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Olive oil types - what do they mean

Consumers are presented with many olive oil types - some are light, some are pure, some are 100 percent pure, some are extra virgin...

What do these terms really mean?

Is 100 percent pure olive oil better than just plain olive oil? And if extra virgin olive oil is the best, is extra-extra virgin olive oil even better than best?

In this article, we take a closer look at the labelling and marketing terms that give rise to the many different olive oil types.

International Olive Oil Council (IOOC)

The good thing about olive oils is that quality standards are defined and monitored by the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC), an international organisation. The bad thing is that, while the IOOC has 23 member nations who account for about 85 percent of total world olive oil production, not all countries and companies follow these standards.

One notable exception is the United States, which has its own grading system. To be fair, it is not that the US does not want to cooperate with the rest of the (olive producing) world as its standards were established by the US Department of Agriculture before the IOOC was formed.

Moreover, the California Olive Oil Council is actively campaigning to have US standards match those of the IOOC. Until that happens, there are currently different quality standards set by the US and the IOOC. And different olive oil types from the US and other countries.

We look first at the standards set by the IOOC:

  • Light, in common language usage, usually refers to foods that contain fewer calories. But olive oil is olive oil and all olive oil types contain the same amount of calories. According to IOOC definitions, light olive oil is olive oil that has been refined and processed with chemicals. It is not healthy and does not have good flavour. This is not recommended.

  • Pure olive oil, including 100% pure olive oil, or just olive oil, again refers to olive oils that have been refined through chemical processes. Another term, which is less commonly used these days, is refined olive oil. These are all poor quality olive oils and not recommended.

    In fact, about 50 percent of olive oil types produced in the Mediterranean countries are said to be of such poor quality - because of high acidity levels - that they cannot be consumed without refining to adjust the acidity levels. They may claim - truthfully - that no chemicals were used in the extraction process. But then, chemicals were used during refining. So the wordings and claims can be very misleading.

  • Virgin olive oils are one step closer to being the best olive oils. They refer to oilve oil types that have been naturally extracted by purely mechanical means - by pressing or centrifugation. No chemicals are used in the extraction process and the oils are also not refined nor processed with heat / chemicals in other ways. In addition, the IOOC requires that virgin olive oils should not exceed 2 percent acidity and the quality is considered acceptable.

  • Extra virgin olive oils meet the highest standards of the IOOC. Apart from being naturally extracted and unprocessed / unrefined, extra virgin olive oils must not exceed 0.8 percent acidity. It is worth noting, however, that some of the truly best olive oils have even lower acidity levels, at 0.2 percent or even close to 0.0 percent.

    Apart from chemical specifications, extra virgin oilve oils also need to pass taste tests, in which panels of experts judge the oils by their taste. This is because adulteration of the best olive oils cannot always be detected by chemical analysis, but the tastebuds of experts have proven to be highly accurate and consistent. The IOOC sets a total of 16 "taste flaws" and if an olive oil has just one of these flaws, it cannot be labeled "extra virgin".

  • Extra extra virgin olive oil? Sorry, there is no such classification in the IOOC system. This is a marketing term that does not mean anything. I would stay clear of olive oil types that resort to such cheap marketing tactics. They may not be as good as regular extra virgin olive oil.

  • Olive pomace oil and Lampaste oil are two other olive oil types to be aware of. Pomace is the leftover pulp after the oil has been extracted by pressing or centrifuge. This still contains a very small amount of oil and it is extracted by high heat and chemical solvents. This is really low quality olive oil and should be avoided. However, it is used in some comemrcial kitchens as well as sold in retail packaging to consumers - even in health stores. So be on the lookout.

    Lampaste oil is intended for oil lamps and other commercial applications. It is not fit for human consumption.

US olive oil grades

Over in the US, the olive oil grading system is a simple matter of A, B, C and D, but they have "fanciful names" as well:

  • U.S. Grade A / U.S. Fancy possesses a free fatty acid content of not more than 1.4 percent and is "free from defects"

  • U.S. Grade B / U.S. Choice possesses a free fatty acid content of not more than 2.5 percent and is "reasonably free from defects"

  • U.S. Grade C / U.S. Standard possesses a free fatty acid content of not more than 3.0 percent and is "fairly free from defects"

  • U.S. Grade D / U.S. Substandard possesses a free fatty acid content greater than 3.0 percent and "fails to meet the requirements of U.S. Grade C".

US grades are generally lower than those set by the IOOC. This could be a reason why European, and especially Italian olive oil types are highly sought in the US and sold at premium prices.

Price differences

Olive oils vary greatly in prices and the truly best olive oils types can cost more than good wine. However, reasonably good quality extra virgin oilve oils may not cost all that much more.

I am not sure about the price differences between, say, US Grade C and US Grade A, or between US Grade A and Italian or other European extra virgin olive oil.

However, I have seen UK websites that market olive oil online and the price difference between light / pure (poor quaiity) and extra virgin (high quality) olive oil of the same brand is only about 10 to 20 pence, which is a few US cents. Those few pennies or cents are not worth saving.

In Singapore where I am, I can even buy organic extra virgin olive oil from Carrefour (house brand) for about S$13 per 750 ml bottle. This is about the same price as some other brands of non-extra virgin olive oil and cheaper than most brands of extra-virgin oils. It may not be the best olive oil types in terms of flavor and taste, but at the price, one cannot complain.

The thing to note is this - most cheap cooking oils are actually harmful to health, especially cheap vegetable cooking oils like corn, sunflower, safflower etc. Click here to read about the harm of polyunsaturated cooking oils.

Olive oils are said to be healthy, but that is only provided they have been naturally extracted and not refined / processed with chemicals. Click here to find out which olive oil types are healthy and why. If you use a cheap, poor quality olive oil, you are not much better off than other cheap cooking oils. They are all harmful.

My personal approach to buying cooking oils is this - buy good quality, but use sparingly. To me, this makes more sense than buying cheap and using freely. For deep frying, where I need to use a lot - and which I do not use often - I will compromise on a cheaper oil, either peanut or palm oil, which can withstand high heat.

And if ever I feel rich and want to give myself a treat, I don't mind to splurge on some of the excellent-tasting, premium olive oil types.

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