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The Virginity Lie
How to Find Real Extra Virgin Olive Oil

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What is Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO)?

Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is among the world’s healthiest fat sources. It’s not only the richest source (~75%) of the super fatty acid, oleic acid, but it’s also overflowing with healthy antioxidants and polyphenols. What’s more, its intake is believed to help maintain a healthy weight ( 1), reduce oxidative stress ( 2) and inflammation ( 3), and protect against all manner of diseases, from heart disease ( 3,  4) to diabetes ( 5) to Alzheimer’s disease ( 6,  7,  8,  9,  10). Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, even wrote that he was able to treat 60 health conditions using EVOO.

The label "extra virgin" is supposed to indicate that the olive oil is of the highest quality. It’s supposed to mean that the olives were picked and then immediately (within hours) cold-pressed in order to retain the antioxidants and polyphenols and in order to prevent the fermentation of the fruit and acidification of its oil. However, most EVOO is a lie!

The Lie About Extra Virgin Olive Oil

In a 2007 article for the New Yorker (and his subsequent book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil), author Tom Mueller revealed that most EVOO is fake!

Countless other sources have since confirmed that, astonishingly, up to 80% of EVOO on the market isn’t extra virgin. Worse, some fake EVOO has been treated with chemicals, solvents, and heat to cover up the rancid taste, or even mixed with filler oils like canola oil.

That means, unless you go out of your way to avoid the big brands and actively hunt for the real stuff, you’ve probably been deceived. Since olive oil that is not extra virgin possesses inferior nutritional quality — it’s more likely to be oxidized and has fewer anti-inflammatory polyphenols — this fraud may be negatively impacting your health.

Looking at the Bottle: How To choose The Right Extra Virgin Olive Oil

The first step in discriminating true quality EVOO from fakes is looking at the bottle.

1. Only buy bottles that are dark glass or metal

This is because the oil gets oxidized by light and plastics can dissolve into the oil itself. So, if you see a bottle that is plastic, or even light glass, leave it and move on.

2. Look for "pressed," "crushed," or "harvest" date

Just because an EVOO is in the correct container, doesn’t mean it’s the real thing. The second step in finding true EVOO is to look for a "pressed," "crushed," or "harvest" date (don’t trust only a "best by" date). Good suppliers will tell you exactly when the olives were pressed to get the oil because they know that olive oil should be consumed within 18 months of being bottled.

3. Price matters

The third, and last, easy/necessary step is to look at the price. Real EVOO is expensive to produce; so, you should expect the good stuff to cost in the range of $10 to $40 per bottle. Sorry, but you get what you pay for when it comes to EVOO.

The Virginity Lie: How to Find Real Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Beyond these three must-take steps, there are several other things to look for:

4. Bottles packaged with inert gas are better

Fourth, try to find a bottle that is packaged with nitrogen or some inert gas on top of the oil (this is quite rare, but a surefire way to know you have a great product). This packaging technique displaces the oxygen that leads to the gradual oxidization, and decrease in quality, of the oil as it sits in storage.

5. The more information the better

Fifth, if you can find a bottle that tells you the story of the oil (type of olive, country of origin, etc.) or instructions on how to do a sensory evaluation of olive oil, then you’ve probably found the brand you’re looking for.

While you don’t want a transparent bottle, you do want a transparent supplier who is confident enough to share the details about how their product was produced and how you can test it for yourself.

Evaluating the Taste & Oleocanthal

To really determine if an EVOO is truly extra virgin or a fake, you have to smell and taste it!

Start by dispensing about a tablespoon into a ceramic or plastic lid or cup. Swirl it around a bit to get the oil on the walls of the container and increase its surface area. Then cover the lid or cup with your hand and count to 20. This will trap the fragrances.

Take a whiff. It should smell fruity and strong. You can’t miss it (especially if you have a big Italian nose like me).

Now for the taste. Drink it all up! It should taste fruity, bitter, and pungent, not musty or fusty. Most telling of all, it should have a peppery kick! In fact, top-tier EVOO is sometimes referred to by experts as "two-cough" olive oil because it has such a strong peppery taste that it makes you cough, not once, but twice!

What’s With This Cough Thing?

It all comes down to a substance in EVOO called "oleocanthal." Oleocanthal is not only a super healthy anti-inflammatory polyphenol ( 11), it’s also an ideal litmus test for good quality oil.

Although there are about 36 different polyphenols in EVOO ( 12), oleocanthal is the only one that causes a peppery taste, and specifically in the oropharyngeal region (back of the throat). This is because the oropharyngeal region is enriched in TRPA1 ( 13) receptors, to which oleocanthal can bind, causing just enough irritation to make you taste pepper and, perhaps, cough.

(As cool health asides, oleocanthal may reduce the risk of certain cancers, inflammatory diseases, and brain diseases by reducing inflammation, stabilizing heat shock proteins, and preventing the buildup of amyloid and phospho-tau proteins.)

So, if you really want to know you’re getting super high-quality, super healthy, extra EVOO, search for that peppery kick in the back of your throat!

The Virginity Lie: How to Find Real Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Reputable Seals of Approval

The above tips and tricks should enable you to find the real thing — true EVOO! But, if you still lack confidence, you can also look for the Extra Virgin Alliance (EVA) or California Olive Oil Council (COOC) seals of approval.

Either of these seals indicate that an EVOO has passed a series of chemical analyses and a professional sensory evaluation, i.e., it’s real. Having said that, not all real EVOOs have these seals. Furthermore, these seals don’t allow you to rank the best olive oils among each other. Yep, even among real EVOOs some are more "virgin" than others. So, if you really want the best of the best, you’re going to have to put the oil to the test.

Up to 80% of commercial EVOO is not actually extra virgin. Buy oil in metal or dark glass bottles that was pressed or harvested within the last 18 months. It should give you a peppery sting in the back of your throat when sipped.

Take Home Message

EVOO is a healthy because it’s rich in the monounsaturated fat, oleic acid, and contains antioxidant molecules called polyphenols.

Up to 80% of commercial EVOOs in the United States and United Kingdom are not actually extra virgin.

To pick out true EVOO you should (i) buy metal or dark glass bottles, (ii) buy oil that was "pressed," "crushed," or "harvested" within the last 18 months, and (iii) expect to pay at least $10 per bottle. The oil should also give you a peppery sting in the back of your throat when sipped.

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Nicholas Norwitz
MD-PhD candidate at Oxford University

Nicholas Notwitz

Nicholas Norwitz is a Harvard medical student and Oxford PhD researcher who specializes in ketone metabolism. He a rising star in the scientific community, with peer-reviewed publications on topics ranging from brain health to bone health to heart health to gut health.

Informed by his own medical history, he has an infectious passion for food as medicine and a drive to find innovative ways to teach the general public about the latest nutrition science.

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Comments (19)

If the EVOO/ avocado oil/macadamia nut oil is packaged in a black glass container and filled with inert gas/nitrogen,
1) Is there a certain amount of time within which it is best to be opened and used? Like say 1 year from manufacturing date?
2) Should we worry about oxidation of oil if its consumed within two months of opening the cap?

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1) even without inert gas EVOO is quite good for 24 months after the harvest date of the olives. The inert gas will only extend this lifetime.
2) I wouldn’t worry about 2 months. Just keep your oil in a cool dark place.

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Thanks Nick for this post. I am unable to figure out whether https://thrivemarket.com/p/thrive-market-organic-extra-virgin-olive-oil is good or not? Do you have any idea based on the brand and available info?

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It looks pretty good to me! It’s in a metal container and is within the appropriate price range. It doesn’t have an official EVA or COOC seal, but those are rareish. It also doesn’t look like to advertises a pressed, crushed, or harvest date, but that doesn’t disqualify it. The description is promising and reads, “Made from 100% certified organic Koroneiki olives, our extra-virgin olive oil is grown, harvested, and bottled on a single estate in western Crete. The quality of the olives is obvious when you taste the bright, fruity, peppery flavor profile.“ Whenever a manufacturer tell you the olives story, that’s a good sign. Plus, Crete is know for its EVOO and the Koroneiki variety is among the best for total phenolic content and hydroxytyrosol. (See paper: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/.../#__sec2title).  Hopefully the peppery flavor comes from
Oleocanthal as well. All in all, it looks good. What I might suggest though is shooting back a tablespoon of the stuff. Do you get. A peppery sting specifically in the back of your throat? ;) hope that helps -N

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How does phenolic content and hydroxytyrosol in EVOO obtained from Tunisia olives compare to Koroneiki's? "In a study of Tunisian oils, TPC increased progressively as olives matured and decreased in the final ripening stage [47]. This was not the case for EVOO from trees of the Koroneiki cv. grown in Greece, as a marked increase of TPC in parallel with fruits’ maturation was observed in oils from Crete Island [31] and Southern Peloponnisos " is in the paper you shared above.

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That's a difficult questions to answer. First, it will depend on the particular cultivar. I don't think one can make generality about HXT content from entire countries. It will also depend on specific brand packaging and storage. If the brand doesn't report phenolic content, it's a bit hard to tell. Sorry if that's not helpful.

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Even if there is inert gas/nitrogen in the bottle, wouldn't the oil get oxidized once we open the bottle cap and start using it?

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Eventually. Once you release the inert gas, you no longer get its protective effect as the gas that was on top of the oil will exchange with the gas in the room.

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Can we use EVOO for pan-frying veggies or meat at simmering to medium temperature in a gas-stove? Or does it get oxidized? I don't consume mayo so can't use it directly without cooking it

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Hi Bharat, I use extra virgin olive oil for light cooking. Generally speaking there are better options for cooking such as avocado oil or ghee but you can use olive oil.

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Perhaps it’s better to stay off olive oil altogether, whether extra virgin or not.
Check this paper please (:
https://www.karger.com/Article/FullText/446704#menu

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Hi Daniel, I'll let Nick answer this. I only had a quick glimpse and there seems to be no mention of the type of olive oil - and there is a big difference in quality in EVOO and other low quality types.

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Several points.
(1) "RCT trials have been performed by increasing the intake of high-linoleic vegetable oils and reducing that of animal fats, which resulted in increased CVD" - taken directly from the abstract of review paper you reference. Abstract doesn't mention olive oil (OO). Also, olives are a fruit and olive oil is not technically vegetable oil.
(2) Review paper only cites mouse/rat studies, which are counter to human and cell data. Doesn't surprise me as rodents have very different evolutionary histories.
(3) **Paper does mention OO, but only OO, not EVOO. This is important. This is why we wrote the above. Something tells me the researchers weren't buying nice EVOO to test on their rats in these cited experiments in which OO was usually more of a control. Better chance the OO they bought was largely safflower oil anyway.
(4) Paper cites high-carb diet studies. E.g. first reference re OO (#42) was 57% cornstarch and granulated sugar diet.
Since you seem to have interest in statins (which I agree are not great for primary prevention: https://mdlingo.com/statin-skepticism/)
I also endorse MK7 K2 very much (I take 360 ug daily with 5000 IU D3) - My suspicion is that we agree 99% on health matters. However, I'm not confident that the above Japanese perspectives review convincingly makes any strong case against EVOO.

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Thank you for this post on EVOO, could you please give me the name of the brand that you use, Thank you so much, I understand you don't care to promote one, just share your brand, ..Thank you, love your site.

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Thank you Linda! I use one called "Pure Hellenic" which I get from Greece. My partner is Greek so we travel there once or twice a year and always bring 5-10 L in large metal containers. I'm sure it's not just Greece they sell it though.

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"Alta Cresta Premium" in the United States is excellent! That's what I use.

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Great, Thank you.

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Thank you for that information. I live in Australia & have a very good brand that seems to tick all the above boxes. It is the Cobram Estate brand which is 100% Australian & first cold pressed. So we're lucky! Although I have noticed I have a couple of bottles that will be past their use by - this brand makes "flavoured" oils i.e. garlic, chilli, herbs etc so I'm hoping they're ok as they are delicious

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I have no valid reason to believe that commercially infused oils are inferior to pure oils. You can always infuse oils yourself too 😊.

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