Understanding Olive Oil Labels

Extra virgin, pure, light, cold-pressed, certified... Perusing the olive oil section at the market can be daunting. What do these labels mean?

Olive oil labels can have so many phrases and seals that we've often felt dizzy trying to choose the "right" bottle. We've wondered which descriptors are meaningful, and which, if any, are just marketing. Last week, some of our questions were answered at an olive oil tasting workshop held at the University of California at Davis as part of Slow Food Nation.

Here are some things we learned about olive oil labeling:

Extra Virgin Olive Oil
This is the top grade of olive oil, with the freshest flavor and most antioxidants and polyphenols. It is also the most expensive and usually used in dressings or to finish dishes, not for cooking. To meet International Olive Council (IOC) standards, an extra virgin olive oil must be made from fresh olives processed quickly after harvest and the oil must be extracted mechanically, not using solvents, at a temperature not exceeding 86°F. It must not be mixed with other oils or pomace (milling leftovers) and must pass laboratory and IOC taste tests. This designation is not regulated in the United States, however, so to be sure you are getting true extra virgin olive oil, stick with brands from IOC member countries or those certified by the California Olive Oil Council (COOC).

Virgin Olive Oil
This is intermediate quality oil, generally found in Europe but not the United States. It has some defects that prevent it from being designated extra virgin. Defects may include zero fruity flavor, fusty, winey-vinegary, musty, muddy sediment, or rancid.

Olive Oil or Pure Olive Oil
This is defective olive oil that has been refined to remove the defects. Virtually odorless and tasteless, the refined oil is mixed with some extra virgin olive oil for flavor. It is less expensive than extra virgin and a suitable choice for cooking dishes where you don't need or want a strong olive oil flavor.

Light Olive Oil
This is basically the same as pure olive oil, with a light flavor. It is not lighter in calories.

Olive Pomace Oil
This is made from the residue left over from previous olive pressings. It is refined with solvents and mixed with some extra virgin oil.

First Cold Press
This term is a holdover from the days when olives were pressed between mats to extract the oil. The first pressing would yield a higher quality oil, while the second pressing would yield lower grade oil to be refined or used in oil lamps. Nowadays, unless the oil was made using the mat process (which is rare), the term is just marketing.

Harvest Date
Olive oil is best when fresh and it does not get better with age. Look for recently made oil and try to use it within a year.

Use By Date
This date is usually two years after the oil was made.

Bottled or Produced in Italy
This claim is not necessarily enforced, so the oil may or may not have been made in Italy or from Italian olives. Check the back label for fine print on the source of the oil (often Spain, Greece, or Tunisia).

California Olive Oil
Only oils made from 100% California olives can make this claim.

Seals and Medals
European olive oils may have a Designated Origin seal that indicates they were produced in a particular region. In the United States, the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) awards a seal to oils that meet IOC standards. Other seals and medals may bear the name of regional fairs or competitions. These are usually a good indicator of quality oil, particularly if the year of the award matches that specific oil. (Bear in mind that a producer's 2008 oil may not have all the same qualities as the oil that received an award in 2004.)

Did we miss anything? Share your knowledge in the comments or let us know if you have questions about something not on the list. Next week, we'll post some of the things we learned about olive oil tasting and flavor characteristics.

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The Great Olive Oil Scam. Don't Be Duped.
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(Images: Gregory Han)