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Thursday 19 January 2017

Buying olive oil from a supermarket

This story goes back further - some useful pre-reading:
I don't buy olive oil because we have our own supplies of 'green gold', made from the harvest of the fruit of our own olive groves, but if I were living far away from my own supplies, I would have to work out how to keep myself supplied with quality olive oil, and I would probably do most of my shopping at the supermarket. So how does one go about choosing the product that will best suit one's needs?

In Crete, we always talk about λάδι (= oil) when we talk about olive oil. The more correct term would be ελαιόλαδο (= olive oil). But we generally assume that everyone is using the same λάδι in their food. We produce so much olive oil in the first place - there isn't a place in Crete where an olive tree isn't visible - that we naturally assume that everyone uses olive oil in their food preparations.

This bring us to another issue: Why do olive oil packaging labels use the words 'extra-virgin' to describe the olive oil? The answer to that questions lies in the acidity level of the olive oil: There will be times when your olive oil will not be extra virgin olive oil, because there are times when olive oil need not be extra virgin. Confused? I hope this post will help you. As you read through it, please DO open the embedded facebook posts, and check the comments in them, because this post is based on them. (If you can't see the facebook post, click on the facebook link instead.)

For a start, it should be mentioned that olive oil is more expensive than other cooking oils. That's what makes it the most controversial cooking oils in the world: Its high cost of purchase urges buyers to seek the best quality for the money they pay for it. Olive oil quality is determined by factors such as the following:
- Variety of olive used
- Location and soil conditions where the olives were grown
- Environmental factors and weather during the growing season
- Olive ripeness
- Timing of the harvest
- Harvesting method
- Length of time between the harvest and pressing
- Pressing technique
- Packaging and storage methods

Don't be fooled by things like the colour of the oil, the container shape/design, the label design and the brand name under which the oil is being sold: they do not determine the quality of the product you are buying; you may be paying a premium price for such things without realising it. Such factors all have to do with our perceptions of beauty, which as we all know is in the eyes of the beholder.

The International Olive Oil Council designates 'virgin olive oils' as: "the oils obtained from the fruit of the olive tree (Olea europaea L.) solely by mechanical or other physical means under conditions, particularly thermal conditions, that do not lead to alterations in the oil, and which have not undergone any treatment other than washing, decantation, centrifugation and filtration". But the end product is categorised in different ways, because of the many different factors involved in making olive oil. From the same species of fruit, Olea europaea L., we can have:

- Extra virgin olive oil, characterised by a free acidity of not more than 0.8 grams per 100 grams
- Virgin olive oil, characterised by a free acidity of not more than 2 grams per 100 grams
- Ordinary virgin olive oil, characterised by a free acidity of not more 3.3 grams per 100 grams
- Lampante olive oil, characterised by a free acidity of more than 3.3 grams per 100 grams, which is not intended for human consumption (it has industrial uses)
- Refined olive oil, obtained from virgin olive oils by refining methods, which is then characterised by a free acidity of not more than 0.3 grams per 100 grams
- Olive oil, consisting of a blend of refined olive oil and virgin olive oils, which is then characterised by a free acidity of not more than 1 gram per 100 grams
- Olive pomace oil, obtained by treating pulped olives with solvents or other physical treatments

By the above definitions, my family's production of olive oil is always extra virgin because we never produce olive oil with an acidity level of higher than 0.8. This is no surprise as Crete's olive oil industry is based solely on the production of extra-virgin olive oil, while 80% of Greece's annual olive oil production consists of extra virgin olive oil. To distinguish between very low acidity and and higher acidity in the extra virgin olive oil category, we also have the designation of 'extra-extra virgin olive oil' when the acidity is no more than 0.3-0.4

From the above, we can understand that:
- Not all olive oil is extra virgin.
- Not all packaged olive oil has been produced in the same way.
- The acidity level of olive oil plays a role in its quality.
How virgin an olive oil is will therefore affect olive oil prices: Acidity is the key here.

There are also other factors involved in pricing olive oil: In the present olive oil producing season, Greek producers have received good prices for their product, based on the hindered production of other olive oil producing countries, namely Italy and Spain. Italy's trees were ravaged by disease in early 2016 while Spain's were highly affected by drought. Greece's trees do not yet show any signs of the Italian disease, while the very dry summer weather suddenly eased in December which saw a lot of rain in Greece. The rain came at just the right time for olive, as it is usually ripe by this time, and olive oil production is in its full swing at this time.

Since the acidity level of an olive oil is important in pricing the product, the acidity level is the very first thing that will be checked by a producer in Crete. This may sound incredible because in international terms, the acidity level is NOT required to be stated (see Acidity level can be implied from the name on the label, eg 'extra virgin olive oil' implies that the acidity level is no more than 0.8. But low acidity can also be reached by mixing and refining techniques; therefore, the original acidity level at the time of production loses its importance, (see

If you rely on the information on the labels of the products you buy to provide you with all the information you need about a product - and you trust it - you can leave it at that, and feel that you are getting value for money. But if you know that olive oil producers are getting higher prices for their product based on the acidity level of the product, surely that should be just one more factor that you should be considering when you are buying olive oil. After all, most extra virgin olive oil labels state words to the effect of:

"... produced entirely by mechanical means without the use of any solvents..."

which one would think could be taken for granted. But very few packaged extra virgin olive oils will include the acidity level on the label. Most olive oil labels will include information about the origin of olive oil, and will even tell you if it is a 'mixie-mixie' kind of oil (my terminology, to describe a product that contains a mixture of olive oil from different countries). Why the need for such wording, and nothing about acidity?

Despite the fact that mentioning the acidity level of extra virgin olive oil on a label is not a legal requirement, many Greek producers of extra virgin olive oil still mention it. It's no surprise then, when a customer finds acidity level mentioned on the label of packaged olive oil of a Greek origin:
"My customer told me she was purchasing an EVOO from Greece with an acidity level of .3%. She wanted to know if the EVOOs I carried had the acidity level listed on the label like hers. Much like customers that look for the words first cold pressed/ing on the labeling because marketing tactics tell them to specifically look for those words,  her concern arose because of this newest method to market olive oil... the acidity levels of extra virgin olive oil mean very little unless someone has a medical condition where a .5% to .8% would cause stomach upset.  So long as the oil is real EVOO (and many are not even though they claim to be) there is no reason to choose based on acidity. It should be based on taste and what one wants to do with the olive oil."
If there is NO reason to choose extra virgin olive oil based on acidity levels, why does acidity level determine the price of olive oil? Ignoring the acidity of an olive oil may be misleading for a number of reasons:
- The lower the acidity of freshly produced olive oil, the higher the price it can command.
- Low acidity extra virgin olive oil has a lighter taste, which is why it's the best choice for drizzling over your salads.
- Higher acidity levels are better for use in cooking, ie the process of heating olive oil, because they reach a smoking point more quickly; therefore, cooking with a low acidity olive oil may feel like you're boiling your food rather than frying it.
- Very low acidity in olive oil is a sign of less ripening of the fruit, so it can taste more peppery, with a bit of a zing to it when it goes down your throat. This has to do with the sensory perceptions of the product: Some like it hot, some like it cold.
- High acidity olive oil cannot be labelled extra-virgin.
Is the acidity level of an olive oil really a non-issue, given the above information?

 *** *** ***
When I visit friends in London, I always bring some of our own extra-extra virgin olive oil supplies to them as a present. I put into a clean coca-cola type bottle (they are very strong) and securely fasten the cap. Then I seal the cap with cellotape. Then I place the bottle on a plastic bag and tie it up with cellotape, repeating the last step twice. I also checked the olive oil selection at the two supermarkets that I went to: Waitrose, Greenwich...

... and Sainsbury's, Lewisham Shopping Centre.

Hardly any of the labels mention the acidity level of the product. I found only one in Waitrose (Morgenster, South Africa), and only one in Sainsbury's (Iliada, Greece). Both these olive oils were produced in one region, whereas the other olive oils were made from a mixture of olive oils produced in different places: in other words, mixie-mixie, according to my terminology. Without doubt, such oils are more difficult to control for quality. Own-brand labels are far more common than any other kinds of olive oil. Own-brand supermarket olive oils are a kind of '[generic' of olive oil, and they do not state the acidity level of the product. You cannot guarantee quality in such cases. Monovarietals (olive oil produced with one variety of olives) are rare, as are olive oils produced in specific geographical regions. Supermarkets are competing with each other for prices. And in London, it is only natural to assume that specialised products will command high prices, perhaps too high for the average shopper to consider paying at a supermarket counter.

Crete is a major producer of olive oil, so you may be surprised to see a similar 'small' range of olive oil products being sold at our supermarkets. This is probably because the average buyer of olive oil from the supermarket is NOT Greek! Most of us have our own supplies of green gold. Those who do not will probably not buy their needs from the supermarket... They will buy it from a producer they know, or go directly to an olive oil factory and buy it in bulk. What use is a 1L bottle of olive oil - or even a 5L canister of olive oil! - when the average amount of olive oil consumed per capita per annum in Crete is... 25-30 kilos?! It's a little lower for the rest of Greece - Cretans use more olive oil than other Greeks (and according to statistics, they eat more cheese too, even more than the average French person).

Even so, it is worth noting what local Greek supermarkets are selling. Not all olive oils sold in Crete mention the acidity level on their packaging. Here's what I found at LIDL, a German supermarket chain...

... and SYNKA, a supermarket chain founded in Hania:

I was mainly interested in extra virgin olive oil. All the supermarkets I took photographs in (both in London and in Hania) sell a variety of olive oil types, not just extra-virgin olive oil. I did not make a point of including the prices for all the olive oil labels I photographed. Sometimes price is misleading: is it a sign of quality, or is it a sign of status? Likewise, if you have a preference for 'organic', you may end up paying more money for organic olive oil, even though its quality as olive oil may be compromised.
No automatic alt text available.
Olive oil sold at SYNKA supermarket, Hania. Notice that you can also buy seed oil here too. If you don;t have your own supplies of olive oil, using seed oil to fry with will turn out cheaper.

To conclude, I would say that the best extra virgin olive oil is that which is produced locally. Buying your own country's production is probably the best way of going about buying olive oil for your own use. This includes non-traditional, new producer countries that have entered the olive oil market relatively recently, like South Africa and the US. If you are using olive oil in its raw form, you should be using only extra-virgin olive oil. If you are using it to cook with, you can buy non-extra virgin olive oil which will be cheaper. Finally, since most of the packaged extra virgin olive oil sold in a local Greek non-international supermarket chain mention an acidity level on the label, and it's mainly our tourists who buy such packaged products, you can bet that they are buying very good quality extra virgin olive oil to take back home with them.

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