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Monday, February 6, 2012

Tom Mueller: Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil

Extra Virginity: The Splendid Table podcast (audio, only the first 10 min part of this podcast episode).
Journalist, blogger and the author of Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil Tom Mueller explains why many olive oils labeled as "extra virgin, first cold pressed, made in Italy" are in fact not virgin, most certainly not pressed, and not Italian. The good news is that great extra virgin olive oil is commonly available and often not expensive. Find out how to find it on this great podcast.
First, a few definitions that will help clarify the sometimes confusing labels (see more here):
  • Virgin olive oil is  the oil extracted from olives without heat or chemicals. 
  • Extra virgin olive oil is the highest grade virgin olive oil. However, according to the current rather loose regulations, it is legally okay to some companies mix it with inferior oils extracted with chemicals, and still keep the extra virgin label, despite the fact that it is illegal. [corrected 2/7/2012, thanks to Tom Mueller's comment below]
  • Cold pressed olive oil is olive oil extracted at temperatures below 90 degrees F (27 degrees C) using either a press (which is rare nowadays), or a centrifuge (which is much more common, hence the "pressed" label is actually deceptive).
  • First cold pressed olive oil is cold pressed olive oil that was extracted by pressing it only once. Since the oil is never pressed twice, the label "first pressed" is meaningless.
  • Italian olive oil - olive oil that has been kept in Italy for a certain minimum period of time. It may have been made it Italy, but it often had been made elsewhere. As a result of lax regulations, 4 out of 10 bottles that say "Italian olive oil" contain oil not actually made in Italy.
  • Pure olive oil and light olive oil - chemically refined olive oils, suitable for very high temperature cooking.
Note that olives are stone fruits, like plums or cherries. Extra virgin olive oil is essentially freshly squeezed fruit juice made of olives. The correct method of making extra virgin olive oil is hard, and many producers circumvent it by collecting rotting olives from the ground, rather than fresh ones from the trees, then deodorize the oil with solvents, and blend it with small amounts of real extra virgin oil to give it some "kick". Amazingly enough, under the current laws, this mixture can still be called extra virgin olive oil.

Tom Mueller suggests to buy quality extra virgin olive oil using several simple rules:
  • Buy extra virgin olive oil to even stay in the game of finding great olive oil.
  • Check the date harvested on the bottle. Buy oil from this year's harvest. If the date is stated as "best by", be aware that it is most often 2 years from the date the oil was bottled.
  • Buy from a specialty store, where you have a chance to taste the oil.
  • Some great, commonly available, not too expensive oils include Corto Olive (Costco) and California Oil Ranch. See also a list on Tom's blog. 
  • Great oil produced using modern mechanized methods does not have to be expensive. But note that truly bargain prices (under US $10 per liter) usually indicate poor quality.
  • Don't pay attention to the color of the oil. Great oil can be green, gold or pale straw. Note that producers of poor quality oil often color the oil with chlorophyll to give it a "better" appearance.
  • Avoid oils whose precise place of production (a specific mill) is not stated.
  • Look for Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) or Protected Geographical Indication (PGA) certification.

The World Of Olive Oil | On Point with Tom Ashbrook (audio, 47 min)
Losing 'Virginity': Olive Oil's 'Scandalous' Fraud (NPR: Fresh Air) (audio, 20 min)


  1. Hey Timur,
    Many thanks for discussing my book, and raising awareness re/ olive oil! Just one correction re/ the extra virgin grade: it is definitely *not* "legally okay to mix it [ie olive oil] with inferior oils extracted with chemicals, and still keep the extra virgin label." Some companies do it, but it's illegal! Extra virgin olive oil is, by law, 100% fresh-squeezed olive juice.
    All my best,
    Tom Mueller

    1. Hi Tom,
      Thank you for this important correction! I fixed it in the post.
      And thank you very much for your great investigative reporting, and for making it accessible to wide audiences with the book, the articles, the blog, and the podcasts. It has been eye opening for me.
      Best wishes,