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In The Family
What Does the “Extra-Virgin” in Olive Oil Mean?

There’s a lot the label won’t tell you.

Extra-virgin olive oil: It’s the good fat, right? So heart-healthy it’s literally extra? If you don’t know what the term “extra-virgin” really means, don’t feel bad—that’s an intentional choice of a global industry riddled with misdirection and outright fraud. Olive oil is one of the most counterfeited foods we eat, and while the FDA regulates what can be sold as virgin and extra-virgin olive oil, there are several technical loopholes, and labels aren’t especially reliable.

The industry defines “extra virgin” as olive oil that’s been mechanically pressed from fresh olives without the aid of heat or chemical extraction and refinement. That oil must then pass a tasting panel to confirm it has no “sensory defects” that show up in rancid fats, fermented olives, or oils pressed from diseased or pest-ridden fruits. The oil then also must pass a lab test registering an acidity of less than .8 percent, a measurement of free fatty acids that are a sign of the oil’s decay. These are important tests for the industry, but they don’t say much about the quality of the oil you’re eating. Crummy tasteless oils and beautiful boutique bottles can both be free of sensory defects, but that doesn’t mean either tastes particularly good.

And since olive oils oxidize the moment the olives are crushed, a bottle of olive oil that’s passed lab grading at the factory will continue to degrade in transit and on the store shelf, so much so that by the time you open it, the oil may already be rancid. Like any other specialty food, if you’re going to spend good money olive oil, buy from sources you trust and see if you can taste before committing to a bottle.

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Max Falkowitz

Max Falkowitz is a food and travel writer for The New York Times, Saveur, GQ, New York magazine’s Grub Street, and other outlets. He’s also the coauthor of The Dumpling Galaxy Cookbook with Helen You.