When it comes to olive oil, consumers’ first and foremost expectations are of quality and guaranteed origin. However, even though legal regulations for olive oil have been continuously expanded for some years and harmonised at EU level, olive oil food fraud is rampant. As there are various types of olive oil, consumers are recommended to read the small print on the labels. TÜV SÜD's food experts provide useful tips to select top quality olive oil.
Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal produce 90 % of the olive oil sold in the European Union. The principle sounds very simple: fresh ripe olives are carefully harvested, and the oil is then extracted by mechanical means under safe and hygienic conditions. It must not contain any other substances or additives. However, a host of factors impact on olive quality, making the production of top-quality oil a highly complex process.
Processing, grades and labelling requirements have been precisely specified in various EU regulations. According to EU Regulation 1513/2001, for example, virgin olive oil may be obtained from the fruit of the olive tree solely by mechanical or physical means. The natural characteristics of the oil should be preserved. Production and processing must not degrade product quality.
Virgin olive oil and extra virgin olive oil
EU Regulation 61/2011 defines the categories of olive oil: The most important categories for consumers are “virgin olive oil” and “extra virgin olive oil”. Extra virgin olive oil must be obtained directly from olives solely by mechanical means and must not be exposed to temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius. Olive oils in this category have very low acidity (under 0.8 %) and must have no sensory defects. It is also referred to as category 1 olive oil. The acidity of virgin olive oil, by contrast, is higher (up to 2 %), and minor sensory defects are accepted in this category. Virgin olive oil is also referred to as category 2 olive oil.
Consumers can also buy category 5 olive oil, which is a blend composed of refined olive oil and categories 1 and 2 virgin olive oil. The higher the portion of virgin olive oil in the blend the more intense the flavour. Other types of olive oils are lampante olive oil, refined olive oil and crude olive pomace oil, which is pressed from solid olive residues. These oils must not be sold to consumers.
Fraud is widespread
50% of the olive oil produced in the EU is of such low quality that it needs to be refined. Given this, experts assume food fraud to be rampant in the olive oil industry. The ways in which fraudsters try to increase their unfair gains extend from blending category 1 olive oils with lower-quality categories to selling fake olive oil, e.g. sunflower oil adulterated with Chlorophyll.
In most cases, the quality of olive oil is not recognisable at first sight. Generally, fraud can only be proved by experienced experts with the help of advanced food analytics. Using the chemical composition and sensory profile as starting-points, they can draw conclusions as to the oil's origin and Quality.
However, when buying olive oil, consumers should still look out for important quality criteria to make sure their expectations will not be disappointed later on.
“Typical properties of premium olive oil are very low acidity, high polyphenol content, a taste that is free from sensory defects, and good preservation”, says Dr Andreas Daxenberger, food expert at TÜV SÜD. “However, assessing whether the oil offers flawless quality is not an easy process for general consumers.” Extra virgin olive oil has a fruity taste with notes of peppery spice and bitterness, which frequently comes as a surprise for consumers. The packaging and labelling of premium olive oil should also be of top Quality.
- However, “extra virgin” is not the be-all and end-all for consumers. A simpler virgin olive oil may also offer excellent quality. In most cases it is a matter for individual taste whether consumers prefer the official features of the Extra Virgin category, i.e. peppery, bitter and fruity notes, – and the slightly lower acid content. Olive oils from other categories may also have an excellent flavour.
- The label must provide information on the quality category, origin, filling volume, sell-by date, producer or bottler, and distributor.
- All this mandatory information also has to be provided for organic oils.
- Information related to nutritional value and health-related information must be in compliance with the legal requirements. If the information "free of cholesterol" or “rich in linoleic acid" is provided, the calories and nutritional values need to be indicated in line with special regulations.
- The information “cold pressed” means that pressing was performed at temperatures below 27 degrees Celsius.
- Dark glass containers shield olive oil and its nutrients against light-based oxidation. Glass bottles or metal containers are preferable to plastic bottles, which are still commonly used by small direct distributors in holiday regions.
- Last but not least, the indications “Protected Geographical Indication” or “Protected Designation of Origin” are evidence that the oil is actually from the area indicated.
- One last tip: Components of olive oil that have crystallised indicate that the oil is stored in too cold an environment (at temperatures below 6 – 8 degrees Celsius). The crystals will dissolve again at room temperature and do not impair the taste.
Further information on food safety can be found at: www.tuv-sud.com/foodsafety.
Press contact: Carolin Eckert