Healthful consumers want to know, but can often be confused by, how to choose olive oil. Extra-virgin and virgin olive oil’s healthful properties come from rich levels of monounsaturated fat, which promote “good” cholesterol, as well as abundant polyphenols, powerful antioxidants that may help prevent cardiovascular disease and lower blood pressure.
But when confronted with dozens of olive oils at the grocery store, labeled with terms like “cold-pressed” and “unfiltered” on their labels—and priced from $5 to $50, what’s a grocery shopper to do?
Here’s what to look for when you shop for olive oil.
“Extra-virgin” and “virgin” olive oils are processed by crushing olives into a mash, which is pressed to extract the oil (this is called the first press) without the use of heat (called cold pressing). Extra-virgin oils are of higher quality, as the olives used to make them are processed within 24 hours of picking—the longer olives go between picking and processing, the higher their free fatty acid content (extra-virgin olive oil can have up to 0.8 percent, virgin oils 2 percent). Extra-virgin oils also have more polyphenols than virgin oils.
Oils can be “filtered”—or not. Unfiltered oils have tiny particles of olive flesh in them, which reduces shelf life, and may appear cloudy if those particles haven’t settled at the bottom of the bottle.
“Pure” olive oil or simply olive oil are below extra-virgin and virgin standards and are heavily processed to remove off flavors and aromas. Though the oil still is a source of monounsaturated fat, its been stripped of healthful polyphenols.
“Light,” “lite” and “extra-light” are purely marketing terms used on highly refined oils that refer to mild flavor and/or color, not reduced calorie content.
“Product of Italy” means the oil was processed in Italy, not necessarily that the olives were grown there. You can find oils that use solely Italian olives—or olives from Greece or California. Often made from olives from single estates or particular growing regions, these high-quality artisan oils have more distinct flavors—and are more expensive. When seeking out these oils, look for seals and designations as helpful indications of quality. Denominazione d’Origine Protetta (DOP) in Italy, Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) in France and Denomination of Origin (DOP) throughout the European Union (EU) identify products produced, processed and prepared in regions known for expertise in that particular product. The California Olive Oil Council (COOC) and International Olive Council (IOC) certify and give their mark to quality extra-virgin olives oils, from California and the EU respectively, based on taste and quality.