Supermarket Extra-Virgin Olive Oils

Published July 1, 2008. From Cook's Illustrated.

Overview:

When you set out to buy superior extra-virgin olive oil at the supermarket, good luck. Rows of bottles fill the shelves, with even the most ordinary of grocery stores offering more than a dozen choices. It’s a booming business: The United States imported 261,000 metric tons of extra-virgin olive oil last year, up from 163,000 metric tons a decade ago. But given the cost—an average of $18.99 per liter for the oils in our lineup—should you just grab the cheapest or try for something better from a gourmet shop or online seller?

To find out if there were any extra-virgin olive oils truly worth bringing home from the supermarket, we chose 10 of the top-selling brands and conducted a blind tasting—first plain, and then warmed and tossed with pasta. (Because high heat destroys the distinctive, fruity taste of extra-virgin olive oil, we reserve it for mixing into pasta dishes and vinaigrettes or drizzling on grilled steak and vegetables; for cooking, we turn to cheaper, lower-grade olive oil.)

Here’s the not-so-great news: Our highest… read more

When you set out to buy superior extra-virgin olive oil at the supermarket, good luck. Rows of bottles fill the shelves, with even the most ordinary of grocery stores offering more than a dozen choices. It’s a booming business: The United States imported 261,000 metric tons of extra-virgin olive oil last year, up from 163,000 metric tons a decade ago. But given the cost—an average of $18.99 per liter for the oils in our lineup—should you just grab the cheapest or try for something better from a gourmet shop or online seller?

To find out if there were any extra-virgin olive oils truly worth bringing home from the supermarket, we chose 10 of the top-selling brands and conducted a blind tasting—first plain, and then warmed and tossed with pasta. (Because high heat destroys the distinctive, fruity taste of extra-virgin olive oil, we reserve it for mixing into pasta dishes and vinaigrettes or drizzling on grilled steak and vegetables; for cooking, we turn to cheaper, lower-grade olive oil.)

Here’s the not-so-great news: Our highest average scores barely reached 5 out of a possible 10 points. While a few supermarket oils passed muster, most ranged from plain Jane to distinctly unpleasant, even tasting a bit old, though all were purchased only a few days before we tasted them.

Top of the Line

Extra-virgin is the highest grade of olive oil. At its best, it’s simply fresh olive juice, extracted from any of hundreds of olive varieties that were picked at the grower’s desired level of ripeness and pressed as soon as possible. (In general, an earlier harvest yields greener, more peppery oil; oil from a later harvest is more golden and mild.) To be designated “extra-virgin,” the oil should meet certain standards set by the International Olive Council (IOC) in Madrid. It must be pressed—or, more commonly today, spun out using a centrifuge—without using heat or chemicals, which can extract more oil from the olives, but at the cost of flavor and quality. It must have less than 0.8 percent oleic acid, a measure of quality based on the level of free fatty acids, a product of deterioration. Finally, it can have absolutely no chemical or flavor defects, as determined by both laboratory tests and tasting experts. If an oil doesn’t make it as extra-virgin, it can be classified, in descending order, as virgin, pure, or lampante olive oil, the last of which is fit only for industrial use.

While these stringent olive oil standards sound good, it’s important to note: They don’t apply in the U.S. This country has never adopted the IOC standards, instead holding to unrelated grades of “fancy,” “choice,” “standard,” and “substandard.”

Mix and Match

By now it’s common knowledge that while the majority of mass-market olive oil manufacturers have Italian-sounding names, most do not sell Italian oils—Italy alone can’t supply enough olives to meet demand. Italian companies buy olive oil from all over the Mediterranean, including relatively cheap sources such as Turkey and Tunisia, then ship it in-country for bottling and sell it as a “product of Italy.” (All the brands we tasted, however, do specify the countries of origin on the label, a recent development.) At each company, experts blend these various oils to match the brand’s characteristic flavor profile.

After our tasting, we had to wonder if the majority of olive oil destined for the American market isn’t intentionally blended to be bland. (A number of experts we spoke to said yes, many European producers assume Americans want their olive oil to be as neutral as vegetable oil.) Worse, we wondered whether some of the oils that arrive here labeled “extra-virgin” are even extra-virgin at all.

Standard Oil

Having read reports of the fraudulent adulteration of mass-market olive oils with cheaper oils such as soybean or hazelnut, we sent our samples to an independent laboratory for analysis. All were confirmed to be made only from olives. But in the absence of any regulatory standards in the U.S., that’s all we were able to confirm. Companies importing olive oil are free to label their products “extra-virgin”—even if the same oils wouldn’t qualify for that appellation in Europe, as many impassioned olive oil advocates believe is the case. Nancy Loseke, editor of Fresh Press, a newsletter devoted to olive oil, put it bluntly: “Americans mostly shop the world’s olive oil dregs, the low-rung stuff.”

Organizations such as the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA), which represents the interest of olive-oil importers (including six out of the 10 we tasted), claim to provide oversight the government does not. According to president Bob Bauer, the NAOOA independently buys and tests the oils of member companies at a European laboratory with IOC certification, and he asserts that NAOOA members meet international standards. But in our own tasting, these assurances meant little. None of the top three oils in our lineup were members. Furthermore, the NAOOA currently performs a chemical analysis but does not test for flavor defects that are an equally important “sensory” part of the IOC standards.

And what about those flavor defects our tasters identified so readily? These included soapy, metallic, or chemical notes; dirty, rotten, or medicinal aspects; even “kitty litter” smells. According to Alexandra Devarenne, a California-based olive oil consultant trained in sensory evaluation of olive oil according to IOC standards, many of these flaws are due to delays between harvesting and pressing olives. In countries where abundant varieties of olives can’t be harvested quickly enough before they become overripe, fall off the trees, and begin to rot, such flavor defects are common. Poor sanitary conditions on the processing machinery may also contribute to off-flavors.

In addition, the oil can sometimes be a victim of poor storage. Olive oil has a shelf life of 12 to 18 months, but supermarkets frequently do not rotate their supply of olive oil accordingly. And while high-end oils usually indicate the harvest year, most mass-market brands do not, and lack sell-by dates on their labels; less than half our lineup had them. Oils that are beginning to break down have a “greasy” rather than rich texture—a flaw our tasters noted several times.

Pressing Choice

Despite all we didn’t like about most of the olive oils in our tasting, we did find two acceptable products. Perhaps not surprisingly, origin did make a difference—both are made from all-Italian olives (though a third, much cheaper, all-Italian oil did not fare well). Price stood out, too: Our top picks were the two most expensive oils. In fact, our favorite cost almost $40 per liter, nearly twice the average price of the rest of the lineup, and as much as many high-end olive oils from gourmet stores. This front-runner was Lucini Italia Premium Select Extra Virgin Olive Oil, made (according to the manufacturer) from olives grown on Italian estates, hand-picked, and pressed within 24 hours. It was closely followed by Colavita Extra Virgin Olive Oil, also described as being made exclusively from olives harvested and pressed in Italy.

But in the end, while these two oils stood out among the supermarket sampling, they were easily bested in a second blind tasting that included our favorite premium extra-virgin olive oil by Columela, which is made with a blend of Picual, Hojiblanca, Arbequina, and Ocal olives grown in Spain; tasters found it offered exceptionally fruity and well-balanced flavor. At about $38 per liter, Columela is actually cheaper than Lucini, our top supermarket brand. This raises the question: Is the supermarket the best place to buy your extra-virgin olive oil? Unfortunately, we’d have to say no.

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