Olives are fruits, so real extra virgin olive oil is technically a fresh-squeezed fruit juice. Like any juice, it’s both seasonal and perishable, and is best when consumed as soon as possible after being freshly squeezed from high-quality fruits.
When olives are pressed fresh and without heat for the first time (which can happen in a centrifuge and not an actual press), and the oil is not overly filtered or processed, the resulting extra virgin olive oil can contain at least 30 beneficial phenolic compounds — strong antioxidants that neutralize dangerous free radicals in our bodies and help reduce inflammation.
One way to tell if an extra virgin olive oil is rich in phenols is its flavor: fruity but slightly bitter with a peppery bite. The healthiest extra virgin olive oils taste like this, and the tastiest olive oils balance all these flavors in a complex but harmonious way. Light, heat and oxidation damage phenols, so always choose olive oils packaged in dark bottles, store them in a cool place, and use them quickly.
Of course, when we’re standing in front of rows of bottles marked “extra virgin olive oil” at the grocery store, we’re not sure how the product tastes. And unfortunately, there’s no real guarantee that what’s in that bottle is what the label claims. There is so much fraud in the olive oil business that it’s hard to know where to start when discussing the potential crimes. Olive oils are often adulterated with cheaper and less healthful oils — and then sold as extra virgin olive oil. They might also be subjected to chemical deodorizers to remove off flavors that would never be present in a quality extra virgin olive oil—and then sold as extra virgin olive oil. The oil in a bottle might not be from a first pressing that was done mechanically through a press or centrifuge, and might instead have come from chemical extraction of leftover olive pomace — and then be sold as extra virgin olive oil! An oil might be intentionally mislabeled as hailing from a location where the olives never grew, or mislabeled in any number of other ways.
The United States has standards in place for what can be considered real extra virgin olive oil, but they are voluntary, and reports from the University of California, Davis, have found that most olive oil labeled “extra virgin” failed to meet these standards. (To learn more about this, visit truthinoliveoil.com.)
The best way to be sure we are buying true extra virgin olive oil is to buy olive oil directly from its source. Follow the advice of Tom Mueller, author of Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, and avoid all olive oils whose precise point of production — a specific mill — is not specified on the label.
Opt for oils that are recently harvested (the current year’s harvest is a good choice), and that smell and taste crisp and fresh rather than greasy or rancid. Also look for products labeled with their acidity—the lower, the better. Anything higher than 0.5 percent is likely to be inferior, Mueller says.
Many American producers are dedicated to making fantastic, real olive oils, despite the flood of substandard products they must compete with. We recommend several throughout this article; some are straight-from-the-source, made-in-America operations we love and have personally tried, while others are reliable grocery store brands. But these recommendations are by no means exhaustive: Hundreds of high-quality olive-oil producers make oils from more than 700 varieties of olives, so the choices are almost limitless.
High-Quality Olive-Oil Producers
If you’re lucky enough to be in California wine country, stop by the tasting room at this certified biodynamic farm in Sonoma to try their delicious Italian olive oil varietals.
The certified organic Spanish ‘Arbequina’ and Greek ‘Koroneiki’ varietal olive oils grown by this small family farm near Paso Robles have racked up numerous tasting awards, including 15 gold medals and 14 silvers.
This small group of farmers is responsible for resurrecting the cultivation of olives in Southeast Georgia. Their extra virgin olive oil is the first one harvested east of the Mississippi since the 1800s, and it just so happens to be the very best olive oil our food editor has ever tasted, including many from California, Greece, Italy and Spain.
Owner Theo Stephan has been passionately educating consumers about quality olive oil for the past 15 years, since she began pressing her own olives in Santa Barbara county. Learn more about real extra virgin olive oil from her website or her tasting room; or simply order a bottle of the good stuff to taste it for yourself.