If you’re shopping for olive oil, extra-virgin is the highest quality you can get. It’s also a healthy choice with high levels of monounsaturated fatty acids, antioxidants and polyphenols. But are all extra-virgin olive oils created equal? We tested 17 from New Zealand, Australia and Europe to find out.
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Extra-virgin olive oil is produced without heat or chemical processing. The International Olive Council (IOC) says the oil must meet chemical criteria and be free from defects when assessed by a sensory panel trained to IOC standards.
We carried out 3 chemical tests and a sensory analysis of the oils. The oils that passed the chemical and sensory tests were lined up in a blind tasting by 3 IOC-accredited tasters. The tasters rated the oils out of 100 and were looking for well-balanced oils with good aromas and lots of fruity flavours.
No tested oil was worthy of a gold medal. But the 2 Aussie oils in our line-up achieved silver medal status (75% to 84%). Red Island First Cold Pressed (78%) had “a peppery finish” with artichoke, herb, cashew and lemon notes. Cobram Estate First Cold Pressed Classic Flavour (76%) had “a delicate fruity nose” with citrus and mint notes. At $1.40 and $1.60 per 100ml they’re also good value.
Eight oils achieved a bronze medal (65% to 74%) including Harvest Special Selection (73%) – the cheapest oil per 100ml in our test ($1.05). Two Kiwi oils – Kapiti Frantoio/Leccino and Divinity Premium Frantoio – made a good showing, both scoring 70%. The Kapiti oil had cinnamon and nutmeg notes and the tasters liked Divinity’s “chilli/onion finish”.
Select, Borges, La Espanola, The Olive Lady and Pams were our other bronze medal oils. The Select, La Espanola and The Olive Lady oils had no “pressed-on” or “harvested” date (although they were within their best-before) and we may have struck a newer batch of these oils. But there’s no way of knowing from the bottle. We’d like to see pressed-on or harvest dates for all extra-virgin olive oil.
Some oils didn’t perform as well as they did in our previous tastings. The Village Press Frantoio was one of our top performers in 2008, but the tasters thought the oil we tasted this year was lacking in fruit. On the other hand, the Kapiti brand rated well this year but was rated unacceptable by our panel in our 2008 tasting. Oil can be affected by transport and storage, an issue for producers to follow up with retailers.
Four oils weren’t included in our tasting because they failed either the sensory or chemical tests.
Olivani and Ceres Organics oils failed our sensory test. The Ceres Organics oil had a “rancid” defect, which means the oil had started to oxidise and break down. Olivani had a “fusty/muddy sediment” defect – the olives may have started to ferment before they were pressed. Both were well within their best-before date of mid-2018, but neither oil had a “pressed-on” date.
The Olivani oil was in a clear bottle. Packing oil in clear bottles and exposing it to artificial light for long periods, such as the lighting in supermarkets, results in oil deteriorating faster.
Ceres Organics provided us with certification its oil met the sensory and chemical specification for extra-virgin olive oil when it was shipped. It is investigating the matter with its supplier.
Two Kiwi oils – Moutere Grove and 100% Kiwi New Zealand – had 1 (out of 3) UV absorption reading slightly higher than tolerated by the IOC standard. This indicates the oil may have degraded during storage.
These oils also had the highest peroxide values (PV) in our test – Moutere Grove had a PV of 15 and 100% Kiwi New Zealand a PV of 16. When an olive is picked, it has a PV of almost zero. A good olive oil pressed promptly under good conditions will end up in the bottle with a PV of 2 to 3. However, there’s still oxygen in the bottle and, when oil reacts with oxygen, it begins to deteriorate. The PV will increase in the bottle, with the peroxides breaking down to give nasty-smelling and tasting compounds.
Olives New Zealand (the New Zealand olive oil industry body) believes the IOC’s PV maximum of 20 is too high. To qualify for Olives New Zealand certification, an olive oil must have a PV value of less than 15.
Buying extra-virgin olive oil from Italy? You need to check the labels carefully – it may not be made from Italian olives at all.
Spain is the biggest producer of olives and olive oil. Italy is the second-biggest producer. However, because the Italians are also one of the biggest consumers of olive oil, Italy doesn’t produce enough olives to meet its own demand. Much of the Spanish crop is exported to Italy, where it’s repackaged for sale as Italian olive oil. Other countries, such as Greece and Turkey, also export olives to Italy.
Lupi says it’s “imported from Italy”. This gives the impression the olives were grown in Italy, but it may mean the oil was only bottled there as the fine print on the back says it’s “blended and bottled in Italy from Mediterranean olive oils”. Gusto says it’s “packed in Italy” but the back label says it’s from European Union origin.
If you’re looking for olive oil made with Italian olives look for the label “Product of Italy” or “Produced and bottled in Italy”.
Red Island Extra Virgin Olive Oil First Cold Pressed
Cobram Estate Extra Virgin Olive Oil First Cold Pressed Classic Flavour
Harvest Extra Virgin Olive Oil Special Selection
Kapiti Extra Virgin Olive Oil Frantoio/Leccino
Divinity Premium Extra Virgin Olive Oil Frantoio
Buy the freshest oil possible. Look for a “pressed-on” or harvest date, as best-before dates aren’t necessarily a good indicator of quality.
Heat and light affect oil quality. Don’t buy clear-bottled oils, especially ones that have been displayed in a shop window or under fluorescent light.
Store in a cool dark place, tightly stoppered.
|Product||Price/100ml ($)[sort;asc]||Packaging||Date markings||FFA test||PV test||UV absorption test||Sensory test||Tasting results (%)||Tasting results (%)[sort; hidden; asc]||Tasting comments|
|Red Island Extra Virgin Olive Oil First Cold Pressed (Australia)||1.40||Green bottle||Harvested 2016. Best-before 9/10/2018.||0.45||10||1.86||EVOO||78||78||Artichoke, green herbaceous, good transfer, cashew, citrus (lemon). Peppery finish.|
|Cobram Estate Extra Virgin Olive Oil First Cold Pressed Classic Flavour (Australia)||1.60||Green bottle||Harvested 2016. Best-before 9/11/2018.||0.23||7||1.69||EVOO||76||76||Delicate fruity nose. Citrus and mint notes. Very mild bitterness and pungency.|
|Harvest Extra Virgin Olive Oil Special Selection (Spain)||1.05||Green bottle||Best-before 24/11/2018.||0.22||8||2.05||EVOO||73||73||Tropical fruits and passionfruit. Good transfer to palate.|
|Divinity Premium Extra Virgin Olive Oil Frantoio (NZ)||7.58||Dark bottle||Pressed May 2016. Best-before May 2018.||0.10||12||1.66||EVOO||70||70||Cut grass and green herbs. Nice sweet grassy transfer to palate with chilli/onion finish.|
|Kapiti Extra Virgin Olive Oil Frantoio/Leccino (NZ)||4.44||Green bottle||Pressed July 2016. Best-Before July 2018.||0.10||9||1.84||EVOO||70||70||Soft harmonious palate. Spices of cinnamon and nutmeg. Mild bitterness and pungency. Fresh and clean.|
|Select Extra Virgin Olive Oil (Spain)||1.50||Green bottle||Best-before 13/07/2018.||0.24||8||1.94||EVOO||69||69||Green fruits on nose. Mild bitterness and pungency.|
|Borges Extra Virgin Olive Oil Original (Spain)||1.26||Green bottle||Packed on 11/05/2017. Best-before 11/11/2018.||0.18||7||1.94||EVOO||68||68||Tropical fruits. Good transfer to palate. Lingering flavours.|
|La Espanola Extra Virgin Olive Oil Special Selection (Spain)||1.20||Can||Best-before 8/04/2018.||0.27||10||2.13||EVOO||66||66||Tropical fruits with gentle herbaceous flavours.|
|The Olive Lady Extra Virgin Olive Oil First Cold Pressed (Greece)||1.60||Green bottle||Best-before 2/09/2018.||0.43||11||2.02||EVOO||66||66||Light delicate. Peaches and almonds. Buttery. Medium lingering pungency. Medium rocket finish.|
|Pams Cold Pressed Extra Virgin Olive Oil (Spain)||1.40||Green bottle||Packed on 29/02/2017. Best-before 28/08/2018.||0.24||9||2.19||EVOO||65||65||Low in aroma and flavour. Slight chemical taste. Unbalanced. Lingering long bitterness.|
|Gusto Extra Virgin Olive Oil (Italy)||1.20||Green bottle||Best-before 31/12/2018.||0.37||7||1.93||EVOO||63||63||Exotic fruits on nose. Bit flat and oily.|
|Lupi Fruity Taste Cold Pressed Extra Virgin Olive Oil (Italy)||1.50||Green bottle||Best-before January 2019.||0.28||10||2.26||EVOO||62||62||Low in aroma. Bitter. Lacks complexity. Unbalanced. Lingering pungency.|
|The Village Press Extra Virgin Olive Oil Frantoio (NZ)||2.40||Green bottle||Harvested June 2016. Best-before 31/07/2018.||0.36||12||2.05||EVOO||55||55||Lacking fruit. Lacks clarity and cleanliness.|
|100% Kiwi New Zealand Extra Virgin Olive Oil (NZ)||2.20||Dark bottle||Pressed June 2016. Best-before June 2018.||0.12||16||2.62||EVOO||NT||0||Not tasted - failed one UV absorption test.|
|Ceres Organics Extra Virgin Cold Pressed Olive Oil (Italy)||3.40||Dark bottle||Best-before 16/05/2018.||0.27||10||2.31||Virgin||NT||0||Not tasted - failed sensory test.|
|Moutere Grove Extra Virgin Olive Oil (NZ)||5.39||Green bottle||Harvested June 2016. Best-before June 2018.||<0.10||15||2.54||EVOO||NT||0||Not tasted - failed one UV absorption test.|
|Olivani Extra Virgin Olive Oil First Cold Press Fruity Taste (Italy)||1.90||Clear bottle||Best-before 22/06/2018||0.52||11||2.22||Virgin||NT||0||Not tasted - failed sensory test.|
GUIDE TO THE TABLE PRODUCTS are listed alphabetically according to their tasting result. PRICE is per 100ml and is based on the price we paid. Larger sizes may be more economical. FFA TEST Free fatty acid acceptable range 0-0.8%. PV TEST Peroxide value acceptable range 0-20 mEqO2/kg. UV ABSORPTION TEST acceptable range 0-2.50. Two additional UV measurements were taken; all products were in the acceptable range for these additional tests. SENSORY TEST EVOO = Extra-virgin olive oil. TASTING RESULTS % Gold medal standard (85% to 100%). Silver medal standard (75% to 84%). Bronze medal standard (65% to 74%). NT = not tasted.
Our test and tasting were conducted by the IOC-accredited NSW Department of Primary Industries Oil Testing Service at the Wagga Wagga Agricultural Institute. Product samples were purchased by Consumer NZ.
According to the IOC trade standards, extra-virgin olive oil must have a maximum free fatty acid (FFA) level of 0.8% and a maximum peroxide value (PV) of 20. It also has 3 requirements for UV absorption.
The FFA level measures the amount of chemical breakdown of the oil. This tends to increase if the fruit is damaged and as the fruit ages. Poor handling and storage of fruit between harvest and processing can also increase FFA levels. However, it’s fairly stable once the oil is bottled.
The PV measures the level of oxidation at any given time. It’s affected by air or light coming into contact with the oil during processing and storage. An oil’s PV will continue to rise in the bottle over time.
The UV absorption test may also detect degradation of the oil during storage. UV absorption continues to rise as the oil ages.
The IOC also requires oils to be free from defects and have positive characteristics (such as fruitiness) when tasted by an IOC-accredited sensory panel.
Each oil that passed the chemical and sensory tests was included in a blind tasting. Three IOC-accredited panellists tasted the oils “blind” and gave each oil a score out of 100.
By Belinda Castles
Research and Testing Writer