The Secrets to Buying Olive Oil

By Nadia Vitari

I decided to write about olive oil inspired by the many questions that I have been receiving from friends here in India. In fact, at grocery stores and super markets, people ask for my suggestions about buying the best brands of olive oil to buy, the right price to pay, etc. When I visit my home in Italy, many of my Indian friends request me to bring them olive oil!

Oilive oil. Source:

I don’t blame them, selecting the right olive oil can be complicated and I know it. Many may think that good olive oil has a specific taste and use, but it is not so. There are many categories and variants, and purchasing one from a good brand doesn’t guarantee that we’ll like it! Why is it so? Read on!

So how to select a good oil? And why prefer extra virgin one (EVO) over the rest? And why is it better than the cheaper seed, sunflower or soy oils? Not to mention the eternal question: Is Tuscan olive oil really the best in the world? And what is the difference between Ligurian and Sicilian products?

Let’s go step by step!

Properties and uses of olive oil:

Olive oil extraction is the process of mining the oil present in olive drupes  and this craft has been honed in the Mediterranean region over thousands of years, and techniques have been passed down from generation to generation. The process is truly a regional art. The method used in Italy is different from the one used in Spain or Greece, and there are many regional variants, or each individual grower’s unique/secret way. It is really a craft: Mediterranean olive trees must mature for several years before they produce olives; careful pruning optimizes the number of olives a single tree will bear and a meticulous hand is necessary because it takes at least ten pounds of olives to produce one liter (about four cups) of olive oil. The taste varies depending on the types of olives, the area and its soil properties.

Its general qualities, though, are as follows:

  • It has a high smoke point, i.e. olive oil produces smoke (and therefore toxins) at higher temperatures than other oils;
  • It has high content of monounsaturated fats;
  • It is high in antioxidants that help to limit the cholesterol.

All these characteristics make it particularly valuable from a nutritional point of view. Other properties, like acidity, vary according to whether we choose EVO over general olive oil.

Why choose extra virgin?

Generally speaking, “olive oil” is simply the oil that’s obtained from the fruit of olive trees. It mostly indicates a simple and straightforward category. But there are different varieties of olive oil that are set apart not by the type of olive that’s used, but the process used to extract the oil, as well as by the additives, and the oil’s level of free oleic acid. For example, you can see that the extra-virgin olive oil has a noticeably darker color, while the regular olive oil has a lighter, brighter hue. You shouldn’t use color to reliably tell two grades of oil apart as it also varies across brands.  Olive oils can vary drastically in taste and quality, and color is only one factor and not the distinguishing one.

Olive oil is graded by its level of acidity, or free oleic acid. The amount of free oleic acid in olive oil indicates the extent to which fat has broken down into fatty acids. Olive oil also falls into two distinct categories: refined and unrefined. While unrefined oils are pure and untreated, refined oil is treated to remove flaws from the oil, making it more sellable, but they have little or no olive aroma, flavor, or colour (what they have gets there via blending in a tiny bit of an extra-virgin oil). They also have no bitterness. In contrast to unrefined extra-virgin olive oil, refined oils lack the important antioxidants and anti-inflammatories that make extra-virgin oil so special.

Tuscan Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Image source:

So, what is an extra virgin olive oil? It is the oil produced by mechanical pressing, without chemical solvents, without intermediate steps and immediately processed (this is why it is so good: olives don’t sit around deteriorating or losing Vitamin E! The acidity reaches 1% maximum, and it is easier to digest.

General oil is instead a mix between pomace (left-overs from olive pressing), chemical elements and further purifying treatments, and virgin oils. The result is more acid and with a worse taste.  As it is derived from production waste, though, prices are much lower.

How to choose them?

To be honest, regardless of the claims on the label, it is hard to purchase one coming from a single area, both as a general tip, let’s say that oils coming from Southern Italy have a stronger taste, so choose them only if you like a very intense flavor.

Rich, beautiful, and fragrant, olive oil is much like wine: taste is a matter of personal preference and a professional sommelier could also suggest you how to pair it at best with dishes. But take note that bitterness and pungency are usually indicators of oil healthfulness while sweetness and buttery-ness are often not. Especially, above all, seek out freshness, choosing oils that smell and taste vibrant and lively, and avoid tastes or odors such as moldy, rancid, cooked, greasy, meaty, metallic and cardboard.  Also pay attention to its mouthfeel: prefer crisp and clean to flabby, coarse or greasy.

The Recognose Tasting Wheel of Olive Oil Flavors. Image source:

Read the label carefully, look for renowned certifications and availability of information: know the when, who, where of your oil, i.e. when it was made (harvest date), who made it (specific producer name), and exactly where they made it.

Phrases like “packed in Italy” or “bottled in Italy,” don’t imply that the oil was made in Italy, much less that it was made from Italian olives.  Italy is one of the world’s major importers of olive oil, much of which originates in Spain, Greece, Tunisia and elsewhere, so don’t be taken in by Italian flags and scenes from the Tuscan countryside on the packaging, those are just visually-appealing marketing strategies!  Some of the oil imported into Italy is consumed in the country, but much of it is blended, packed and re-exported.  Generally speaking, avoid oils whose precise point of production (a specific mill) is not specified on the label.

Olive oil brands. Image source:

As regards trustworthy certifications,  PDO is the acronym for Protected Designation of Origin (DOP in Italian), a legal definition, similar to the Appellation d’origine contrôlée designation in French wines, for foods (including extra virgin olive oil) that are produced or processed in a specific region using traditional production methods.  (PGI, or Protected Geographical Indication -IGP in Italian) is a similar though less stringent designation.  The production process of PDO and PGI oils is laid down by a specific protocol and overseen by a quality control committee, which further helps to maintain the quality of the oil.  PDO status is legally binding within the EU, and is gradually being extended to areas outside the European Union via bilateral agreements.

Once home, because of its high monounsaturated fat content, it can be stored longer than most other oils but there are some rules to follow:  oils are fragile and need to be treated gently to preserve their healthful properties. When choosing your storage location, remember that heat, air, and light are the enemies of oil. These elements help create free radicals, which eventually lead to excessive oxidation and rancidity in the oil that will leave a bad taste in your mouth. Even worse, oxidation and free radicals contribute to heart disease and cancer. When choosing bottled oil, prefer dark glass or other containers that protect against light, buy a quantity that you’ll use up quickly, and keep it well sealed in a cool, dark place.  Even excellent oil can rapidly go rancid when left sitting under a half-bottle of air, or in hot or brightly-lit conditions.

I hope my little guide will be useful to you, unfortunately is very hard to give more specific suggestions as there are over 700 different kinds of olives in the world!

Now, happy hunting and tasting!

Information Sources: 


About Nadia Vitari

Passionate traveler and backpacker, Nadia comes from the Lake of Como area in Italy (yes, where George Clooney lives!). She moved to Mumbai to work for an NGO. Being Italian and having lived, worked and studied in different countries, she is passionate about food and other cultures, especially anything Japanese! She also loves reading, football and rock music.


This post is part of Holachef’s Write Ho! program which is open to Holachef’s fans, critics, customers and their loved ones! To participate, write to [email protected]

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