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Pricey, Extra Virgin Olive Oils Fail UC Davis Tests

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That pricey olive oil you just purchased because it was labeled “extra virgin” may not be that at all, according to researchers at UC Davis. The research team found that 69 percent of the imported extra virgin olive oils they sampled and 10 percent of the California-produced oils sampled failed to meet internationally accepted standards for extra virgin olive oil.

For some time now, many have suspected that much of the extra virgin olive oil marketed in the US was anything but that. The UC Davis study, the first of its kind by an American academic institution, provides the first empirical proof of this deception.

This type of mislabeling could be costing consumers a bundle, as olive oil labeled extra virgin is considered a premium product. According to a report in The Los Angeles Times, in one California grocery store, a 750-milliliter bottle of Bertolli’s extra-virgin olive oil cost $14.29, while the same-size bottle of Bertolli’s extra-light olive oil cost $7.99. Overall, US consumers spend $700 million a year on olive oil labeled extra virgin.

While federal law bars a company from not disclosing on the label that it is selling a blend of oils, the Los Angeles Times said it is technically legal for companies to mark lower-quality olive oil as top-end. There are no federal rules that define what “virgin” or “extra-virgin” olive oil. New USDA standards, which are set to go into effect in October, are only voluntary.

Extra virgin is the highest grade of olive oil, according to standards set by the USDA and the International Olive Council, an international, intergovernmental organization that deals with issues involving olives and olive oil.

To bear the label “extra virgin”, olive oil has to be cold-processed to prevent degradation of aromatic compounds and has higher levels of healthful fats and antioxidants. It also has relatively low acidity levels — 0.8 grams per 100 grams or less.

Extra virgin olive oil can be adulterated by mixing it with cheaper refined oils such as hazelnut oil or with a cheaper refined olive oil, making the adulteration more difficult to chemically detect.

To conduct their study, researches at UC Davis purchased 14 imported brands and five California-produced brands of olive oil that were being sold as extra virgin at retail stores in California. These included brands such as Bertolli, Pompeian, Carapelli, Mezzetta, and Mazola and others.

Three bottles of each imported brand and two bottles of each California brand were sent to the Australian Oils Research Laboratory in New South Wales, where the oils were put through sensory and chemical tests specified by the international Olive Council and also were analyzed using methods adopted in Germany and Australia. Chemical analyses also were conducted at the UC Davis Olive Oil Chemistry Laboratory, in most cases using bottles with the same lot numbers as those tested in Australia

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