best natural foods

Choosing olive oils - what to look for

With hundreds of brands, choosing olive oils can be daunting.

How do we tell the good from the not-so-good? The first step is, of course, choosing olive oil types - make sure you choose extra virgin olive oil and make sure it is genuine, not fake.

But that's not the end of the story because even among extra virgin olive oils, there are award-winning premium olive oils that truly taste great and have a premium price to match. There are also many that taste flat and are unforgettable.

This article will provide comprehensive guidelines to help you choose reasonably good quality oils.

To start, we need to be clear about what we are looking for. What makes a good olive oil?

  • top quality olives, grown in naturally rich soil in an environment conducive to olive cultivation

  • freshness - the fresher, the better

  • naturally extracted by purely mechanical processes, without the use of high heat and chemical solvents

  • unrefined and unprocessed, without chemical additives

  • low acidity - the acidity level measures the percentage of oleic acid, which, in turn, indicates the extent to which the oil has deteriorated in quality. The best tasting olive oils are those with less than 0.8 percent acidity.

  • great taste.

Once you know what you are looking for, then choosing olive oils becomes a "simple" matter of looking for these qualities on the labels, product brochures, websites and other information sources of olive oil producers. Unfortunately, it is not so simple because the information is usually not given. So a good rough guide is this - the more information given, the greater the chances of it being one of the truly good tasting olive oils.

Types of olives

There are hundreds of different types of olive. The olive variety and the place where it is grown are among the most important factors that determine the quality and taste of the olive oil, as well as the shelf life. Unless we are experts on olives, the various names are probably meaningless to us in choosing olive oils.

A Wikipedia entry informs that "the most prized Greek olive variety for oil production is the Koroneiki...(which) produces oil of exceptional quality.

Does this mean Koroneiki. olives produce the best olive oil? Well, I once tried a bottle of oil from organic Koroneiki. olives, called Hoppocrates. Frankly, it was forgettable and did not leave me with any impression the way brands like Laudemio Frescobaldi from Tuscany, Italy and Quinta do Zambujeiro from Portugal did.

Still, if the names of olives are given on the label, at least it suggests that the olive oil producer has something worth bragging about. To me, this is still helpful information in choosing olive oils.

Most brands of olive oil do not state the type of olive or the location where they are grown. This usually means that they use a mix of different olives from different regions and even different countries. Some brands indicate, for example, that the olives or olive oils come from Spain, Italy, Greece, Hungary and other countries. The result would mostly likely be a "generic" olive oil without any distinct character. Such oils are ok for general purpose cooking, but don't expect them to be great tasting.

Italian olive oils

Italy is well-reputed to produce the best olive oil and for some people, choosing olive oils simply means choosing Italian.

This is tricky. You will find many brands of olive oil that claim to be "produced in Italy" or "packed in Italy" or "imported from Italy". Yet such wordings merely tell you that the oil had been "put into a bottle" in Italy. But the oil could have come from anywhere. Note also that European Union laws allow an olive oil to be labeled as "Italian" as long as it contains a small amount of Italian olive oil.

For a genuine Italian olive oil, make sure the wordings state, specifically, that it was extracted from olives grown in Italy.

There is no need, however, to insist on Italian when choosing olive oils. Each country has its own share of good and not-so-good oils. Australia, for example, is a small producer of olive oils and most Australian olive oil companies make up for the small quantity by focusing on premium quality.

In contrast, the big Italian, Greek, Spanish and other olive oil producers usually produce the entire range of olive oil grades, from extra virgin to virgin, pure and pomace. I usually give these companies a miss in choosing olive oils, preferring to focus on companies that produce only top quality.


Freshness is a critical quality that is often ignored in choosing olive oils. The best tasting olive oils are also the freshest oils. As a rough guide, the oil should be less than a year old. If you happen to live near an olive oil producer and are able to buy oil that is "just off the press", that is even better.

But how to tell how fresh the oil is? Ah! This is one piece of information that is hardly ever revealed. I have looked at dozens of brands of olive oil and so far found only a few brands that give information on the production as well as harvest dates. Both dates are important because some oils are pressed immediately after the olives are harvested, some are pressed much later.

Most brands of olive oil merely give the "best before" date. This is only a rough and vague indication of its freshness. Usually, the "best before" date is two years after production but some companies set it at three years.

It is also worth noting that olives are usually harvested around September in Europe and around May in Australia. So if a European oil has "Best before" date set at September 2011, it was probably produced in September 2009, but could just as well been September 2008!

Another indication of freshness is that the oil should be packed in dark bottles, or shielded from light in other ways - eg packed in a box. One brand I saw has the whole bottle wrapped in foil. This is important because light causes the oil to deteriorate in quality. This is why it is important to store oils in a cool, dark place - away from heat and light.

Natural extraction / cold pressed

Most olive oils are extracted purely by mechanical means, without the use of heat and chemical solvents. The traditional way is to use pressure, while the modern method uses a centrifuge, or spinning action. These are the virgin and extra virgin olive oils. They are generally of acceptable quality.

However, where it comes to choosing olive oils, the method of extraction matters as well. Pressed oils are generally better than those extracted by centrifugation.

But it gets more complicated. The type of press used, the pressing temperature, time taken for pressing and other factors all affect the quality of the olive oil. For example, oil that is lightly pressed, without crushing the olive seeds, tend to be of higher quality. But this method of extraction produces less oil and so the oil is more costly.

Note that "cold-pressed" is a meaningless marketing term, because there are no laws to define what, exactly, is meant by "cold". For example, olives pressed at room temperature in warm climates may be at a higher temperature than olives that have been slightly warmed up in a cold climate.

So when choosing olive oils, look for those that tell you the exact temperature at which the olives were pressed, rather than vague terms like "cold".

Olive pomace oil

Another meaningless marketing term that only serves to confuse those choosing olive oils is "first cold press". Because there is no such thing as "second cold press" anyway.

After the olive oil has been extracted, the leftover pulp is called the pomace. It still contains a bit of oil and this is extracted using high heat and chemical solvents. This oil is called olive pomace oil. This is poor quality olive oil - far from the best tasting olive oils.

One article I read says that olive pomace oil is mainly sold for commercial use - eg in food production. So don't be misled into believing that products like potato chips are more healthy just because they have been fried in "olive oil".

Pomace oil is said to be seldom sold retail. However, I have seen such oils on websites that market olive pomace oil for "general cooking", as well as in supermarkets and health foods stores. And quite often, this lowest quality olive pomance oil costs only a few cents less than top quality extra virgin olive oils. This only shows how ignorant people can be in choosing olive oils.

Acidity and refined olive oils

While most olive oils are extracted naturally, most are also refined unnaturally, using chemical processes.

The acidity level indicates the extent to which olive oil has deteriorated and turned rancid - and rancid oils are very harmful to health. Apparently, up to about 50 percent of olive oils have such high acidity levels that they are unfit for human consumption. So they need to be refined, using chemicals to adjust the acidity level. Olive oils may also be refined to remove the olive flavour, so that they taste "neutral". They won't taste good.

In choosing olive oils, another important information to look out for is therefore the acidity level. According to standards set by the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC), virgin olive oils must not exceed 2 percent acidity and these are considered to have acceptable flavours. Extra virgin olive oils meet more stringent specifications and must not exceed 0.8 percent acidity.

However, the best tasting olive oils have even lower acidity levels. Lakesides olive oil from Australia is one brand I know that has an acidity level of only 0.2 percent and the low acidity level is achieved by pressing the olives on the same day that they have been harvested. The best Greek olive oils, made from gently pressed Koroneiki. olives, naturally have also zero acidity.

Not all countries and companies, however, follow the standards set by the IOOC. Moreover, simply choosing olive oils that are "extra virgin" or oils that have low acidity levels does not always guarantee the best flavours.

The taste test

Ultimately, you need the taste test in choosing olive oils. I am fortunately to have a good, fine foods grocer that so far recommended me two very excellent olive oils. It helps to seek out such stores and to cultivate a relationship with their owners.

Olive oil reviews on the Internet may also be helpful in choosing olive oils, except that some of those featured oils may not be available, or may be too costly. Read these reviews carefully. Some recommend the best olive oils regardless, while others only recommend "the best" within a certain price range.

Click here to read how choosing olive oils led me to discover two excellent brands.

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