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Inside the Olive Oil Purity Scandal

Olive oil has gotten a nasty reputation lately, and rightfully so. It has been touted as a staple of healthy Mediterranean diets, beauty products, and even religious rituals. But as olive oil has grown in popularity and mass production has taken over, olive oil has become less pure, thereby losing its virginity.

After a 2010 UC Davis study, researchers concluded that two-thirds of common “extra virgin olive oil” brands found in California grocery stores were less pure than they claimed. UC Davis conducted a broader follow-up study in 2011, which cast even more doubt on olive oil in U.S. grocery stores. In collaboration with the Australian Oils Research Laboratory, researchers found that almost three-quarters of brands failed international extra virgin standards.

Photo credit: Daniel*1977 via Flickr

This is particularly disheartening for those of us who switched from vegetable oils to olive oil for the health benefits. “Extra virgin” means that the olive oil has been produced by crushed olives, but never refined by chemical solvents or high heating methods in any way. It costs a lot to produce, mill, and properly store olive oil, so many companies blend it with low-grade and low-priced products. However, impure olive oil loses the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that make it a healthy food in the first place.

The public outrage about oil impurity prompted Tom Mueller to write the book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. A lot of those oils have been packed in Italy or have been transited through Italy just long enough to get the Italian flag on them. That’s not, strictly speaking, illegal — but I find it a legal fraud, if you will,” Mueller wrote. He went on to write, “What [good olive oil] gets you from a health perspective is a cocktail of 200+ highly beneficial ingredients that explain why olive oil has been the heart of the Mediterranean diet,” he says. “Bad olives have free radicals and impurities, and then you’ve lost that wonderful cocktail … that you get from fresh fruit, from real extra-virgin olive oil.”

Tips for Recognizing Pure Olive Oil

  • Carefully investigate any oil that costs less than $10 per liter before buying
  • The oil should have a light green color and pleasant olive taste and aroma
  • Never buy any oil labeled as “light” or “extra light”
  • Buy Seagate’s 100% Extra Virgin Olive Oil, derived from our own hand-picked olives and never subjected to any heat or chemical processing

The olive oil battle wages on, as manufacturers, businesses, and regulation groups enter the legal arena. Earlier this year, the North American Olive Oil Association sued Kangadis Food for marketing its Capatriti brand as olive oil, when it’s actually nothing more than fat from leftover olive skins and pits. Diluting olive oil with seeds and other oils,like hazelnut, maize, sunflower, peanut, sesame, soybean, rice and pumpkin, continues to be common practice. To reap the amazing benefits of true olive oil, be an informed consumer and buy from trusted sources. To learn more about U.S standards for extra virgin olive oil, check out the Olive Oil Source‘s product grade definitions and quality criteria tables. 

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