What Is Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is oil extracted from the first milling of the olive fruit through mechanical means, with limited heat, and by separating olive oil from vegetable water. According to the International Olive Council (IOC), extra virgin olive oil must have an acidity level below 0.8% and peroxide level below 20.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil Criteria
In order for an oil to qualify as extra virgin, it must meet certain requirements and standards. This includes but is not limited to maximum acidity levels, maximum peroxide levels, organoleptic testing, and excellent harvesting and milling practices. For example, extra virgin olive oil is only made from fresh olives picked from the tree. Let's take a closer look.
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.
Acidity (Oleic Acid)
According to the International Olive Council, an extra virgin olive oil must have an acidity below 0.8 grams per 100 grams, or 0.8% . The acidity is a clear indication of the health of the olive tree and the olive fruit.
The acidity of EVOO is a parameter that’s very important to the farmer and producer. It provides information about the health of the olive tree and how it was affected by natural elements which include but are not limited to sickness, soil nutrient deficiency, bad weather, and bugs. For example, olives that were heavily affected by certain types of insects may have a higher acidity.
However, poor harvesting and milling methods can also affect acidity levels. For example, olives that sit in a bin for too long before milling can potentially increase 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.
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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