Most 'extra virgin' olive oil bottles are actually cheaper mix -- even Rachael Ray's

olive oilMore than two of every three bottles labeled imported extra virgin olive oil are either a cheaper grade of olive oil or adulterated with another type of oil, a University of California at Davis study found.

Top-selling brands including Bertolli, Filippo Berio, Carapelli, Pompeiian, Colavita, Mazola and Carapelli all had bottles that flunked the test -- containing instead a cheaper virgin olive oil, the study by the university's Olive Center found. Even a brand carrying the name of TV host Rachael Ray -- who frequently touts her supposedly extra virgin olive oil -- flunked the testing on two of three samples.
The chemical analysis did find that 90% of the California-packaged olive oils were indeed what they claimed to be. Two that were exactly what they claimed to be were Walmart's Great Value brand and Costco's Kirkland Organic.

"The intent of the study was to provide consumers and retailers with an accurate picture of the quality of olive oils now being marketed through grocery stores and other retail outlets in California," Dan Flynn, executive director of the Olive Center, said in statement sent to Consumer Ally. "Our hope is that these findings will lead to improved methods for evaluating extra virgin olive oil, and increased consumer confidence that 'extra virgin' on the label means extra virgin in the bottle."

Flynn said the United States is the world's third-largest consumer of olive oil.

Consumer Ally contacted several of the largest manufacturers cited in the study, but only one immediately responded to the request to comment on the study. A Colavita official wanted to read the study before discussing.

UPDATE (July 22): Colavita spokeswoman Teresa D'Errico sent the following statement disputing the study:
"The study from the University of California is untrue. This study was paid for by the Califoria olive oil companies, thus there is an inherent conflict of interest and the methodology used is flawed. This was not an objective testing of various olive oils and it is unfortunate that the public believes it without further investigation."
Pompeiian said they would not comment, but referred to a statement by the North American Olive Oil Association taking issue with the study.

"We sample more than 200 olive oils a year and conduct rigorous chemical analysis through independent labs," association president Bob Bauer said in the statement. "We're finding that less than 10 percent of the oils tested have any problems and they, in total, typically represent less than 1 percent of the market. In fact, a condition of membership in the NAOOA is that members must meet the international standard. If our test results show they don't, they will be removed from the association."

"The NAOOA is and has been a champion of quality olive oil for decades," "We continue to take steps to protect consumers, including encouraging regulators at the federal and state level to follow the IOC standards to guarantee consumers a modern standard in identifying and labeling olive oil."

He added: "The bottom line is that imported olive oils are authentic, high-quality products. They offer many heart-healthy benefits, they are versatile for cooking, and they are a good value."Importers' products represent the majority of olive oil available to consumers – 99 percent – and it's prudent that we uphold the high standards of quality consumers expect. It's prudent to our industry as well."

A history of duping consumers believing they're buying the rich-flavored and often pricey extra virgin olive oil led the federal government to enact more stringent olive oil standards, scheduled to take effect in October. In 2008, Connecticut became the first state to regulate olive oil after finding that some being sold included nut oils or soy oils, which could cause dangerous allergic reactions.

"Before this study, we had anecdotal reports of poor quality olive oil being sold as extra virgin," Flynn said. "Now there is empirical proof."

Some of the tests analyzed for problems that would affect flavor -- the very essence of extra virgin olive oil. "Many of these oils just did not taste good," Flynn said.

He cited the following reasons for the oil flunking the tests:
  • adulteration with cheaper refined olive oil
  • oxidation due to elevated temperature, light and or aging;
  • poor-quality oils made from damaged and overripe olives,
  • processing flaws or improper oil storage.
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