Caveat Emptor: A buyer’s guide to olive oil

Facing rows of bottles in the olive oil section of an upscale grocery store, I felt overwhelmed. What is the difference between all of these oils with fancy labels? Why are the prices so different? If I spend a lot of money, will I get an exceptional olive oil I will like? I don’t think I am alone in feeling confused when it comes to buying olive oil. In addition to not knowing where to start, the labeling on some of these products can be misleading and out-rightly false. This short guide to buying olive oil will help you become a better-informed consumer who gets what they want or at least what they bargained for.

Buy fresh olive oil
In my opinion, the most important consideration when buying oil should be its date of production. Unlike wine, olive oil does not get better with age. As oil ages, it loses its taste and colour. It is a good rule to consume your olive oil when 18 months of production: insist on fresh olive oil and make sure the bottle you are buying has a production date and not only a ‘best by’ date, which means very little.

Read the label
Half the battle of buying good oil comes when reading the label. Now that you have located the date of production, you might want to consider what kind of oil you are paying for: look for the quality of oil. Extra virgin olive oil is the most sought after and the priciest. Extra virgin has low acidity, which makes it perfect for using as a condiment on salads, grilled meats, vegetables, fish and soups. Some labels may even include the level of acidity (the lower the better). Now you should look for the area of production and the origins of your oil. This can tell you a lot about the style of the oil; for example, if it is heavy, fruity, spicy or light. The label might also mention the types of olives (cultivars) used in producing the oil. I always think that the more information given to the consumer, the more likely you are to be getting a quality product. I prefer artisan oils that are produced by small-scale farmers and I avoid multi-national brands. Big name olive oils usually have rather murky origins.

Not all olive oil is the same
Olive oil tends to compliment the local cuisine of where it is produced. Amelia Oil from Umbria is perfect on the grilled meats and lentil soups, which is typical fare in that region. If you want to drizzle oil on fish, you might consider using a Sicilian, Ligurian or Southern French oil that is lighter and better suited to the delicate taste of fish. Not all olive oil tastes the same and not everyone likes the same oils. I would suggest buying several types of olive oil from different regions and experiment with tastes in the kitchen.

Just because an olive oil is expensive doesn’t mean it is good. If you buy fresh oil and you know where it is from, you are more likely to get good oil. Although the aesthetics of the bottle can play a part in the consumer’s decision making process, it is time to look beyond the package and demand sustainable fair-trade olive oil. That said, you should also be aware of olive that is too cheap: it is not likely to be 100% olive oil and certainly not extra virgin.

Buying olive oil can be tricky business because there are very few regulations placed on the labeling of this product. The European Union is trying to impose some order, but the lobby and interests of big industry is proving a major challenge. Shop intelligently and demand quality and transparency.