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What is virgin olive oil?

Exactly what is virgin olive oil or extra virgin olive oil?

Many people may have heard that extra virgin refers to the highest grade of olive oil. Yet they might save a few cents or at most a dollar or two to buy a much lower grade.

It only shows they do not fully appreciate what is virgin olive oil or extra virgin olive oil and WHY it is important to use only these grade, especially when it is for home use and the price difference between extra virgin, virgin and other grades is relatively small.

At the same time, we should note that there is widespread olive oil fraud - because extra virgin olive oil is a big, multi-billion dollar business.

So just because you see the words "extra virgin" on an olive oil bottle, it may not mean that the oil is, indeed, of extra virgin quality.

So exactly what is virgin olive oil? And what does extra virgin mean?

Not just cold-pressed

Probably like most people, I used to think that extra-virgin is olive oil produced from the first cold-pressing. This is partly correct, partly confused. Yes the oil is obtained by cold pressing. But there is no such thing as "second cold pressing", so the term "first cold pressing" serves only to try impress - and confuse - people. And I was confused.

To fully appreciate what is virgin olive oil, we should firstly understand that it is a grade - extra virgin being the highest grade - of olive oil defined by the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC). This is an international governing body for the olive oil industry with 23 member countries accounting for about 85 percent of total world olive oil production.

Extra virgin olive oils meet the highest standards of the IOOC and it has to meet a number of quality standards:

Virgin olive oils is the second highest grade set by the IOOC. The main difference between virgin and extra virgin is that virgin olive oil can have a higher level of acidity, of up to 2 percent.

Click here to learn more about the IOOC and what is virgin olive oil versus other grades. And click here for learn about the qualities to look for in premium olive oils

Olive oil fraud

The IOOC grading system is certainly helpful, for it states very specifically what is virgin olive oil and what is extra virgin. Unfortunately, not all countries and oil companies are members of the IOOC.

There has also been instances of lax regulation as well as fraud, involving higher grade olive oils being adulterated with low grade oils such as pomace or lampaste oil that are considered unsuitable for human consumption.

Olive oil fraud has also involved hazelnut oil and other vegetable oils being passed off as olive oils, sometimes with the addition of chlorophyll to give the oil a green, "olive oil" colour. In a 1981 incident in Spain, about 700 people died from cosuming "olive oil" that was, in fact, rapeseed oil adulterated with aniline, a toxic oil used as an industrial lubricant.

According to Slippery Business, an article by investigative journalist Tom Mueller, (New Yorker, August 13, 2007), only about 40 percent of "extra virgin" olive oils sold in Italy meet the IOOC specifications that define extra virgin olive oil.

Buying from big and well-established brands is no guarantee. Some of the past fraud cases involved really big names in the olive oil business, although the companies claimed that they were cheated by suppliers and it could not be proven that they were complicit in the fraud.

A better bet would be to buy from specialist retailers who know their products well. You may have to pay higher prices. Don't expect the best extra virgin olive oils to come cheap. At the same time, there is no real need to use the best oils for daily cooking. Use them for special purposes.

For regular daily use, any mid-price, reasonable quality extra virgin olive oil will do. As long as you understand what is virgin olive oil or extra virgin olive oil, and get the real thing.

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