The Difference between Olive Oil and "Extra Virgin" Olive Oil
A new era of home cooking
As we enter a new era that has been influenced by the pandemic, an inevitable shift has occurred in how most people interact with food. More and more people are interested in the nuances of their food and where it comes from. Those of us who have been locked down for eons (we’re looking at you, Melbourne) spent countless hours at home and perhaps much more time in the kitchen than before. Many may have shifted to more subscription-based services over COVID, and this trend applies to the food we are buying. After all, it’s much easier to cook at home when you have the tools all ready to go, and that includes kitchen staples like olive oil.
Yet when ordering online, we can’t always “try before we buy,” so it’s essential to know how to “separate the wheat from the chaff” when choosing our products to make sure we are, indeed, getting the quality we are paying for.
Because we live in a world where marketers have become, well, better at marketing, it’s hard to know what the words on a food label mean. Sometimes, it can be challenging even for the most keen-eyed to discern whether the wording on food packaging accurately represents the food’s contents (or if it is just jargon that’s been carefully formulated to speak the language of the brand’s target audience).
There is no exception for olive oil and its many variations. For example, how do we know the difference between “light,” “pure,” and “olive oil?” Is it necessary to buy “cold-pressed?” What does the ever-so-prestigious “extra-virgin” really mean? And how is the quality assured?
What is “extra-virgin” olive oil?
When ascertaining the differences between oils, it’s essential to have some background on how olive oil is created.
“Extra-virgin” olive oil involves a mechanical process without excessive heat, additives or solvents. The olives should be disease-free and pressed (or centrifuged) as soon as possible (at Goldi, we press them within hours of getting off the tree during the harvest season). More often than not, olive oil is made via centrifugation. Both pressing and centrifugation are mechanical processes that do not use chemical agents. Basically, the olives get crushed without using any chemical agents; then, the juice is extracted from the olives without excessive heat. The result is the olive oil in your bottle!
There is an inverse relationship between heat and quality; the higher the heat, the lower the resulting quality. Most producers interested in maintaining the quality and bioavailability of antioxidants in the oil don’t go above 32 degrees Celsius in this process.
When buying olive oil, “extra-virgin” implies that the oil has a degree of fruitiness and is 100% made from olives, free of defects.
What is “cold-pressed”?
Often, olive oil producers will note their oil is cold-pressed as a way of signifying no heat has been used in the process. In reality, though, the oil may have likely not used excessive heat but was likely processed through the centrifuge technique previously described.
What’s the deal with “extra-virgin,” “light”, and “pure” oil?
If the extra-virgin oil is top-quality, you can assume it is the one that has the most aroma and flavour and contains the most natural antioxidants out of the types listed.
Olive oils labelled as “light,” “pure,” and simply “olive oil” have all been refined to some degree with acids, alkalis, steam or other agents. The result is that the aroma, flavours and natural antioxidants are removed from these oils. Because of the refinement process, artificial antioxidants (such as butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)) are often added to increase the oil's shelf life. “Light” refers only to the colour of the oil after the refinement process.
“Olive oil” refers to cold-pressed oil that has been refined to get rid of unwanted impurities and then mixed with EVOO due to not meeting extra-virgin standards.
“Pure” olive oil, also known as “regular” olive oil, is non-virgin olive oil mixed with a combination of processed and cold-pressed oils.
What’s important to note is many non-virgin olive oils lack aroma, flavour, natural antioxidants or the exquisite taste that extra-virgin olive oil is known for.
So, how do you know you're getting the quality you paid for?
To be labelled “extra-virgin,” oils are certified, often through an independent third-party laboratory. There is a chemical analysis of the compounds and a taste test, ensuring no faults. Ultimately the deciding factor in “extra-virgin” oils is the taste.
However, don’t be fooled: “extra-virgin” is not created equal. Just because Europe has a long history of producing olive oils doesn’t make it the best option. Many extra-virgin oils imported to Australia from Europe, such as Italy, are cheaper simply because the European industry has more significant economies of scale (and the EU subsidises the olive oil industry).
When buying oil, it’s important to consider the “best by” date and understand when the olives of that particular oil have been harvested. If the company isn’t transparent with its processes, the oil has likely been sitting on the shelf for too long (FYI: oil is not like wine and doesn’t improve with time).
Ultimately, the taste of the oil is also the deciding factor for purchase. Try different oils to know what you like and get your palette accustomed to the various aromas, flavours and nuances of olive oil.
Curious about our olives? Try our Taster Trio and get our two top-selling olive oils with the added bonus of our Aceto balsamic vinegar.