02 Nov

The three grades of olive oil

By Erica Marcus,

There are so many olive oils out there. What kind should I buy?

In the United States, you will generally see three types of olive oil at the market: extra-virgin, virgin and pure, which is also sometimes labeled, simply, “olive oil.” To understand the differences among them, you need to understand a little about olive-oil production.

To make olive oil, you take ripe olives and crush them, pits and all. From the resultant mash comes olive oil, and the method by which the oil is extracted will largely determine the quality of that oil.


The very best oil is extracted simply by pressing the mash and letting the oil dribble out. Because no heat is used (heat can damage the oil), this is called cold-pressed olive oil. Centrifugal force, heat and even chemical solvents also can be used to extract the oil, and these methods can be used on the olive mash after that first cold-pressed oil has been extracted. The oil produced by heat and/or chemical extraction is called refined olive oil and is of a much lower quality.

According to the International Olive Oil Council, extra-virgin olive oil and virgin olive oil must be extracted “solely by mechanical or other physical means under conditions … that do not lead to alterations in the oil, and which have not undergone any treatment other than washing, decantation, centrifugation and filtration.” Extra-virgin olive oil must contain not more than .8 percent acidity; virgin olive oil not more than 2 percent.

Pure olive oil is a mixture of virgin olive oil and refined (i.e., heat- or chemical- extracted) olive oil whose total acidity does not exceed 1 percent.

Now, while olive oils sold in this country are labeled according to those definitions, the United States, alone among major olive-oil producing nations, is not a member of the International Olive Oil Council and thus its standards have no legal force here. In 2004, the California Olive Oil Council petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to get with the international council’s program and to dispense with the USDA’s current standards, which took effect on March 22, 1948, and divide olive oil into “fancy,” “choice,” “standard” and “substandard” grades.

What olive oil should you buy? For my money, pure olive oil is a waste of money. If you want to buy a processed, light-colored oil that doesn’t taste like olives, save a few bucks and buy canola or corn oil.

I generally buy extra-virgin olive oil and, because there’s no real enforcement of the term, I buy a reputable brand. Italian olive oil has become very chic recently, but it’s an open secret that Italy doesn’t grow enough olives to produce the amount of oil it bottles. Lots of those olives come from Spain, the world’s largest olive-oil producer. Spain makes some terrific olive oils (from Zoe in the middle range to Nunez de Prado at the higher), as does Greece, and you will generally pay less for them than for Italian or French oils of comparable quality. That said, Fairway sells a variety of well-priced regional Italian olive oils.

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