The term "Virgin" means olive oil has been extracted using mechanical means, not chemical. This ensures the flavour and any health benefits [link to health benefits] are not changed in the processing. "Extra virgin" for olive oils should indicate it 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.
Choosing the best oils
- An oil's aromas and flavours are at their peak when it's young. According to the Australian Olive Association (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 in choosing the freshest oils. Most brands give only a general best-before date, if at all.
- The International Olive Council 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.
- 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.
Varieties and characteristics
Olive varieties include Arbequina, Barnea, Coratina, Corregiola, Frantoio, Kalamata, Koroneiki, Leccino, Manzanillo, Pendolino and Picual. About 90 per cent of Australian olive oil is produced from 10 of these major varietals.
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.
- "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.
Setting a standard
Currently there is no mandatory standard for extra virgin olive oil sold in Australia.
- In 2010, CHOICE tested 28 brands of extra virgin olive oil and found around half – most of which are imported from Italy and Spain – didn't meet international standards for "extra virgin". Almost all the oils we could recommend in the 2010 test were 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 the supermarket shelf faster.
- In 2011, Coles announced that its private label olive oils would meet the Australian Standard for olive oils by the end of 2012.
- In 2012, an Australian Standard on olive oil was approved by Standards Australia with considerable stakeholder consultation. While it is voluntary, it sets out definitions and testing methods, providing a reference point for regulators and courts. A South Australian company was fined in 2012 after Australian Competition and Consumer Commission tests indicated that its products labelled ‘extra virgin olive oil' were not the premium products the claim suggested.
- The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has a buying guide with information about olive oil categories and different product grades. It is available on the ACCC's website.
While these are a steps 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.
The AOA recommends a scientific approach to measuring shelf life and determining a best-before date that's specific to an individual oil.
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.
- "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 per cent 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.