Extra virgin olive oil reviews

Is what you buy the real deal?
 
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01 .Introduction

Olive oil

You can pay as much as $26 a litre for extra virgin olive oil in supermarkets, but price doesn’t always indicate quality; one of our What to Buy recommendations costs less than $12 per litre.

There’s currently no mandatory standard for extra virgin olive oil sold in Australia, so you have to trust that an oil labelled “extra virgin” is mechanically extracted from top-quality olives, isn’t adulterated or refined, and is stored and handled correctly so that it remains of the highest grade at the point of purchase. CHOICE testing of 28 brands of extra virgin olive oil, however, found this isn’t always the case.

Key findings

  • Nine of the top 10 brands in our taste test (see How we test) are Australian. Freshness is essential to the quality of extra virgin olive oils, so local oils have the edge over imported as they’re able to reach your supermarket shelf faster.
  • Half the oils on test – most of which are imported from Italy and Spain – don’t meet international standards for “extra virgin” (see Jargon Buster and the results table).

How we test

We test supermarket olive oils, all labelled “extra virgin”. We exclude flavoured oils and only include the most popular oil of each brand, according to its manufacturer/distributor.

  • Quality tests A single bottle of each oil is tested against the International Olive Council trade standard for olive oil, which defines “extra virgin” and sets criteria for purity and quality. Oils must meet both chemical and organoleptic (sensory) requirements in order to comply. The standard isn’t mandatory in Australia, but is one of the most widely recognised and accepted international guides to the essential elements of genuine extra virgin olive oil. Both chemical and organoleptic tests were conducted by the NSW Government Department of Industry & Investment’s IOC-accredited Olive Oil Testing Service at Wagga Wagga, NSW.
  • Show judging taste test Our expert tasters, all members of the IOC-accredited sensory panel, taste the same batch of each oil (without knowing brands) and agree on a score, following the Australian Olive Association’s 20-point sensory scoring system.

Did you know?

Olive oil is rich in “better for you” monounsaturated fats and contains a wide variety of valuable antioxidants. Some of the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil include reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, lower blood pressure, lower levels of bad cholesterol and protection against various forms of cancer. It’s a healthier substitute for saturated fats such as butter or palm oil, but bear in mind that it still contains the same amount of kilojoules as any other fat.

 
 

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These oils are the top-scorers in our show judging taste test, which puts them in silver medal class. They met all quality test requirements for “extra virgin” according to the International Olive Council trade standard for olive oil. See How we test for details.

 

Coles Australian Extra Virgin Olive Oil $5.89 (500mL)                    colesBestBuy_100

 

Cobram Estate Extra Virgin Olive Oil Fresh & Fruity $10.99 (750mL)cobram

 

Woolworths Select Australian Extra Virgin Olive Oil $6.99 (500mL)     woollies

 

oliveTable

USING THE TABLE

  • Score Tasters use the Australian Olive Association’s 20-point sensory scoring system, under which a bronze medal score is 13-14.5, a silver medal is 15-16.5, and gold 17 or higher.
  • “Extra virgin” Quality test results for oils without a tick in this column fall outside IOC limits for extra virgin classification. Note: these results are specific to the single batch of oil tested – see How We Test.
  • Prices are per litre for comparison, based on what we paid in Sydney supermarkets in February 2010 for the specified bottle size.

TABLE NOTES
(A) Packed in Spain from imported and local olive oil.
(B) Bottled and blended in Italy from local and imported olive oils.

Olive oil

The bad news for supermarket shoppers is that half the oils on test – most of which are imported from Italy and Spain – don’t meet the widely accepted International Olive Council (IOC) trade standard for “extra virgin” (see Jargon Buster and results table). The tests we used are designed to check for signs of fruit damage, poor harvesting operations, poor storage of fruit or oil before processing or bottling, refinement (such as bleaching or deodorising) or deterioration due to ageing or poor storage of the bottled oil.

A number of the producers of oils that failed presented us with evidence that the particular batch of oil we tested met extra virgin requirements at the time of bottling, but our test results found they weren’t extra virgin at the point of purchase. This suggests that ageing or less-than-ideal storage conditions and handling after bottling is often to blame. Extra virgin olive oil deteriorates with time and exposure to excess heat, oxygen and light.

FoodWorks and Aldi are taking steps to rectify problems along the supply chain, while Ollo and Red Island have strengthened internal production processes to avoid quality issues. But distributors and producers of other oils that failed our tests have not indicated they will take any action.

CHOICE VERDICT

  • Whether issues with olive oil quality occur during production, transportation, storage or at the retail level, the fact remains that consumers aren’t always getting true extra virgin quality at the point of sale, despite paying a premium.
  • The Australian Olive Association (AOA) recently signed an agreement with Standards Australia to produce an Australian Standard for the olive oil industry covering all olive oils sold in Australia, which should be implemented in the next six to 12 months. Work is set to start on this in July.
  • While this is a step in the right direction, CHOICE wants “extra virgin” to be regulated under the Food Standards Code, with mandatory requirements that all olive oils labelled “extra virgin” meet basic purity and quality standards for the duration of their expected shelf life, as well as carry a suitable date so that consumers are able to choose the freshest oils.

Other tests reveal "extra virgin" flaws 

  • In 2009, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) identified three imported olive oils labelled “extra virgin” – Paese Mio Organic, Aigeon and IGA’s Isabella brand – that failed to meet the IOC standard. This led to court-enforceable undertakings that, for three years, the companies involved would undertake more testing to demonstrate their products’ compliance with IOC standards before hitting supermarket shelves.
  • Earlier that year, IOC-accredited Modern Olives Laboratory Services in Victoria reported more than half of all extra virgin olive oils in the Australian market don’t belong to this category. While less than 25% of the 52 Australian oils it tested weren’t extra virgin, more than 80% of the 51 imported oils tested failed to meet extra virgin requirements as a result of being poor quality, too old and/or refined.

Choose the freshest oils

An oil’s aromas and flavours are at their peak when it’s young. According to the AOA, most extra virgin olive oils retain freshness for at least 12 months if stored properly in sealed bottles in a cool, dark place. Unlike wine, olive oil does not improve with age – so the closer to its production you use it, the better. Unfortunately, current labelling requirements don’t help you choose the freshest oils. Most brands give only a general best-before date, if at all.

  • The IOC suggests a best-before date indicating the “minimum durability” of the oil, although how the date is calculated is at the discretion of the producer or importer.
  • The AOA recommends a scientific approach to measuring shelf life and determining a best-before date that’s specific to an individual oil.
  • Date of bottling, harvest or production would be more helpful for consumers but not necessarily feasible or precise, according to industry, as oil may be a blend from different years and held in a tank for an extended time before bottling.

In the meantime we suggest you choose oils with a best before date at least 12 months away, and avoid purchasing oils that are displayed under direct sunlight or in an overly warm environment.

  • “Virgin” oil is extracted from olives by a mechanical process without excessive heat, additives or solvents.
  • “Extra virgin” oil, in addition to the above, has low acidity (0.8% or less) and should comply with other technical specifications, as well as being free from taste defects.
  • “Light”, “lite” or “pure” olive oils have been refined through a combination of physical (heat) and chemical processes, resulting in an oil with no distinctive aroma, colour or taste. A small percentage of virgin oil is then mixed with this oil to give it flavour. Refining removes antioxidants, so these oils aren’t as healthy as extra virgin. They don’t have less fat or fewer kilojoules than regular oils.
  • “Cold pressed” and “first press” are outdated and unhelpful marketing terms. All virgin oils have to be “cold extracted” – extracted from the olive without the use of excessive heat (manufacturers can extract more oil from olives with heat but the quality suffers). Traditional hydraulic presses have been almost entirely replaced by centrifuges, and all virgin oil comes from a single extraction – there’s no second press.
  • Olive varieties include Arbequina, Barnea, Coratina, Corregiola, Frantoio, Kalamata, Koroneiki, Leccino, Manzanillo, Pendolino and Picual. Trained tasters can identify a variety by its trademark characteristics; oil from Picual olives (originally from Spain), for example, has peppery, bitter and slightly woody flavours. About 90% of Australian olive oil is produced from 10 of these major varietals.

Broadly speaking:

  • “Early harvest” oils tend to be “robust” (bitter and pungent), with greener characters (such as grassy aromas, green apple aromas, green tomato, etc).
  • “Late harvest” oils tend towards “mild and mellow” or "delicate and mild", with sweeter characters (such as ripe banana aromas, tropical fruit, vanilla, etc.).

But other factors, such as variety and environment, can influence the character of the oils. Consequently, an early harvest Arbequina oil from a warm climate can be milder and mellower than a late harvest Coratina from a colder climate.

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