|Americans spend more than $700 million a year on olive oil,
but most of that may be money down the drain because of a
big-time olive oil scam.As much as two thirds of the high quality olive oil we buy —
and maybe even more — is not what it says on the bottle.We’re being duped into paying premium prices for a poor
quality product that may contain little or no olive oil at
all.And even if it does, it likely won’t be of the quality you
think you’re paying for.A book published late last year lifted the lid on the great
olive oil scam but it’s been known for years that, knowingly
or unknowingly, the people who sell the stuff to us may be
offering a phony product.
For example, a report produced in 2010 by UC-Davis found that
more than two thirds of common brands of extra virgin olive
oil being sold in California were nothing of the sort.
Sellers of inaccurately labeled oil included one of the
biggest names in grocery retailing in the US, though there’s
no suggestion the store chain knew of the deception.
In fact, of the dozens of stores whose sales were analyzed,
only six were selling the genuine product.
There are actually hundreds of varieties of olives but only a
few main classifications for olive oil, including:
* Extra virgin, which is literally the “juice” of freshly
picked olives. It is produced by pressing or a low heat
process but, importantly, does not use chemicals of the type
employed in the refining of other oils.
* Virgin olive oil, produced the same way but comes from riper
olives or a second pressing, though it is still wholesome.
* Blends — sometimes referred to as “light” or “pure.” That
they may be, but they include “refined” olive oil, which
usually means some or all of it has been chemically processed.
* Poor quality oil, known as “lampante,” using the Italian
word for lamp oil — considered unfit for human consumption —
which may be derived from old, rancid olives, often ones that
have been lying on the ground for some time, and likely has
been chemically processed.
In fact, lampante often turns up in olive oil mixtures. But,
if the oil is phony, it’s just as likely to contain mainly a
cheap seed oil like sunflower oil.
Just last year, two Spanish businessmen were jailed for
selling supposed extra virgin olive oil that was, in fact, 75%
And in 2007, some 10,000 cases of labeled olive oil seized by
US law enforcement officers were found to contain only soy oil.
The popularity of olive oil is due to its supposed health
giving properties; it is, after all, the only oil produced in
any quantity from fruit rather than nuts or seeds.
And the reason for the olive oil scam is simple — money.
Growing, nurturing and harvesting quality olives is an
expensive business. So if you can pass off cheap substitutes
as the real thing you can make a lot of money.
This is the theme Tom Mueller picks up in his book “Extra
Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.”
He says that producers are being forced out of business
because of the olive oil scam, since they can’t compete with
the low prices of the phony product.
“The honest people are getting terribly undercut,” he said in
a recent NPR broadcast. “There’s a huge unfair advantage in
favor of the bad stuff. At the same time, consumers are being
defrauded of the health and culinary benefits of great olive
The crooks and even legitimate producers have many ways to
fool the public, apart from simply lying.
For example, labels might imply the oil was produced in Italy
when, in fact, it was only bottled there, having been produced
say in Africa or the Middle East — not that there’s anything
wrong with those sources, but implying the oil is from Italy
enables suppliers to charge a premium.
Sometimes, the real source may be declared, but buried in the
fine print on the label.
Furthermore, strict labeling requirements and quality checks
in Europe are driving the olive oil scam across the Atlantic
where disclosure rules are less stringent.
Bad or rancid olive oil does not have the antioxidant and
anti-inflammatory elements of olive oil, says Mueller, adding:
“What (good olive oil) gets you from a health perspective is a
cocktail of 200-plus 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.”
So, is there any way you can tell if you’re the victim of an
olive oil scam, or even whether you’re being intentionally or
unintentionally misled by the labeling on a bottle?
Well, first you can download that UC-Davis report, and learn
more about the content and flavors that contribute to the
olive quality – as well as seeing which stores were selling
Download it here:
Second, you can read the transcript of the NPR interview with
author Mueller here:
Here are 8 more tips culled from the book and other sources:
* Be suspicious of anything described as extra virgin that
costs less than $10 a liter. It likely isn’t the real thing
(although some prices come close).
* Look for the seal of the International Olive Council (IOC)
on the label (though, of course, crooks can forge this). Not
all products have the seal, but it’s a good sign if it’s
* Look for a harvesting date or description on the label,
rather the same as you find on wine labels. If there’s a date
and/or harvest description, it’s probably genuine (though,
again, this could be forged).
* Educate yourself more about olives at the ICO site:
* Understand that anything labeled as “light” or “pure” olive
oil likely has been processed and is not “virgin” quality.
* Opt for California-produced oil. It’s less likely to be part
of the olive oil scam than something from Italy or other
* If you’re able to smell the oil before you buy, do so. “It
should smell fresh and fruity, without any hint of mustiness,”
* Shop for oil in dark bottles. A lot of genuine extra virgin
oil (excluding the big grocery stores’ own brands) is bottled
this way to protect the oil from harmful sunlight.
We don’t want to suggest that products that fail to meet the
requirements we’ve listed are necessarily phony.
It’s just that, on balance, you’re more likely to get a
genuine product by following these guidelines, sidestepping
the possibility of an olive oil scam.
That’s all we have for today, but we’ll be back next week with
another issue. See you then!