Olive oil is an industry worth an estimated $1.5 billion a year in the United States and the market is growing fast as consumers realize just how beneficial this oil is to their health. Unfortunately in such a lucrative industry there are some unscrupulous enterprises that believe in making profit by selling fake olive oil.
In his book entitled ‘Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil’, investigative journalist Tom Mueller states that approximately 70% of olive oil sold is cut with cheaper oils. It has got to the point where experts are finding it difficult to tell the difference between real and fake oil.
Why Is Fake Olive Oil So Dangerous?
If it was simply a case of slapping an ‘Extra Virgin Olive Oil’ label on a Virgin olive oil bottle, it wouldn’t put your health at risk (although you would still be getting ripped off).
The big issue seems to be the unhygienic conditions in which the fake oil gets produced. As ‘cheap’ is the name of the game, it’s common for fake oil to be created in unsanitary conditions which increases your risk of getting E.coli or salmonella poisoning.
Another health risk comes when gangs decide to dilute the virgin oil with lower grade oils such as lamp oil which is actually deemed to be ‘unfit for human consumption’ because it contains so much acid.
In Europe, the industry has been rocked by a series of scandals. In 2011 for example, two Spanish businessmen were arrested for selling fake extra virgin olive oil which actually contained 75% sunflower oil.
Italian olive oil producer Bertolli had millions of dollars of oil stolen from its plant in Milan several years ago. The theft was carried out by a sophisticated gang who almost certainly added other cheap oils and sold it at a vast profit later on.
So how can you tell the difference? Sadly, it seems as if a host of ‘tried and trusted’ tests are not particularly effective.
The Taste Test
It is something of a fallacy to suggest that a simple taste test is enough to spot the difference. Some experts believe that real olive oil has a mild grassy aroma and when you taste it there should be a tingly bite at the back of your tongue. However, when experts tried to put this theory to the test, they failed spectacularly.
Indeed, the results of a taste test which involved a panel containing an olive oil importer, a group of food lovers and an Italian deli owner were purportedly so embarrassing that they were never officially published. It was said the importer ended up calling his own brand ‘disgusting’ in the blind test while the deli owner proclaimed a low grade bottle to be his favorite.
Therefore, the taste test is a bad way to determine the authenticity of extra virgin olive oil.
The Fridge Test
The theory is that since extra virgin contains a high percentage of polyunsaturated fats, real olive oil should become cloudy and thick when placed in the fridge.
Unfortunately, some fake oils are cut from low grade oils but are high-wax which means they will become cloudy and thicken up when placed in your fridge.
In some cases, real extra virgin olive oil is chilled and filtered to prevent the product from becoming solid when placed in a fridge. The purpose of ‘winterization’ is to ensure the product doesn’t become cloudy and clumpy when stored on shelves in winter. As a result, the ‘real’ extra virgin olive oil will actually fail the fridge test so clearly, this option is inherently flawed.
The Oil Lamp Test
The theory here is that extra virgin should be flammable enough to ensure an oil lamp stays burning and there should be no noticeable smoke. Alas, cheap fake oils are also capable of keeping a wick burning which means this test is also unreliable.
Who Can I Trust?
Perhaps the best way to ensure you purchase the real thing is to buy your extra virgin olive oil from smaller family run farms. According to a study carried out by UC Davis, domestic oil from co-ops or single producers always passes scientific tests on their authenticity.
One of the reasons for this is due to the lack of interference from middle men. Companies that purchase olive oil in bulk are the worst culprits when it comes to adulterating the oil. They then sell this oil to corporations that believe they are getting the real thing. This diluted oil is branded and sold to convenience stores and ends up in your home.
It is best to stay away from ‘light’ ‘pure’ ‘olive pomace’ and other varieties of olive oil as they have all undergone chemical refinement. When it comes to extra virgin olive oil, look to either purchase it from a local farm or a small family-run operation as this direct purchase almost guarantees that you’re getting the real thing.