What You Need to Know When Buying Extra Virgin Olive Oil

How to Buy the Right Extra Virgin Olive OilAs I mentioned in my last post, I was invited to a cooking class at the Seaport Hotel’s Action Kitchen yesterday. It was such a fun way to spend an afternoon, and after accidently spilling tuna radicchio salad all over the floor, I’d say I easily won the title of Cooking Class MVP. Oops…

Supported by Italy and the European Union, the Flavor Your Life class set out to educate us on quality Italian extra virgin olive oil. The majority of what we buy at the supermarket here in America is not, in fact, EVOO (yikes!). If we aren’t careful to read labels, we most likely are buying bottom-of-the-barrel olive pomace diluted with other vegetable oils from various countries. There was a recent article in the New York Times about this very issue (it’s a quick, illustrated slideshow that’s worth a look). My guess is that with this dilution of the olive oil industry and the current rise in popularity of other cooking oils, Italy (the largest exporter of evoo) has a vested interest in promoting these types of classes. While my use of coconut oil has definitely increased in the past year, I still use extra virgin olive oil all the time, so was excited to learn more.

How to Buy the Right Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Before we got to the actual cooking part of the class, olive oil expert Bill Marsano gave us the scoop on everything you could ever want to know about olive oil. It’s useful info when shopping for evoo, so I wanted to share it with you all today.

Read the Label Carefully—Look for “Made in Italy”/ ”Made in [Region of Italy]”

This can be tricky. As little as 2% of the olive oil needs to come from Italy for it to be legal for bottlers to put “Product of Italy” or “Produced in Italy” on the label. What you ideally want to buy is an olive oil that has been pressed and bottled on the same farm (or at least in the same region) that grew the olives. Among other reasons, this is because olives should be pressed within 24 hours of being harvested.

Look for the words “Made in” and the flag of Italy—this is an official label that ensures your olive oil really was grown and bottled in Italy; not imported from other countries and simply packaged there. The cooking class was focused on Italian extra virgin olive oil (Italy is the biggest exporter of it), but I should add that perfectly delicious and high-quality olive oils come from other countries as well. What you want to avoid is olive oils that were grown in several different countries, shipped to another for pressing, then diluted with low-quality vegetable oils, and then finally bottled and exported to your local grocery store.

Out of curiosity, I looked at the evoo I had in my kitchen when I got home from the cooking class. Here’s what was the label: “Packed in Italy with select extra virgin olive oils from Italy, Spain, Greece & Tunisia.” Womp womp wommmmp. While blends of different olives aren’t necessarily a bad thing, this is exactly the red flag EVOO Guru Bill had warned us about.

The Bellucci extra virgin olive oil that we used and were given in class actually had a QR code right on the bottle so that you could see precisely where it came from and track it back to the olive farm. Love that! 

How to Buy the Right Extra Virgin Olive Oil

First Cold Press Is Best

You get more oil from the olives if heat is applied, but you get a better quality with cold pressing. “First” means that it’s from the initial press of the olives. After that, the remnants will be pressed again to eek out any lingering oil, but these subsequent presses produce a lower quality of oil. 

Avoid Pomace

After the first couple presses, the sludge/remnant matter is called pomace. There’s still a little bit of oil left in this, but it’s of the lowest quality. If your bottle of olive oil says “pomace” on it, you’re consuming bottom of the barrel (literally).

Store in a Dark Place

When overexposed to light, your olive oil will go bad. That’s why you often see evoo sold in dark bottles.

Other Fun EVOO Facts

I had no idea that olive oil had the same type of fan base as wine. Bill could have talked passionately about EVOO all day—all week even.

  • Color Doesn’t Matter: The color of an olive oil isn’t indicative of its quality. During tastings, EVOO experts will actually sip from black cups so as not to be influenced by appearance.
  • Organic Isn’t Necessarily Important: Say whaaaat. I was totally surprised when Bill said this. There’s a saying in Italy about olive trees that essentially translates to “treat me poorly and I will make you rich.” Apparently, the less you fuss with olive oil trees, the better the crop and higher the yield. Bill rationalized that there isn’t as great an incentive to use pesticides and chemicals in growing olives because they tend to grow better without interference. In my opinion, organic is never a bad choice to make, but I think the point here is that while it’s vital to buy certain foods organic because they can be highly contaminated (check out the list HERE), olive oil is a lot safer to buy inorganic.

We did a tasting during class of vegetable oil, rancid extra virgin olive oil and quality extra virgin olive oil, and I can confidently say that I have been cooking with rancid evoo for, like, ever. Damnit. EVOO that was harvested, cold-pressed and bottled in the same place is drastically better in taste and texture. Going forward, I’m definitely going to shell out the extra couple dollars for quality evoo at the grocery store!

How to Buy the Right Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Whoa that was a long post! Hopefully you learned something from it though. 🙂 To avoid it getting any lengthier, I’m going to hold off on sharing the recipes we made in class for another day.

Happy Friday, everyone—enjoy your weekend!


P.S. Just want to clarify that the class wasn’t promoting that particular brand of EVOO pictured in the post–more so just any and all brands that provide quality product and offer transparency about where the olives come from.


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  1. Love this! Gonna put it in my link love this weekend. That’s so interesting that buying organic isn’t totally necessary. Love that little “treat me poorly” saying! Sounds like a rad afternoon!

    Hilary x thehealthycollective.com

  2. This is so unique! Now I gotta go dig out my EVOO from the pantry, I KNOW it’s a total violation…

  3. I think it was in Mary Roach’s “Gulp” (a semi-gross but super interesting read!!) that she talked about a tasting done with olive oil where people who considered themselves foodies thought the rancid oil tasted good! As with many things in life (cough cough MEN cough), you can be totally oblivious to the difference between good and bad until you’ve ACTUALLY had the good.

  4. The olive oil store near me has you taste the good stuff and it will actually burn a little when you swallow it they say. I can tell! It tastes smoky and peppery!

  5. I have never put much thought into what kind of extra virgin olive oil that I’ve purchased. I just I’ve just left it up to my dad. I’ll have to scope it out and see what we have been purchasing. Thank you for the knowledge!!!

  6. I know so much more about olive oil now than I ever have before. I recently found out that there is such a thing as olive oil that is not EVOO (which I shouldn’t be surprised about but EVOO is the predominant oil on grocery shelves). Did he have any comment on olive oil specialty shops? I was just at one the other week buying my first flavored oils but I don’t remember any descriptions on any of the barrels saying if these were first pressed or pomace.

    • He didn’t get into flavored olive oils, but I wish I’d asked–I love infused bottles! I had a mandarin orange infused extra virgin olive oil one time that was amazing–pretty sure I consumed the whole thing in a week. 🙂 I’d guess that you’re pretty safe in specialty evoo shops–it’s the stuff on general grocery store shelves that you’ve gotta be a little more careful about.

      • Flavored oils are typically lower quality oils but if you like them, BUY THEM. Taste them first; after all, THAT’S what counts. California has WONDERFUL EVOO; you don’t have to go to Europe to buy high-end, fabulous olive oil.

  7. I just my EVOO and it said the same as yours. Do you think it’s still good to use, or not so much?

    • I think it’s fine for cooking purposes. I’m going to continue to use my old bottle for greasing pans/cooking stirfies/etc. and just start using the good stuff for salad dressings and dipping.

  8. Fantastic that this is a topic of interest. Unfortunately, with olive oil being the most manipulated food product re fraud please read below re you should know since the health benefits and experience will vary greatly based on the purity of the oil – level of oxidation and broken down fat showing the true quality of the fruit and extraction method. For olive oil and food fraud see:

    First pressed, cold pressed today is really just a marketing term since it relates to an earlier time when extraction technology and precision was rudimentary compared to leading-edge extraction machinery used today by top-quality producers…one can press a poor quality olive, with poor quality equipment that oxidizes the oil, by a miller that ignores a number of variables to be looked at when extracting the oil.

    With older machinery extraction efficiency of oil was limited and the pressing of the fruit happened open to the air so after the first press the remaining paste (fruit pulp and other parts of the olive) still holding oil was again put in the press…. but this time with water at a high enough temperature to help extract some more oil from the fruit pulp. This second time resulted in even more oxidation of the oil from air and heat = much poorer quality.

    Today, much more efficient, modern machinery is available to producers willing to pay for it – it is not cheap, but automatically there is no need to consider having to try to put the paste in a second time. Also, it is high quality stainless steel that does not hold off-flavours and can be easily cleaned…plus there is a component in the machinery for very carefully separating the oil from the fruit paste which then enters a series of centrifuges. All this done very quickly and not open to the air.

    We should be MOST ALARMED by the fact that governments in general do not ask importers to prove the quality that is stated on a label…. there are no controls such as having to submit a lab analysis showing that maximum levels of oxidation and fat degradation along with verification of no taste defects – this is the requirement for extra virgin per international standards classifying extra virgin olive oil.

    Any producer can assume that if they cultivate their own olives, crush them themselves, and bottle themselves that it is “extra virgin”….that is NOT the case.

    Then, any producer can use a dark bottle, put ‘first-pressed, cold pressed’ on a label and call the oil extra virgin without validating.

    Unfortunately, there have been studies in various countries (including the United States via the University of California Olive Centre) have shown that over half of consumers are used to poor quality olive oil as shown by their taste preferences.

    The real test for quality in olive oil is to sip it – your only TRUE tool is your senses – a good quality oil can be easily sipped and enjoyed …look for:

    As little a sensation as possible of oil in the mouth – the lower the oxidation and the better the quality of the fruit the less greasy the oil will be. The highly awarded oils at the lowest levels (such as 0.1 acidity, or broken down ‘free fatty acids’ with oxidation units less than 7) will not give you an experience of oil in the mouth AT ALL.

    Clean , complex flavours that linger in the mouth without experiencing a sensation of oil… depending on the varietal: apple, melon or other tropical fruits, tomato, leafy greens, green beans, nuttiness, etc.

    The earlier the harvest of the olive the more of the ‘pepper’ sensation you will notice in the oil as well as bitterness. Bitterness is a positive attribute in olive oil and comes from ‘oleocanthal’ – scientific information available indicates it may be an anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen in aspirin. You will not typically notice the bitterness in food if you are using the style of olive oil correctly in food pairing….would not use a more intensely flavoured olive oil with higher characteristics of bitterness in a delicate dish.

    The poorer the quality of the fruit and extraction, the flatter the flavour and the greasier the experience in the mouth…..AND the higher the effect of free radicals in the body as well as lower the ingestion of antioxidants, etc.

    The media does not want to deal with some of the technicalities of how olive oil is extracted and what makes a difference because they want simple, fast tips they can give readers … “the top five things you should know”, is very popular. You are not protected at all by the general information that is normally thrown about.

    And, a great deal of olive oil produced world wide is not high quality – there are complex politics at play.

    Dolores Smith, B.Sc., CWWHP
    (Internationally Trained)

  9. Sorry, forgot some info above…and pls excuse some of the poor phraseology – am in a hurry.

    Last tip…. do not assume that an oil from a specific country is the best. Today, as with wine, it is the efforts and technology used by a producer that makes the difference as well as training and expertise of the ‘master miller’. A lot of money has gone into establishing modern mills in a number of countries.

    Go to the following websites and see some of the countries receiving top awards:

    Winners at New York’s international competition:

    Or the website tabulating results of a number of international competitions:


    In general the judges are international experts from a number of countries to avoid a bias towards one’s one country and other similar problems.

    Dolores Smith
    Internationally Trained

  10. My husband and I visited a Fresh Harvest store in Eureka Springs, AR last week. They sell EVOO and balsamic vinegars. We did a tasting. The salesperson gave us the same information about the common practice of dilution of EVOO. Tasting their oils and vinegars was such a treat . I couldn’t help but lament all the money I have spent on bad EVOO. I thought that because I was paying a premium price, I was getting a quality oil. There is simply no comparison. I am only paying slightly more for the real deal. The website for Fresh Harvest is freshharvest.co. I received my order in two days. I’ll never buy my EVOO from a grocery shelf again.

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