold-pressed or cold extracted, meaning that the process of retrieving the olive oil from the first press never exceeds 27℃. Second, the acidity of the olive oil never exceeds 0.8%. Acidity can be affected by several factors; climate, pests, oxidation, and time between picking and harvest. Lastly, extra-virgin olive oil must be unrefined, meaning that no chemicals were used to extract the oil. Refining, while it does increase the yield of extra virgin olive oil, robs it of its natural taste, aroma, and most importantly, its health benefits. As you can see, there is a lot of work and time that goes into producing olive oil. Because of these rigid standards, yields are much lower than other types of oil.
Adulteration is also likely to occur when the supply cannot meet the demand. In some recent years, several European countries suffered low olive oil production due to erratic weather, which attracts flies and bacteria. Sylvain Charlebois, senior director at the Institute of Agrifood Analytics at Dalhousie University, explains the reasoning and consequences behind 2018’s olive oil adulteration: “Olive production in Italy was hard hit last year due to an early frost. The country’s olive production dropped by 57%. Both Greece and Portugal suffered a similar fate, along with pest issues, and saw their production drop by 35% and 15%, respectively. Pressures generated by shorter supplies with any food product have historically generated more cases of economically-motivated adulteration. This is often the case for spices, tea, vinegar, wine, and of course, olive oil. For fear of losing market share from forced higher retail prices, companies will sometimes commit food fraud in order to cut costs.”
The pest issue Charlebois refers to is Xyllela, a plant pathogen that destroys plants and trees, namely, olive trees. Millions of trees in Southern Italy and Salento were decimated so olives were having to be picked earlier than usual, which affects the acidity. If you read the labels of our Early Harvest EVOO, you’ll notice we include the single origin as well as the acidity of that year’s harvest. This acidity will range from 0.2%-0.3%, which is excellent. Even on our off years, (for example, 2018 had an acidity of 0.56%) the oil produced is of superior quality because of the small batch picking and harvesting process. That being said, even our oil is not immune from the pest and climate issues affecting all of Europe.
How Does It Happen?
Adulteration can take place in two ways; producers will either dilute an extra virgin olive oil with lower quality olive oil(s), or substitute it completely. Lower quality olive oils include: those with a high acidity (such as lampante or pomace olive oil, the lowest grades of olive oil), or an extra virgin olive oil that has been sitting around too long, maybe in the heat, and has lost any taste or health benefits.
If it’s not an inferior olive oil they’re using for dilution, it will be a completely different edible oil (such as sunflower, canola, or soybean); this is what they will pass off as extra virgin olive oil. Canola and vegetable oils are MUCH cheaper than olive oil, especially extra-virgin olive oils. This means that more money for the producer, as they can sell subpar oils for a higher price that would normally cost half the price.
You might think there is an obvious difference in taste and smell when it comes to pomace or lampante oil, and indeed there is, which is why adulterers will employ deodorisation to pass off their inferior oils. What happens during deodorisation is that steam is forced through “a tank of mediocre oil” which destroys any foul smells. The resulting product has no health benefits, taste, or smell, which is why they top it off with 5-15% extra virgin olive oil to add some real smell and taste to make it seem “authentic.” This is then what is sold as pure olive oil or refined olive oil. No one can tell the difference.
The consequences of adulterating olive oil ranges from small-scale to potentially life-threatening. As different oils have different cooking properties, the taste or performance of their dishes will be affected. More seriously, if an olive oil is diluted or substituted with peanut oil, it can cause harm to people with allergies with those hidden ingredients. On a global scale, Charlebois adds, “Food fraud remains one of the most significant challenges in the food industry. According to some estimates, the intentional adulteration, substitution or misrepresentation of food for financial gain costs the global food industry well over $70 billion. The practice lowers standards for all in the industry and makes conditions for compliant food companies more difficult.”
In Europe and the US, Bertolli, Wholefoods, Felippo Berio, and Carapelli are just some of the large brands to have been caught in scandals and named in lawsuits so always read that label. In 2008, 400 Italian police officers took part in “Operation Golden Oil,” a crackdown that got 23 arrested and 85 farms confiscated.
If you read the labels of our Early Harvest EVOO, you’ll notice we include the single origin as well as the acidity of that year’s harvest. This acidity will range from 0.2%-0.3%, which is excellent.
While Canada’s history with adulteration fares better than Europe’s, it isn’t squeaky clean. In 2009, a gourmet food company in Ontario was fined $40,000 because they “unlawfully imported a quantity of oil labelled as extra virgin olive oil, that was in fact blended oil, containing approximately 50% sunflower oil.” They were ordered to destroy 27 000 litres of oil. That's a lot of olive oil.
The International Olive Council (IOC) in Spain is the authority for all things olive oil in Europe. It exists to regulate and verify the authenticity of virgin and non-virgin olive oils across 16 mother states and the European Union. The only lab in Canada accredited by the IOC is the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). They have up to 18 different tests however, there isn’t one that is fast, inexpensive, and conclusive. Several tests have to be performed to determine different factors such as the free acidity and the adulterant(s). All this is made even more difficult when “producers” keep finding new ways to avoid detection.
In Canada, we have the Food and Drug Regulations (FDR) that stipulates the rules about the producing and selling of olive oil. Under Division 9, olive oil “shall be the oil obtained from the fruit of the olive tree (Olea europaea L).” As well, it must meet 17 other chemical requirements, such as how much oleic acid it can have. In addition to meeting the regulations set by the FDR, the CFIA states that:
“The addition of vegetable oil(s) or of olive pomace oil to a product being represented as olive oil, is not permitted. This is considered adulteration and a fraudulent practice that violates the regulations and subsection 5 (1) of the Act which prohibits false or misleading statements or claims about a food." "In addition to meeting the requirements of Section B.09.003 of the FDR, products being represented or sold as Virgin or Extra Virgin Olive oil are expected to meet the standards and definitions of the International Olive Oil Council. These standards require, among other things, oils to be cold pressed/extracted products that do not contain any refined olive oil, and make a distinction between "virgin" and "extra virgin" olive oils based on free fatty acid content."
In 2019, the CFIA launched a project to find adulterated olive oils following the rough harvest year. The Agency is able to test any olive oil they think might be adulterated and can have it relabelled, recalled, or completely pulled off from the shelves. Penalties are provided under the Act of up to $50,000 and/or imprisonment for up to six months on summary conviction or $250,000 and/or imprisonment for up to three years for conviction on indictment. Don't worry, our olive oil is tested by the CFIA and we pass with flying colours.
As for you, the consumer, the most efficient way to tell if an olive oil is the real deal is to look at the label. The more information that the label can provide, the better. Look for the origin, lot number, the acidity level, and specific terms such as “cold extracted.” The best indicator of a fraudulent extra virgin olive oil is the low price. High quality does not come cheap, so if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.