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What is Extra Virgin Olive Oil?

And what other types of olive oil are there anyways?

Whenever we hear about olive oil, the first thing that is always mentioned is to make sure that it is “extra virgin,” but what does that even mean, what other types of olive oils are there, and why is it so important?

In this article, we will take you on a deep dive into the wonderful and mysterious world of olive oil, answering these questions and giving you more insight and appreciation for this amazing food.

After learning more about EVOO, we also highly recommend you check out our other articles to learn more about the health benefits of olive oil, some important facts to consider before buying olive oil (including why you shouldn’t buy it from most stores), and why you should use olive oil instead of other oils, including for most types of cooking.

So, what is Extra Virgin Olive Oil?

Extra Virgin Olive Oil is Just Fresh-Squeezed “Olive Juice”

One of the reasons olive oil is one of the oldest oils used by human beings, with an archeological history of almost 5,000 years, is because it is relatively easy to extract.

Unlike most plant oils, which require the use of heat and/or chemical solvents to be made (“refined”), extra virgin olive oil is simply the “juice” of cold-pressed fresh olives and can even be made by-hand with some effort.

The beauty of this fact is that with real extra virgin olive oil, you can be sure that you are getting a natural “ancestral” food in its original state and not a processed food.

In fact, most of the health benefits of olive oil are because it retains and even concentrates all of the natural vitamins, antioxidants and phytochemicals of the olives that were pressed to make it.

This is far different than with refining other oils, which removes any possible benefits of the plants that were processed and potentially introduces dangerous chemicals into one’s food, though the plants themselves are also not as healthy as olives in the first place.

Some oils, like canola (rapeseed) and cottonseed oil, actually come from plants that are toxic themselves and must be refined before being consumed!

Here’s a summary of how EVOO is extracted:

  1. The olives used must be “first-press” olives, never olives that have already been used (“spent”) to make olive oil before (second-press).
  2. The olives must be crushed and pressed manually or mechanically to extract the oil.
  3. No chemical solvents or extra heat can be used to increase the oil yield.
  4. The heat must remain below to not begin to degrade.

Olive Oil Standards and Regulations

In addition to the extraction process, there are several other requirements necessary for an olive oil to be considered “extra virgin.”

These requirements are set by official national and international organizations, like the International Olive Council (IOC), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the California Olive Oil Council. These “standards” are primarily concerned with the chemical and physical (qualitative) attributes of the oils, so that they can be properly graded and labeled.

Unfortunately, these organizations are not able to test all of the oils on the market, but rather they do random “batch-testing,” so many oils that do not meet the standards may bypass the regulators.

In fact, in a study done by the University of California Irvine Olive Center, 69% of the imported olive oils that they tested from US store shelves did not meet the standards. We discuss this in more detail here.

Here’s a summary of the USDA standards necessary to be graded EVOO:

  • Physical attributes: “has excellent flavor and odor (median of defects equal to zero and median of fruitiness greater than zero)” -- compared to a “ reasonably good flavor and odor (median of defects between zero and 2.5 and median of fruitiness greater than zero)” for virgin olive oil.
  • Chemical attributes: “a free fatty acid content, expressed as oleic acid, of not more than 0.8 grams per 100 grams, and meets the additional requirements as outlined in §52.1539, as appropriate” -- compared to “a free fatty acid content, expressed as oleic acid, of not more than 2.0 grams per 100 grams...” for virgin olive oil.
  • The additional requirements have to do with oxidation, balance of phytochemicals, etc. and are largely the same, though the allowed range is quite large. Testing has shown that quality EVOOs tend to have higher amounts of these beneficial phytochemicals and lower amounts of less-wanted attributes, as we mentioned when discussing cooking with EVOO in 5 Important Facts You Should Know About Olive Oil.

    To clarify the physical attributes a bit more:

    1. “Excellent” vs “good” flavor:
    1. Excellent flavor means that the EVOO has “positive flavor attributes, such as, but not limited to olive, apple, green, sweet, grass, nutty, tomato and no negative flavor attributes.”
    2. Good Flavor means that the virgin oil has: “ some or no positive flavor attributes and some barely perceptible negative flavor attributes.
    1. Olive Oil Defects (not allowed in EVOO):
    1. “Fusty”
    2. “Muddy-sediment”
    3. “Musty”
    4. “Rancid”
    5. “Winey-vinegary”

    Olive Oil Grades -- from “Extra Virgin” to “Unsuitable for Human Consumption”

    The USDA categorizes Olive Oil into 8 different grades within 2 general categories, based on how the olives are processed, the physical and chemical attributes of the oils, and the qualitative profiles of the oils (flavor, smell, color, etc.), as mentioned above.

    1. Olive Oil
    2. U.S. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
    3. U.S. Virgin Olive Oil
    4. U.S. Virgin Olive Oil Not Fit For Human Consumption Without Further Processing (Lampante Oil)
    5. U.S. Olive Oil (which is a blend of refined and virgin olive oils)
    6. U.S. Refined Olive Oil (“light olive oil”)
    7. Olive-Pomace Oil (pomace is the oil chemically extracted from the spent olives)
    8. U.S. Olive-Pomace Oil
    9. U.S. Refined Olive-Pomace Oil
    10. U.S. Crude Olive-Pomace Oil

    The most common olive oils found in the United States are: Extra Virgin Olive Oil, “olive oil”, “refined olive oil” and various pomace oils, though the majority is graded “extra virgin.”

    Unfortunately, as discussed above, the labels are not always accurate.

    The great thing is that now with your knowledge of the standards, you could try “taste-testing” the EVOO in your pantry to see if it fits the descriptions given above or if it seems to have any defects!

    Remember, if it is not flavorful and “fruity” or if it tastes “off,” for any reason, it may not be real EVOO.

    Why EVOO?

    So, what’s wrong with consuming other types of olive oils?

    While refined olive oils probably won’t get you sick, they are not very healthy to consume either, since they are usually heat and chemical treated and are mostly the “waste-products” of EVOO production.

    These manufacturing processes destroy most of the beneficial phytochemicals and vitamins responsible for the amazing health benefits of EVOO, so unless you must cook at extremely high temperatures, there usually isn’t much of a need to save a few bucks on a refined oil.

    Not to mention, quality EVOO is much more delicious anyway!

    FAQ on Olive Oil Standards

    What does it mean when an oil does not meet EVOO standards?

    What this means is that the these tested olive oils did not meet the regulating body’s standards to be labelled “extra virgin,” which can be due to not meeting either chemical composition standards or physical standards.

    How does that happen?

    Unfortunately, like with other foods, most olive oil on the market is not consistently tested by the USDA or other regulating bodies, so we are at the mercy of the producers, middle men and distributors.

    There are a few different reasons why olive oils wouldn’t meet the standards:

    1- It is adulterated with another type of oil, either lower quality olive oils or other vegetable oils.

    2- It is made from olives that are not freshly harvested or contain mediocre olives.

    3- The oil is not fresh and/or has oxidized due to air exposure.

    4- The manufacturing process used too much heat or chemical solvents.

    While most of the time these oils are technically safe to consume, they will not provide the desired taste or health benefits of real extra virgin olive oil.

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