How To Tell If Your Olive Oil Is Real

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Olive oil is a big part of my diet. However, until I visited the Olive Oil Museum on Brač Island, Croatia, this past summer, I never gave much thought to whether or not my olive oil was real. I mean, why would anyone make fake olive oil? For reasons that range from poor olive harvests to plain old greed, fraudulent olive oil is apparently big business. In fact, it turns out that not all products labeled olive oil are actually olive oil. What's more, not all olive oil is fresh. This means you might be paying for a phony or spoiled product.

"Olive oil is often substituted with a lower cost alternative, whether it is regular olive oil instead of higher priced extra virgin olive oil or a less expensive variety from Greece or Turkey, instead of from Italy as the label claims," a 2014 Congressional Research Paper by Renée Johnson, a specialist in agricultural policy, reported.

"In some cases an alternate seed or nut oil may be sold as or thinned out with hazelnut, soybean, corn, peanut, sunflower, safflower, walnut, vegetable, canola, or palm oil, and in one case, lard. Some combinations contained no olive oil," the report stated. "The use of nut or legume oils could pose a problem for those with certain food allergies. In rare cases, non-food-grade oil may be added."

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Even if your olive oil isn't fraudulent, some of the real olive oil you're eating may be rancid even though the bottle says it's still good to consume. This is what prompted Aishwarya Iyer to attend the UC Davis Olive Center to learn more about olive oil. She and her husband were both experiencing persistent stomach aches, which led them to pay more attention to what they were eating. They eventually identified rancid olive oil as the culprit.

"I cut out bread and cheese, then I cut out spices and I was trying to figure it out. The only constant I was left with was the olive oil. So then I started researching and I was like blown away by it," Iyer, who left a marketing career in New York City to start California-based olive oil producer Brightland, tells Bustle. She says there are a few hard-and-fast rules for determining if your olive oil is rancid, an imposter, or the real delicious deal.

Know Olive Oil's Enemies

When I visited the Olive Oil Museum, I learned that there are three basic things that can ruin your olive oil: light, heat, and air, Iyer confirms.

According to a 2018 study published in the journal Heliyon, exposure to light, heat, and air is largely responsible for deterioration of olive oil quality. This is why the way olive oil is packaged is extremely important, especially for extra-virgin olive oil. Because of this you should choose an olive oil that's in a dark or UV-protectant coated bottle, and store it in a cool, dry, dark place.

Perform A Taste Test

Taste is another way to determine if your olive oil is fresh and real. If you've never tasted olive oil from a glass, it's a great way to learn how your olive oil should taste. "I highly recommend pouring some oil and sipping it, just the way you would whiskey or even wine," Iyer says. She explains that when you pour it directly into a pan or onto a salad, you're masking the taste of the oil, making it more difficult to taste properly.

"When you actually taste it straight, you want it to taste alive, you want it to taste grassy, green, or fruity. It'll have fresh characteristics," she says. Iyer adds that even though it's an oil, it shouldn't leave your tongue or mouth feeling greasy.

If your olive oil is rancid, or not 100% olive oil, it will have different flavors that you'll notice right away. "It can taste plastic-y, it can taste like Play-Doh, it can taste moldy. If the olives were frozen it can taste like wet wood, but the most common is old and stale," she says. "Kind of like stale walnuts or wax crayons and plastic."

A 2004 paper from Consumer Reports noted that olive oil can taste off for a variety of reasons. Olive oil that tastes muddy or "horsey" may have been stored in tanks that also hold sediment, which can result in olive oil that taste like manure. Musty tasting olive oil occurs when olives are stored in highly humid conditions for several days before they're pressed. And olive oil that's been improperly stored or on shelves too long will taste old and stale.

Know Where Your Olive Oil Comes From

After I learned that I may have been buying the wrong olive oil my entire life, I asked the curators at the museum how I can be sure going forward that my olive oil is real. They said to opt for olive oils that have been taste tested and recommended by experts. New York Magazine reported that Richard Bea, an executive chef, suggested looking for certifications from the North American Olive Oil Association or the International Olive Council.

What's more, a legit bottle of olive oil will have the harvest date in addition to the sell-by or expiration date. You'll also want to learn about your olive oil's journey from tree to your table. For example, where do the olives come from? Are they handpicked? How much time passes between picking and production? Iyer says these are important things to consider.

"We work with a single organic farm in the central coast of California. They have a mill on site, the olives are handpicked, and they're sent to the mill within an hour of being picked," Iyer says of Brightland. The olive oil is then stored in airtight, temperature-controlled bins before its bottled.

If you do your due diligence, you can get quality olive oil sourced from anywhere. Most olive oil fraud has occurred in Europe, according to Forbes, but if you're at all unsure about the tin at your supermarket, stick with a local brand.

Check The Harvest Date

Another way to ensure you're buying quality olive oil is by checking the harvest date, Iyer says. Olive oil is typically fresh for 18 months, according to the California Olive Oil Council, which is why the harvest date is important.

"The harvest date tells you when the olives were harvested. That way then you can count up 18 months," Iyer explains. "If you only see the 'best by' date, you have no idea when it was actually made." Bottles that display a "best by" date but not a harvest date may contain oil that's years old, she adds.

The report by Johnson noted that most food fraud does not pose a risk to public health. And while rancid olive oil isn't dangerous, it doesn't taste good and can potentially make you feel crappy. If you want to know exactly what you're putting in your body, a little research can ensure you're choosing foods made honestly with quality ingredients.