What is premium olive oil?
Not all extra virgin olive oil is equal. Within this broad category, only a few oils are exceptional.
Things that matter
Extra Virgin — the first extraction of juice from fresh, healthy olives. No chemical processing can be used and no heat can be added (extracted well below 27 degrees Celsius).
High sensory rating — harmoniously balanced fruity, bitter, and peppery notes, together with complex aromas, flavors, and aftertastes that bloom gradually on the senses. Independently assessed by a professional panel.
Low acidity — free acidity levels of 0.2 percent or less
Low peroxide levels — well below 10 milliequivalents per kilogram (meq/kg)
Harvest Date — a product of one single harvest season; made from healthy olives that are collected directly from the tree. Harvests take place in early fall when olives are at their best: slightly unripe and nutrient-rich. Though less ripe olives have less juice (meaning higher production costs), the results are well worth it. Early harvest oils tend to have greener, more robust sensory profiles and higher polyphenol counts.
Craftsmanship — created with care and expertise. Olives are harvested in small batches and taken straight to the mill where they are immediately crushed for short periods in as cold of temperatures as possible.
Things that don’t matter
Color — Good oils come in all shades, from pale straw to lush gold to brilliant green. Official tasters use blue-colored glasses to avoid favoring more vibrant oils.
These types of olive oil are definitely not premium:
Most ‘extra virgin olive oil’ on the market — Olive oil is highly susceptible to fraud. For those oils that do meet extra virgin standards (which are broad), most have an acidity of 0.5 percent or higher. These oils are of inferior extra virgin quality. Acidity directly correlates with fruit health, harvest, and milling practices.
All products labeled: olive oil, pure olive oil, light olive oil, pomace oil, or 'lampante' oil — These are low-quality oils that have been refined, meaning they’ve undergone a chemical and physical deodorizing process that renders them tasteless, odorless, and colorless. They are then mixed with a small amount of extra virgin olive oil to provide flavor. They have been stripped of health-protective properties.
Premium olive oil is superior in both taste and nutrition.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is 'Early Harvest' olive oil?
Early harvest oils are made from slightly unripe olives (aceitunas envero). Unripe fruits yield less ‘juice’ so production costs are higher, but the results are worth it. Early harvest oils tend to have more robust, fruitful green notes and higher amounts of polyphenols .
Where does olive oil come from?
Olive oil is essentially a fruit juice. It is extracted from olives that grow on olive trees. The botanical term for an olive is a 'drupe' (stone fruit), a fleshy fruit that usually contains a single hard stone or seed inside. Drupes include olives, plums, cherries, and peaches.
What does 'Single Origin' mean?
Single origin olive oil comes from olives grown within a defined geographic region. In general, the smaller the area the better. Like coffee, wine and other quality products, single origin oils are expressive of time and place. They reflect growing conditions, soil composition, rain levels, fruit maturation, and many other factors. Protected Denomination of Origin (D.O.) regulatory bodies verify oil provenance.
Is certified organic olive oil superior?
Unfortunately, "organic" is no longer synonymous with quality, neither in terms of health nor sustainability. There are many industrial, monoculture farms that can afford organic certification. Traditional farming done right means zero pesticide residues (which are highly regulated by the EU), and a respect for people and place. It's important to know who your farmers are and what practices they employ — to go beyond the label and certification scheme.
Which is better: filtered or unfiltered olive oil?
It’s a matter of preference. Olive oil naturally contains sediment left over from crushing the fruit. Every mill has their own process, and filtering doesn't necessarily make oil better or longer-lasting. It does, however, remove sediment which most consumers aren't used to seeing. Rather than use filters, we prefer to simply decant (or "rack") our fresh oils. We find they are more flavorful, aromatic, and nutrient-rich when made this way (and higher levels of antioxidants also help the oils keep longer).
What are the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil?
High quality ('premium') extra virgin olive oil is truly a superfood. Its molecular structure is full of nourishing, natural antioxidants and fatty acids that are scientifically proven to protect against pathologies as diverse as heart disease, breast cancer, and Alzheimer’s.
How long does olive oil keep? How best is it stored?
Unlike wine, olive oil does not get better with age. To enjoy its fresh flavors and health properties, it’s best consumed youngwithin 18 months of harvest (this date should be indicated on the bottle). Keep your bottle sealed in a cool, dark place away from light, heat, and air.
Can EVOO be used for cooking or frying? What is the smoke point?
With a smoke point of 210 degrees Celsius (410 degrees Fahrenheit), there's no need to shy away from sautéing and shallow frying. Olive oil is considered resistant to frying conditions (can be used without a problem under normal conditions, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fct.2010.07.036).
More economical oils (not _extra virgin_) are often used for deep frying. The high heat will process away many of the beneficial qualities that we work so hard to keep in there for you!
Why does high-quality extra virgin olive oil tend to have bitter notes?
A bit of spice or bitterness indicates a fresh, high quality oil that is full of antioxidants and other health-protective compounds. When harmonious, panel experts qualify it as a positive attribute—along with fruity and peppery notes.
Acidity refers to the amount of oleic acid naturally present in an olive oil. Oleic acid is a monounsaturated fatty acid. It directly correlates with quality in unrefined oils: the best extra virgin olive oils have very low acidity (less than 0.2 percent).
Higher acidity levels occur when less-than-optimal fruit is harvested (olives with fungal coverings or fly infestations, olives that have fallen to the ground, olives stored too long before processing, or if the olives suffered intense heat during transport to the mill). In order to classify as extra virgin, an oil must not exceed an acidity level of 0.8 percent (0.8 grams of oleic acid per 100 grams of oil).
Many oils that do not meet this standard are refined after extraction (to reduce acidity, poor taste, poor smell and undesired color). Although these refined oils may have very low acidity levels, they do not possess the same health benefits nor the taste profile of a raw extra virgin olive oil. Unfortunately, fraud is common and mislabeling is frequent.
We're working hard to provide the traceability and trust needed in industry so that you can be sure that you are purchasing genuine, premium extra virgin olive oil.
Antioxidants are substances that inhibit oxidation. They neutralize free radicals that cause cell damage, disease, and aging. Genuine extra virgin olive oil is a rich source of antioxidants, including polyphenols, tocopherols, and phytonutrients. The highest levels of antioxidants occur immediately after an olive oil is produced, and then decrease over the shelf-life of the oil. In part, this is why olive oil is considered a "living" (or "dying") product — it will naturally become rancid with the passage of time even in the best of storage conditions.
'Cold-pressed' is an imprecise term that refers to the mechanical extraction of olive oil from olives. At one time, olives were pressed between woven mats, known as capachos. Later, hydraulic presses were used. Today, quality extra virgin olive oils are made by crushing olives at temperatures less than 27 degrees Celsius, and then separating the paste from the oil via stainless steel centrifuges. A more accurate expression of the modern production process is 'cold extraction via purely mechanical means.'
A varietal or cultivar (such as "hojiblanca" or "picual") is a distinct type of olive (or olive tree). Typically, cultivars become popular through selective cultivation over many centuries. There are approximately 700 known olive cultivars in the world—roughly 250 of which you'll find in Spain.
Some of the most common ones in the province of Córdoba are:
• Picudo — native to Priego de Córdoba
• Hojiblanca — also known as lucentino; native to Lucena, Córdoba
• Picual — native to Jaén
• Arbequina — native to northern Spain
Just like coffee beans, wine grapes, and tea leaves, each olive varietal has its own personality and agronomic properties leading to very different sensory, chemical, and nutritional profiles.
The highest officially recognized quality grade of olive oil according to standards set by the European Union, the International Olive Council, and other governing bodies. To qualify as 'extra virgin,' an oil must exhibit the following characteristics:
— Extracted by purely mechanical means at 27 degrees Celsius (or lower)
— An Acidity level of 0.8 percent (or lower)
— A Peroxide level of 20 milliequivalent per kilogram (or lower)
— Positive organoleptic characteristics (e.g. fruitiness)
— No detectable organoleptic flaws (e.g. musty)
— Be 100 percent raw and not mixed with any other product (i.e. 0 percent refined)
These standards are not difficult to meet and DO NOT guarantee a quality olive oil. They do, however, standardize the category and differentiate extra virgin from other olive-based products like virgin olive oil, olive oil, refined olive oil, and refined pomace oil.
One of the many polyphenol compounds that is contained in olives, olive oil, and olive leaves. It is a powerful antioxidant. Research suggests that hydroxytyrosol helps prevent DNA damage and cardiovascular disease.
Monosaturated Fatty Acids
A category of 'good fats' that have been shown to boost metabolism and positively impact cardiovascular health. Replacing saturated fats ('bad fats') with unsaturated fats ('good fats') has been shown to contributes to the maintenance of normal blood cholesterol levels. The primary fatty acid present in extra virgin olive oil is oleic acid.
The main fatty acid in extra virgin olive oil. It is an omega-nine monounsaturated fatty acid.
Spanish olive oils are known to have a high percentage of oleic acid (and lower levels of linoleic, palmitic and stearic acids, which are different). Oleic acid has been associated with some of the major health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, such as a reduced incidence of coronary heart disease and cancer.
A 2005 study from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine showed that oleic acid can cripple a gene that causes 25 to 30 percent of breast cancers (https://doi.org/10.1093/annonc/mdi090).
An antioxidant polyphenol that naturally occurs in extra virgin olive oil. Premium extra virgin olive oils tend to have higher levels of oleocanthal. Oleocanthal has anti-inflammatory properties that resemble those of ibuprofen (https://doi.org/10.1038/437045a).
Research suggests that it may have therapeutic effects against coronary heart disease, stroke, cancer, Alzheimer's disease, and other conditions (https://dx.doi.org/10.3390%2Fijms19102899).
An antioxidant polyphenol best known for its blood pressure-reducing effects. Beyond hypertension, oleuropein has been shown to have cardioprotective, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, anti-angiogenic, and neuroprotective functions, and thus be of therapeutic potential for a variety of health applications (https://dx.doi.org/10.18632%2Foncotarget.15538).
Peroxide levels are an important chemical parameter for the determining the quality of an unrefined olive oil. Measured in milliequivalents of active oxygen per kilogram, this number describes the initial oxidation level of an unrefined oil. As olive oil ages, oxidation occurs naturally, accelerated with exposure to light and air. Higher levels of oxidation lead to 'rancidity' in olive oil. Natural antioxidants in extra virgin olive oil slow this process down.
As refining removes taste, smell, acidity and any product resulting form oxidation —peroxide levels do not indicate quality nor age in refined oils.
Peroxide levels in extra virgin olive oil should be below 20 milliequivalent per kilogram.
A category of natural plant compounds that provide numerous health benefits acting as antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. Polyphenols have been associated with reducing inflammation and oxidative stress, and combating the decline in brain and body functions that happen as we age (https://doi.org/10.2174/1871530317666171114114321).
The major polyphenols in olive oil are hydroxytyrosol, tyrosol, oleuropein and pinoresinol. Because they protect against oxidation, polyphenols also protect olive oil against spoilage.
Total polyphenols in extra virgin olive oil range from low (2 mg/kg) to high (400+ mg/kg).
Racking (and purging)
Once olive oil has been extracted from the olive fruit, it is commonly filtered to remove sediment. However, filtering can reduce polyphenols and color (https://doi.org/10.3923/ajft.2007.671.678).
Similar to decanting, racking and purging are two techniques that remove sediment by gentler means. New olive oil is left in a tank for a few weeks to allow the tiny pieces of olive pulp, skin, and pit that are suspended in the oil to settle. The miller then removes sediments from the bottom of the storage tanks (purging) and gently pours the olive oil into a clean tank, leaving any sediment behind (racking).
Super high density is a system of industrial farming or olive cultivation in which 700 to 900 trees are planted to the acre and set in hedgerows like row crops. The olives are picked by large, over-the-row machine harvesters. (Traditional olive groves, which are picked by hand or with simpler shaking or combing devices, contain about 100 trees to the acre, while medium-density groves hold between 200 and 400 trees per acre).
SHD reduces production costs but also introduces new concerns:
- SHD farms may be more affected by some pests and diseases than traditional systems, requiring pesticides (In traditional olive farms, pesticide use is low or non-existent)
- Fertilizer input per hectare tends to increase in proportion to tree density
- Soil erosion risk
- Run-off to water bodies
- Degradation of habitats and landscapes
- Exploitation of scarce water resources
Conversely, SHD also allows for a more technical management and consistent harvest. While some premium extra virgin olive oils come from SHD plantations, it's important to understand the social and cultural impact of this type of farming (traditional plantations are also the least viable in economic terms and hence most vulnerable to abandonment).
For a more complete discussion about the differences: the EU has summarized them in a document (https://ec.europa.eu/environment/agriculture/pdf/oliveoil.pdf)
A group of organic compounds which (alongside tocotrienols) are the main constituents of vitamin-E (often called 'E-vitamers'). Concentrations of tocopherols vary by varietal, but higher amounts of tocopherols are generally linked to Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPS's). They are entirely lost when an oil is refined.
Tochoperols have notable antioxidant properties that increase the immune system. They are also regularly used for cosmetic purposes to shield the skin from sun damage. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24790736)