What is Fake Olive Oil?
Fake olive oil is oil that does not meet both the chemical and organoleptic (sensory) requirements for the quality of oil the product claims to be.
An oil labeled as extra virgin must have a free fatty acid (FFA) below 0.8%, a peroxide level below 20, and be free of sensory defects. If the lab results and organoleptic profile indicate otherwise that product is fake and mislabeled.
Folks sometimes confuse the words adultered and fake. An adultered product would mean that there's a different type of oil, say macadamia or sun flower, was blended into the product. While a fake product can simply be mislabeled. This difference is very important in our industry.
How to Tell if Olive Oil is Fake
The only way to know if an oil is fake is to send it for lab testing and sensory panel tasting.
Brands and producers are responsible for ensuring their products are of high quality and labeled properly. It's not the responsibility of consumers to verify whether a product is real or fake.
However, you can do a sensory tasting a home to the best of your abilities. While this might not be an official paneling it is really fun and is a great party trick. Set out a few clean cups, fill each one with 1 tbsp of oil then cover each cup with a plate.
Lift the first cup and heat the bottom with your hand, then lift the plate and take a deep smell, then take a small sip and swallow. The product should be reminiscent of foods, spices, or florals that you're familiar with and that smell good.
Don't limit yourself to broad terms like grassy, instead think of specific greens like arugula, lettuce, or chicory. The same goes for spices, don't limit yourself to pepper try for black, green pepper, white, or red pepper.
If you do this with a few different quality products you'll begin to train your palate what to look for and get better with time. This exercise will also help you better understand oil and food pairings.
If you're interested in hosting a tasting learn more here.
What Doesn't Work
You may have heard that sticking the bottle in the freezer and seeing if it freezes is an indication of whether a product is real or fake.
This rumor was perpetuated across social media is not true. This is one of the dangers of taking advice from sources that are not fully educated on the product.
Unfortunately, there are no quick tricks that you can try at home to tell whether or not an oil is genuine.
What Does Fake Olive Oil Taste Like?
Fake oil usually has undesirable qualities which include but are not limited to cheesy, fusty, musty, muddy, winey, rancid, or oxidized. Many have also described it as smelling or tasting like plastic, wax, flat, or crayons.
In general, it's often reminiscent of something(s) that you might be familiar with but wouldn't want to eat or that don't taste very good.
Related: How to Do an OO Tasting
How to Avoid Fake Olive Oil
The best way to avoid fake olive oil is to purchase from small reputable brands that produce their own products, like EXAU. Smaller companies often own their own trees and work directly with a growing partner to source high-quality fruit each harvest.
For example, our family has been growing olives for almost 100 years, therefore, we own our own groves.
In addition, small producers often have an interesting selection of cultivar(s). They usually stay away from high density farming which isn't sustainable for family managed estates. If you can, develop a relationship with small producer(s) or follow them on social media to stay up to date on their work.
In addition, train your palate what to look for. You can do this by regularly doing or hosting tastings at your home. By trying a variety of different oils with different price points and from different countries, you will see the difference in quality.
Really great olives are not limited to a geographic region! There are incredible producers on almost every continent and the olive tree grows in over 50 countries including the Spain, Italy, Greece, Australia, China, the United States, Morocco, Tunisia, Chile, Brazil, and Argentina. Therefore, there's a huge selection of excellent EVOO to choose from.
Related: A Guide to Italian EVOO
70% Of The Olive Oil In The U.S. Is Fake
You may have heard that '70% of the olive oil in the U.S. is fake'. However, this statement is false and has been debunked multiple times over the past 15 years.
The olive fruit, and its by products, is one of the most intensely studied foods in the world. Between 1991 and 2018 alone there have been 732 studies shared in 178 publications discussing the fruit (source). And currently, researchers are studying the ways in which EVOO can prevent alzheimers (source)!
The UC Davis Study
In 2010 UC Davis published an article titled Most imported olive oils don’t match ‘extra virgin’ claims, study finds. It states, "The research team found that 69 percent of the imported oils sampled, compared with just 10 percent of the California-produced oils sampled, failed to meet internationally accepted standards for extra virgin olive oil" (UC Davis).
This article shook the industry to its core and sent consumers into a frenzy. It was also the point of origin of the infamous hookline.
UC Davis then published another article titled Imported olive oil quality unreliable, study finds in 2011. The article states "...the research team examined 134 samples of eight high-volume brands of olive oil, purchased in major supermarkets throughout California" (UC Davis).
The articles spread across social media like wildfire and it got ugly. There were class action lawsuits and trade commission hearings. Consumers in the U.S., both businesses and individuals, believed they had been cheated, and rightly so. The information within the study clearly indicated that imported brands were producing fake olive oil (OO).
Fake Olive Oil Explained
Unfortunately, there were issues with the UC Davis studies. First, they only sampled products from the state of California.
The article states, "The intent of the study was to provide consumers and retailers with an accurate picture of the quality of olive oils now being marketed through grocery stores and other retail outlets in California" (UC Davis). Therefore, this was not a comprehensive study of the U.S. import market as a whole, but rather the state of California.
Second, and mostly importantly, the study could not be replicated. In order for a study or experiment to be considered conclusive and factual outside parties must be able to replicate it.
To this day nobody has been able to replicate the study and get similar results. In addition, the study was not peer reviewed. It was also not performed over a very long period of time.
Third, the study was industry funded. At the bottom of the articles it list the parties that paid for the study. They're companies that have major interests in the California olive oil industry.
Good, reliable studies must include neutral sources of funding. And if the organization performing the study is not going to include neutral sources they should at the very least allow the study to be peer reviewed before publishing it.
Lastly, the UC Davis study was debunked by the FDA. This is interesting because the FDA does not regulate the different types of olive oils. However, when industry issues such arise they may insert themselves to ease the concerns of the public.
The FDA performed a peer reviewed study. The study states that there's "...a low occurrence rate of adulteration (<5 %), based on purity criteria for desmethylsterols and triterpene dialcohols, was detected for the 88 products labeled as EVOO" (FDA).
The Impact On The Public And The Industry
Almost 15 years later both the industry and the public are still haunted by the UC Davis study. The New York Times shared an illustration indicating that the U.S. is full of fake products. The NYT also shared an interactive titled Food Chains Extra Virgin Suicide. The name speaks for itself. The New York times late made corrections to the original publication but the damage was done.
Many domestic brands saw this as a huge marketing opportunity, a way to dig at imported products. The line '70% of olive oil in the U.S. is fake' is still shamelessly used by brands as a fear-mongering marketing tactic.
Many consumers look for ways to prove their product real. For example, putting it in the fridge and seeing if it freezes. The only thing that does is ruin the product and wastes your money.
This entire situation is incredibly sad. Consumers should not fear fraud when exploring the cooking fat section of the grocery store. Shopping for the product should be a pleasant experience.
Grab your bottle of premium EVOO made in Calabria, Italy today!
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