How To Tell If Your Olive Oil Is The Real Deal

Olive oil is almost as old as time itself, and as versatile as a pair of jeans. A staple for frying and sautéing, it's also delicious as a salad drizzle, a bread dip, and even as a main ingredient in a cake. Seriously, if you haven't tried an orange or lemon olive oil cake, you're missing out on a real treat. As if all that weren't enough, olive oil is also an important part of the Mediterranean diet — an eating plan considered to be both heart-healthy and sustainable (via the Mayo Clinic).

But that bottle in your pantry may not be everything it claims to be. Many commercial olive oils are a mishmash of oils of varying quality from different countries that are sent to Italy for exporting just to have the "imported from Italy" bragging rights. Many others are a blend of freshly pressed oil and oil that has been sitting around for a while (via Epicurious). The result — oil that's either rancid-tasting, less healthful, or both. There was even a counterfeit olive oil scandal a few years back, in which unscrupulous companies were illegally mixing olive oil with other types of oil to cut costs (via Cooking Light).

Considering olive oil's price and health benefits, it pays to be a smart consumer. Here's how to make sure the oil you buy is the best it can be.

Know what to look for on the label when you buy olive oil

You probably already know it's a good idea to look for the phrase "extra-virgin olive oil" when you scan the shelves. After all, Rachael Ray helped make the phrase "EVOO" part of the national vocabulary. The phrase simply means that the oil has been extracted directly from the olives without chemicals or heat, and has passed the standards of the International Olive Council. By contrast, "light" olive oil may seem healthier, but that simply refers to the color of the oil. Light olive oil has also been processed to help it withstand higher cooking temperatures. That may be helpful if you're frying, but don't expect to get the same health benefits as extra-virgin (via The Spruce Eats).

But an extra-virgin label alone doesn't guarantee a great oil. Epicurious urges consumers to check for other signs of quality, such as a "harvest date" indicator. If the harvest occurred within the last 18 months, that's a sign it's still at its peak. A "best by" stamp, on the other hand, doesn't necessarily mean the oil is fresh. If the bottle's label also indicates an FFA level, that's even better. The initials stand for "free fatty acidity," and a low acidity level means a superior oil. 

Light can also break down even the best olive oil. Look for oil packaged in a dark glass bottle, or buy one yourself and transfer your oil to it. Then keep it away from direct sunlight, advises The Kitchn.

When in doubt about olive oil, taste it

Tom Mueller, author of "Extra Virginity: Inside the Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil," offers a number of tips on his website for olive oil lovers. If you're not lucky enough to live near an actual olive oil mill, he says the next best thing is to find a store that will let you taste the product before buying. A good-quality oil should have a clean, fruity taste — some even have a grassy quality — along with a slight bitter or peppery flavor. If the oil tastes bland, greasy, metallic, or otherwise unpleasant, give it a hard pass.

While many gourmet olive oil shops are a good source of fresh, delicious products, you might be surprised to find that quality oils are available in your local market. Mueller lists a number of supermarket brands of olive oil that offer excellent and budget-friendly products. Included on the list are California Olive Ranch, O-Live, and Lucini. If you're a Whole Foods shopper, check out their California 365 label, and Trader Joe's best olive oil brands are the Premium 100% Greek Kalamata and their California Estate Olive Oil. Even your favorite warehouse stores stock excellent olive oils; Mueller singles out the Omaggio brand sold at Sam's Club and the Kirkland Toscano label from Costco.

Once you have your top-notch bottle of olive oil, use it often to keep it from going rancid. Lastly, Mueller has an unusual suggestion — use it as a topping for vanilla ice cream. "Try it before you scoff!" he says.