Want Better Olive Oil? Start with Better Olives

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It’s not difficult to find a bottle labeled “extra virgin olive oil” — a term that’s not only ubiquitous, but that is also synonymous in most people’s minds with a high-quality product. Unfortunately, like many other words that end up on food labels, those don’t necessarily mean what they say. In fact, an estimated 70 percent of imported extra virgin olive oil isn’t actually extra virgin at all. It’s been refined and processed or made from poor-quality (possibly even rotten) olives.

Rob McGavin, CEO of Cobram Estate, is on a quest to change that — or at least offer up a reasonably priced, quality olive oil that lives up to its “extra virgin” label. Here, he explains how to find one that’s worth eating.

What’s the difference between an olive oil that’s refined and one that’s truly extra virgin?

Rob McGavin: Approximately 50 percent of the world’s olives are so rotten when they are crushed that the resulting oil is not fit for consumption and needs to be refined. The refining process is a very unnatural, industrial process that uses heat and chemicals to bleach, neutralize, deodorize and degum the oil. The process also removes all the antioxidants and creates unhealthy trans fats. True extra virgin olive oil comes from simply crushing and pressing fresh olives.

How can consumers distinguish a true extra virgin olive oil from a refined or adulterated product?

RM: Consumers really need to taste it. Extra virgin olive oil should taste like a fresh fruit, with a complex flavor and a bit of pepperiness on the finish (those are the antioxidants). In the store, it’s best to look for bottles with a harvest date to verify the freshness of the oil. And buy ones made from olives from a single source (e.g., 100 percent California olives), because if the olives are coming from multiple countries, chances are some were mishandled along the way.

How quickly should olive oil be consumed after bottling in order to get the best taste and most nutritional benefits?

RM: The quicker the olives are crushed and pressed after picking, the more the levels of antioxidants are maximized. And the sooner you enjoy it after that, the better. We test each of our olive oils for an exact best-by date at the time of pressing and print it on the bottle. Typically, it is about 18 months from the harvest date. We also recommend that once the bottle is opened, you use it within four weeks for maximum flavor and health benefits.

How is Cobram able to produce such a high-quality extra virgin olive oil at such a relatively low price?

RM: Our production methodology allows us to produce some of the highest-quality extra virgin olive oil at an affordable price (California Select and Australia Select both retail for $12.99). We are a fully vertically integrated company, which allows us to be efficient and provide unparalleled quality control. Thanks to exclusive harvesting and crushing techniques, we’re able to press our olives within four to six hours of them being picked from the branch.

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Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.