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Extra Virgin Olive Oil | Real or Fake Olive Oil?

Extra virgin olive oil is hailed for its health benefits and superior taste, but it’s also a food that’s a common victim of food fraud, leading some fake olive oil products to be branded as “fool’s gold”.

Extra virgin olive oil is ‘the best of the best’ when it comes to olive oils. But olive oil is one of the most commonly defrauded foods, with many products claiming to be olive oil of the highest quality when, in fact, they don’t meet the standards required for extra virgin olive oil. 

Learn more about food fraud and why it’s a problem.

The incentive for fraudsters is enormous since the profits in olive oil fraud are huge: in the mid-to-late ’90s, earnings from adulterated olive oil were thought to be comparable to those from cocaine trafficking.2 So, what makes this “extra virgin olive oil” fake, and why does it matter that we make sure the olive oil we’re buying really is extra virgin olive oil? 

What makes an olive oil “extra virgin”? 

Extra virgin olive oil is obtained ‘directly from olives and solely by mechanical means’,4 meaning that no chemicals are used when extracting the oil from olives and that the oil is not refined after extraction.

As a quality check, extra virgin olive oil also needs to pass two further tests: 

  1. A physicochemical test: which measures a number of chemical characteristics such as the acidity and the fatty acid content of the oil
  2. A sensory test: where oils are smelled and tasted under controlled conditions5 

Both tests are important in evaluating olive oil quality, as even just the sensory test can highlight issues with how the fruit was picked or the production and storage of the oil. Only olive oils of the highest quality, both from a chemical and sensory point of view, are designated extra virgin olive oils. Such oil should deliver fruitiness, very little acidity (no more than 0.8%) and the best sensory characteristics (no defects in either smell or taste).4 

What is "fake" extra-virgin olive oil? 

In most cases, fake extra virgin olive oil is simply a lower grade of virgin or refined olive oil that has been mislabelled as extra virgin olive oil.7 Such oils may have been processed or diluted with other oils (such as sunflower, soybean, canola or rapeseed oils) in order to boost profits and, therefore, failed to meet the high testing standards of extra virgin olive oil as a result.8 Fake oils may also have pigments such as chlorophyll or β-carotene added to improve their appearance and quality.10 Fraud can also involve masking where the product was made, deceptive labelling or the use of false expiration dates.11, 12, 13 

Learn more about the science behind and health benefits of olive oil. 

The risks of “fake” extra virgin olive oil 

When oil is falsely sold at the higher price commanded by extra virgin olive oil, consumers pay more for an inferior product while fraudsters profit and honest farmers and other businesses in the supply chain suffer.  The most obvious issue is that “fake” products will not have the same taste, smell and nutritional benefits as extra virgin olive oil.

In addition, although “fake” extra virgin olive oil is generally not thought of as a public health issue, there is always the concern that “fake” products may contain hidden allergens (e.g. products diluted with hazelnut oil) or oils not fit for consumption (e.g. lampante olive oil).  Indeed, there is evidence of some health incidents linked to “fake” extra virgin olive oil. 14,15

Spotting “fake” extra virgin olive oil 

There are a number of tests that can determine whether extra virgin olive oil is authentic. These tests can spot when extra virgin olive oil is impure and has been mixed with seed or nut oils and can catch oils that are of lower-than-expected quality, such as those produced using poor quality fruit or under poor processing conditions, or those that are old or have been badly stored.6 More advanced testing methods have also recently attracted attention from olive oil manufacturing companies, as they could allow companies and regulators to detect more subtle forms of adulteration, trace the geographical origin of oils and provide consumers with a guarantee that their extra virgin olive oil is authentic. 

Beyond testing extra virgin olive oils, producers can also fight food fraud by improving the traceability of their supply chains. Some producers have begun using blockchain technology to record the product’s journey and give some assurance as to its origin,17 but blockchain technology alone is unlikely to solve the issue of traceability in food chains. Other complementary approaches, such as attaching colour-changing thermal labels to olive oil containers to ensure they are transported properly, are also likely to play an important role in fighting fraud and increasing trust in extra virgin olive oils.18 

Learn more about how blockchain technology might impact our food system, and why it can’t solve the problem on its own.

One extremely positive step is the increasing cooperation between EU member states in the fight against food fraud.19 Cracking down on fraudulent extra virgin olive oil will help ensure that top-quality producers get a fair price for their product and that shoppers can trust that the extra virgin olive oil in their cupboard is of the highest quality. 

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References
  1. Ruggeri, A. (2014). Is your olive oil lying about its virginity?
  2. Commission implementing regulation (EU) No 29/2012 of 13 January 2012 on marketing standards for olive oil.
  3. Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2019/1604 of 27 September 2019 amending Regulation (EEC) No 2568/91 on the characteristics of olive oil and olive-residue oil and on the relevant methods of analysis.
  4. Dawson, D. (2020). What does ‘cold pressed’ really mean? Accessed 26th October 2020.
  5. Mailer RJ, Gafner S. (2020). Adulteration of olive oil. Botanical Adulterants Prevention Bulletin. Austin, TX: ABC-AHP-NCNPR Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program.
  6. The EU Food Fraud Network and the Administrative Assistance and Cooperation System. 2019 Annual Report. The EU Food Fraud Network and the Administrative Assistance and Cooperation System. 2019 Annual Report.
  7. Weesepoel, Y. J. A., & van Ruth, S. M. (2015). Inventarisatie van voedselfraude: mondiaal kwetsbare productgroepen en ontwikkeling van analytische methoden in Europees onderzoek (No. 2015.014). RIKILT Wageningen UR.
  8. Hooper J. (2008). Italy embarrassed by counterfeit olive oil scandal. The guardian.
  9. Dawson, D. (2019). Turkey Accused of Selling Stolen Syrian Olive Oil as Its Own.
  10. Alech, A. (2015). Olive Oil in France Rife with Deception and Fraud, Report Finds.
  11. Conley, P. (2017). China arrests five for forging expiration dates on olive oil. Olive Oil Times.
  12. Gelpí, E., de la Paz, M. P., Terracini, B., Abaitua, I., de la Cámara, A. G., Kilbourne, E. M., ... & Tarkowski, S. (2002). The Spanish toxic oil syndrome 20 years after its onset: a multidisciplinary review of scientific knowledge. Environmental health pe
  13. Travers, P. R. (1962). The results of intoxication with orthocresyl phosphate absorbed from contaminated cooking oil, as seen in 4,029 patients in Morocco. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine. 55(1), 57-60.
  14. Cameron SJS et al., (2020) Sample preparation free mass spectrometry using laser-assisted rapid evaporative ionisation mass spectrometry (LA-REIMS): applications to microbiology, metabolic biofluid phenotyping, and food authenticity. Under Review at Talant
  15. Oracle. (2019). Certified origins Italia enhances supply chain traceability and trust with oracle blockchain.
  16. Weldal, M. (2019). FDA introduces security label for olive oil containers.
  17. DeAndreis, P. (2020) Cooperation in food fraud fight grows among EU members.
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