True Cellular Formulas Team - Feb 9, 2023
What is Lurking in Your Olive Oil?
Heavy metals, lead… and soybean oil? The olive oil industry is notoriously full of fake and tainted oils. Today we unpack what to look for and which brands to avoid to ensure you’re investing in the real deal.
The Benefits of Olive Oil
Olive oil can be a nutrient-dense health food, but it depends on the quality. When the quality is good, olive oil is rich in healthy anti-inflammatory monounsaturated fats.1-2 Olive oil’s anti-inflammatory properties, especially due to oleocanthal, work similarly to the anti-inflammatory drug Ibuprofen.3 It also contains antioxidants that reduce various diseases, including high LDL cholesterol, strokes, and heart disease.4-5
Olive oil is used in large quantities in the “Mediterranean diet,” and the health benefits of olive oil are often touted as one of the dominant reasons this diet promotes health, vitality, and longevity.6
The benefits, however, rely heavily on the quality of the olive oil that is used. Unlike many Mediterranean countries, you probably can’t buy fresh pressed olive oil at your local farmer’s market or get it from your grandpa’s olive oil farm. Buying olive oil in the West means navigating the plethora of lies. This is one of the most faked products sold around the globe, with approximately 80% of Italian olive oil on the shelves being fraudulent.7
Tainted and Fake Olive Oil
Italian olive oil is sought out due to Italy’s incredible oil quality and history as a producer of olive oil. The problem is that most of the olive oil sold as Italian on the market comes from countries like Spain, Morocco, and Tunisia. The olives are cleaned, crushed, pressed abroad, and cut with cheaper oils like soybean. The cut oils are mixed with other ingredients like beta-carotene and chlorophyll to mask the color and taste. Sometimes, these “olive” oils are almost entirely made up of other oils, like soybean. The oils are then imported into Italy into shipping ports with fake purity certifications and then sold on the international markets as Italian. These fake oils are so common many Americans may have never tasted 100% pure olive oil.8
The problem of fake olive oil imports is so huge that an entire branch of the Italian Carabinieri is trained to detect bad oil through smell since the lab tests are often fraudulent 9. They are often raiding refineries in an attempt to combat fraud. Still, the producers often have ties to corrupt politicians, which keeps the industry alive.10
Understanding Olive Oil Quality
Purchasing high-quality olive oil hinges on how it is processed and how it is stored.
1. Cold-Pressed and Extra-Virgin
The first factor in processing is how the olives are pressed into oil. Although it is predominantly monounsaturated fat, olive oil also contains polyunsaturated fatty acids, and these PUFAs are heat sensitive. Preserving the flavor and nutritional profile of the olive oils requires properly processing them with cold extraction and pressing methods.
After the oil is extracted, it is graded. If the olive oil is found to be fruity, has no defects, and has a free acidity that is less than or equal to 0.8, it is graded as extra virgin. Suppose the olive oil has minimal defects and is found to have a free acidy between 0.8 and 2.0. In that case, it is graded as virgin.11 Therefore, extra virgin olive oil is less acidic and considered to be of higher quality than virgin olive oil.
2. Pure Olive Oil
After ensuring the olive oil was processed properly, the second key to good quality olive oil is that nothing else was added to it. As we have explored, it is common for oils to be cut with cheaper ingredients like soybean oil and manipulated further to adjust the taste and smell to mimic olive oil.9
Unfortunately, unless you’ve been trained to sniff out fakes, most people cannot taste or smell the difference between fraudulent and real olive oil. The fakes have been so well manipulated to find out if your olive oil is real or not; you probably have to rely on 3rd party testing from olive oil vigilantes and companies like Consumer Reports.
3. Properly Stored
Properly cold-pressed, pure, extra virgin olive oil should then be properly stored to maintain its freshness and quality. This means glass jars that are ideally darker colored.
The Naughty List
- Filippo Berio
- Newman’s Own
- Whole Foods
- Great Value
The Good List
- California Olive Ranch
- Cobram Estate
- Corto Olive
Olive oil is one of the world’s most fraudulent products. With the majority of olive oil’s on the market cut with cheap oils like soybean, you must rely on third-party tests to ensure the oil you’re investing in is authentic. The key is cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil that has been third-party tested and stored properly in dark-colored glass jars.
- Basu, Arpita et al. “Dietary factors that promote or retard inflammation.” Arteriosclerosis, thrombosis, and vascular biology vol. 26,5 (2006): 995-1001. doi:10.1161/01.ATV.0000214295.86079.d1
- Yoneyama, Satoko et al. “Dietary intake of fatty acids and serum C-reactive protein in Japanese.” Journal of epidemiology vol. 17,3 (2007): 86-92. doi:10.2188/jea.17.86
- Lucas, Lisa et al. “Molecular mechanisms of inflammation. Anti-inflammatory benefits of virgin olive oil and the phenolic compound oleocanthal.” Current pharmaceutical designvol. 17,8 (2011): 754-68. doi:10.2174/138161211795428911
- Beauchamp, Gary K et al. “Phytochemistry: ibuprofen-like activity in extra-virgin olive oil.” Nature vol. 437,7055 (2005): 45-6. doi:10.1038/437045a
- Schwingshackl, Lukas, and Georg Hoffmann. “Monounsaturated fatty acids, olive oil and health status: a systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies.” Lipids in health and disease vol. 13 154. 1 Oct. 2014, doi:10.1186/1476-511X-13-154
- Estruch, Ramón et al. “Primary prevention of cardiovascular disease with a Mediterranean diet.” The New England journal of medicinevol. 368,14 (2013): 1279-90. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa1200303
- Rodriguez, Cecilia. “The Olive Oil Scam: If 80% Is Fake, Why Do You Keep Buying It?” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 12 Oct. 2022, www.forbes.com/sites/ceciliarodriguez/2016/02/10/the-olive-oil-scam-if-80-is-fake-why-do-you-keep-buying-it/?sh=1330f3d0639d.
- “Olive Oil Fraud Rampant as Demand Skyrockets.” NPR, NPR, 7 Aug. 2007, www.npr.org/transcripts/12571726.
- Blechman, Nicholas. “Extra Virgin Suicide.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 Jan. 2014, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/01/24/opinion/food-chains-extra-virgin-suicide.html.
- “Draft Report on the Food Crisis, Fraud in the Food Chain and the Control Thereof - Olive Oil Times.” European Parliament, Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, 1.oliveoiltimes.com/library/draft-report-fraud.pdf.
- “What's the Difference between Virgin and Extra Virgin Olive Oil?” North American Olive Oil Association, 30 Apr. 2020, www.aboutoliveoil.org/whats-the-difference-between-virgin-and-extra-virgin-olive-oil.