What Makes Extra Virgin Olive Oil Extra Virgin
Extra virgin olive oil is extra virgin because it's exclusively produced with freshly milled olives that are free and the product meets required sensory and chemical parameters.
In this article we dive deeper into the criteria of producing a high quality extra virgin olive oil. In addition, we share some things to look out for as a consumer.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil Criteria
These are the criteria extra virgin olive oil must be in order to be considered extra virgin (IOC):
- The olives must be freshly harvested from the tree.
- Extra virgin olive oil only comes from the first milling of the olive fruit.
- The product can only be produced through mechanical means and with limited heat.
- Extra virgin olive oil must have a free fatty acid of level below 0.8%.
- The product must have a peroxide level below 20.
- Extra virgin olive oil must be free of sensory defects.
There are other parameters extra virgin olive oil must meet in order to be considered extra virgin. However, these are the most important metrics and easiest for consumers to understand.
Olives Must Be Picked From The Tree
The olives used to produce extra virgin olive oil must be picked from the tree. This means olives that have fallen naturally onto the ground cannot be used. Picking the olives from the tree ensures that the olives are fresh and at their healthiest.
Olives picked from the ground are considered contaminated and will likely increase the acidity level of the olive oil.
After the olives have been freshly-picked from the tree they should be milled as quickly as possible. The IOC does not provide exact time frames for how quickly the olives should be milled.
The time between harvest and milling is a topic of great debate in the industry. Some producers believe milling within 36, 24, or 12 hours is acceptable. We believe milling within 8 hours is best. Milling within a shorter time frame creates an incredible oil, however, it is more challenging.
An experienced mill operator should be running the machines and continuously checking the temperature of the mill and the amount of time the paste spends in the crusher. Each producer has their own method (re: secrets) for how they want their olives to be milled. It is the responsibility of the producer to communicate this clearly with the mill operator.
Free Fatty Acid (Oleic Acid)
According to the International Olive Council, an extra virgin olive oil must have free fatty acid below 0.8 grams per 100 grams, or 0.8% . The free fatty acid is a clear indication of the health of the olive tree and the olive fruit.
The FFA is very important to farmers and producers because it provides information about the health of the olive tree and fruit. It can indicate that a tree is sick or lacks soil nutrients.
The free fatty acid can even be an indicator of bad weather and bugs. For example, olives that were heavily affected by certain types of insects may have a higher FFA.
However, poor harvesting and milling methods can also affect the free fatty acid. For example, olives that sit in a bin for too long before milling can potentially increase in acidity.
A high acidity level is not an indication of whether an EVOO tastes good or bad. In fact, you cannot taste if an EVOO has high acidity. It’s used to ensure the olives and the tree were in good health.
The peroxide level is an indication of the degradation and aging of the extra virgin olive oil as well as its tendency to become rancid. When EVOO comes in contact with air it oxidizes. During production, storage, and bottling it’s best to limit the amount of time the oil comes into contact with air. A high peroxide level means an olive oil has a shorter shelf life. This is also why it’s best to consume a bottle of open oil sooner rather than later.
The IOC states that an extra virgin olive oil must have a peroxide level below 20. Read more about peroxide levels and their importance here.
For the organoleptic test, the oil(s) are presented to a tasting panel that will taste and judge the oil's sensory profiles. Some sensory defects may appear. Defects are usually related to improper storage of the olives and/or oil, problems at the mill, and/or health of the olives before milling. Poor performance during organoleptic tests, regardless of good lab results, can end in olive oil not being considered extra virgin.
There are other parameters olive oil must meet in order to be considered extra virgin, you can read about them here.
Chemical Correction and the Damage it’s Causing in the Industry
Chemical correction within the olive oil industry is a nasty bit of business. This process is used when a ‘producer’ blends an olive oil with another oil (i.e. sunflower oil) and chemically corrects the final product to make it look and taste like olive oil. The olive oil industry is coming down on companies that use these dirty tactics.
Blending Old and New Oils
This is a tactic used to make the product stretch longer. There is nothing wrong with blending new and oils, the issue lies in providing transparency for the customer. This is why it’s always important to look for a harvest date.
Olive Oil Councils Explained
There are several different olive oil councils around the globe and the definition of extra virgin olive oil may change depending on where one is producing their oil and whose standards they follow. For example, the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) in Berkeley, CA states that an EVOO must have an acidity below 0.5%. The International Olive Council in Madrid, Spain states that an extra virgin olive oil must have an acidity level below 0.8%. The North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) also has its own set of standards.
To everyday consumers the differences in standards are arbitrary. However, for olive oil producers, the differences in standards can heavily impact whether or not their product is considered extra virgin.
At EXAU, our products are 100% produced in Calabria, Italy. Therefore, we follow the International Olive Council’s standards. We do stay up to date on the standards other councils implement to gain an understanding of the industry globally.
The International Olive Council (IOC)
The International Olive Council was founded in Madrid, Spain in 1959. The founding members were Belgium, France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom. The most important work the IOC does is provide the industry with a set of standards, methods, and guides for extra virgin olive oil, virgin olive oil, and olive oil. By providing these guides it allows different countries to adhere to similar standards and improve upon them as they see fit.
All of the IOC standards and guides are accessible to the public, free, and available in multiple languages.
The FDA does not regulate the differences between extra virgin, virgin, and ordinary olive oils. However, the FDA does regulate all imported foods, including olive oil. But, since they do not monitor the differences between the kinds of oil the boundaries of this industry are quite blurry. It makes it very easy to share misinformation.
The olive oil industry is essentially self-regulated which provides much freedom, however, also makes it challenging to navigate as a consumer (and brand).
Extra Virgin Olive Oil in Conclusion
EVOO is a simple food, however, producing it is wildly complex. Creating incredible olive oil is done by focusing on the details.
*This post follows the IOC standards for Extra Virgin Olive Oil*
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