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Off the Eaten Path: Not all olive oils are created equal

Extra virgin olive oil is the healthiest of them all, but accounts for less than 10 per cent of olive oil production

Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). What exactly is it? Why should I use it in my food preparation? How do I choose a good one? Is a fake EVOO bad for you? 

These are all questions I have addressed countless times since I started teaching about Italian food culture in 2011. It was coincidentally in 2011 that American author Tom Mueller released his book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.

This book and the subsequent media coverage invoked doubt amongst foodies worldwide and turned the olive oil industry on its head. 

First of all, what is olive oil? Olive oil is a liquid, healthy fat, extracted from olives. Once extracted, based on a scientific analysis, it is categorized into extra virgin olive oil, virgin olive oil, olive oil and other categories, from the best quality to least quality. 

Extra virgin olive oil is the healthiest of the bunch. EVOO only makes up less than 10 per cent of the oil production in olive oil producing countries. It contains monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and it remains liquid at room temperature unlike harmful fats such as trans fats. It contains the most polyphenols which act as an antioxidant, it can aid in the reduction of bad cholesterol and have anti-inflammatory properties. It can also increase the absorption of vitamins A,D and E, along with countless other health benefits.

It is no wonder EVOO plays a huge part of the Mediterranean diet; one of the healthiest diets on the planet.  

Now let’s get more specific. 

Extra virgin olive oil must, first and foremost, contain nothing but the extracted oil from olives. This means no other oils, herb or fruit flavourings. 

EVOO must not contain more than 0.8 per cent oleic acid (0.8 gm per 100 gm of oil).  A real EVOO will have had this chemical analysis done when produced and therefore any EVOO producer must have this information, it is the proof of the authenticity. Unfortunately it is not included on the bottle as it may change from one harvest to the next. It is extremely important as a consumer to buy only from a trusted retailer. 

Considering the small yield of EVOO you can expect to pay more compared to virgin olive oil or an olive oil blend. Personally, I will use a virgin olive oil (over .8 per cent oleic acid up to two per cent, with a slightly higher smoke point of 420 degrees Fahrenheit) for my day-to-day cooking as it is much more economical. Then, I will use EVOO for drizzling on the same finished dishes, and in salads and other dishes that are not heated.

Consuming EVOO raw ensures the most health benefits as heat will diminish them. Some individuals will even take it from a spoon daily.

The flavour of EVOO can vary widely depending on the variety of olives, the country of origin and even the crop that year. I highly recommend you taste an EVOO before purchasing, as taste is a personal thing. Any reputable olive oil retailer will offer a taste first. 

It can vary from light and delicate to robust, pronounced, strong and peppery. That burn you feel at the back of your throat when you taste real EVOO, it means it has plenty of antioxidants.

What to look for when choosing an EVOO:

  • light and oxygen are the enemy of EVOO, choose a dark, glass bottle (store it in a cool dark place)
  • look for a best before date, usually 18-24 months from harvest
  • look for an estate or family name as well as an oil name
  • classification; extra virgin, virgin, etc.
  • country and region produced
  • cold extracted (cold pressed is an outdated term)
  • olive variety(ies)
  •  it should taste fruity, bitter and peppery, not oily on your tongue
  •  the lower the oleic acid, the higher the quality and price usually
  • an award-winner is a bonus, at a minimum it will be a true EVOO

What is a fake EVOO? 

It is more likely in a big grocery store that the shelves will be mixed with real EVOO and fake EVOO. This just simply means it does not meet the definition of a real EVOO. The acid could be above 0.8 per cent or it could be mixed with other oils, colouring or chemicals. It will do you no harm but you may have paid more than you should. You may also think you are getting all the wonderful health benefits when in fact you are not.

Ultimately, the consumer should know exactly what they are buying and if a product claims to be EVOO, it should be. 


I took a tour of the EVOO aisle at Market Fresh with Grant Reid, grocery manager, to see what this downtown retailer offered. Market Fresh carries a vast variety of EVOO from Italy, Spain, Greece and other countries. They offer a number of extra virgin olive oils that have won prestigious awards as well as organic varieties. They also carry a virgin olive oil which is a great choice for cooking. Most are produced and bottled in the country of origin, at time of pressing. Tastings were suspended in the store due to COVID-19 but will be available again shortly. 

A few blocks away, I visited The Olive Experience, Guelph’s only stand alone olive oil and balsamic store. I must admit this concept is quite new to me and Rick Zuccato, who co-owns the store with his wife Claire, enlightened me. 

Each of these stores is independently owned and operated. Veronica Foods opened the first in 2006 in the USA and now they supply their independent retailers with EVOO and vinegars from all over the world. 

The EVOO and balsamic are shipped to the stores and then are poured into the stainless steel fusti when they arrive at the store. The consumer chooses the variety and size of bottle and the store clerk fills the bottle for purchase on site. Any one of the oils or vinegars are available for tasting. All the details of the products are clearly listed on the outside of the fusti.  As this is a speciality store, the staff can answer all your questions.