What exactly is Extra Virgin Olive Oil?

I thought it might be useful to take a step back and define exactly what olive oil is and what the different names; Extra Virgin, Virgin, Olive and Olive Pomace mean.

One of the issues when talking about Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) is that the name is a bit of a mouthful and people often just refer to it as Olive Oil. So let’s start there; what is olive oil? Put simply, it’s olive juice; the freshly pressed juice of the olive fruit with the water extracted and all olive oil comes from the first and only pressing. Under regulations set up by the International Olive Council and the European Union, olive oil must only be obtained by mechanical or other physical means under conditions that do not lead to alterations in the oil. Furthermore, the olives and oil must not undergo any treatment other than washing, decanting, centrifuging and filtering.



So Olive Oil = Olive Juice. But if that’s the case why the different names? Well, think of it this way, the different names signify different grades of oil. Each grade has an official description which ‘must’ appear on the label of the bottle.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil – ‘Superior category olive oil obtained directly from olives and solely by mechanical means’. This is the highest grade of oil. Often referred to as EVOO or on Spanish oils AOVE (Aceite de Oliva Virgen Extra). It is the natural juice of the olive with only the water removed. It has zero defects in taste and aroma and an acidity level of less than 0.8%. No additives or preservatives and the most health benefits due to its high levels of monounsaturated fatty acids, polyphenols, and antioxidants.

Virgin Olive Oil – ‘Olive oil obtained directly from olives and solely by mechanical means’. This is the second grade of olive oil and it too is the natural juice of the olive with only the water removed. However, it can have up to 3.5 defects in a professional tasting and must have an acidity of less than 2%.

Olive Oil – ‘Oil comprising exclusively olive oils that have undergone refining and oils obtained directly from olives’. This is oil that has defects such as a rancid taste or bad smell and therefore needs to be refined, by chemical means. The oil is obtained by blending refined olive oil and virgin or extra virgin olive oil but there are no rules regarding the percentage of virgin oil that is added back in. This oil is sometimes marketed as Pure Olive Oil which can cause confusion for consumers because it sounds like it’s of a far higher quality than it probably is. The processing undergone results in a fairly bland, lightly coloured oil which is still rich in monounsaturated fatty acids which are good for you, but it’s devoid of the polyphenols and antioxidants which are even better for you. Some people choose to cook with this because it is cheaper than Virgin or Extra Virgin.

Olive Pomace Oil – ‘Oil comprising exclusively oils obtained by treating the product obtained after the extraction of olive oil and oils obtained directly from olives’.  Okay, now here’s the messy one. Whilst not everyone is going to be converted into using EVOO or VO for everything in their kitchen, please, please don’t go near this stuff. It is extracted from the waste of the oil mill by use of chemical solvents and then has to undergo further refinement to remove those solvents before it’s fit for human consumption! But really – why bother, there’s no goodness left so you might as well buy olive oil.

Hopefully, I’ve demystified the categories but I should perhaps mention that Australian standards are broadly the same as the European mentioned above while the Californian Olive Oil Council has a voluntary seal of approval with slightly stricter guidelines than the European.

What do I buy and why?  

As I spend a lot of time in Spain, I tend to buy predominantly Spanish AOVE (EVOO to us English speakers!). I buy some in supermarkets like Aldi, Mercadona, Carrefour or Supersol and the rest I buy in small corner shops, service stations or roadside ventas (cafes) when I’m travelling and specialists or direct from the mill. There is absolutely nothing wrong with buying a standard EVOO from a supermarket (I think I’m paying around 4 euros a litre?) BUT I love to have a selection because they honestly all taste so different. I’ll cover some of the differences in a later blog. Experiment and find the oils that best suit your type of cooking and enjoy using the oil as a health-inducing flavouring rather than just a means of ensuring your food doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan!

And finally, two points I’d like to leave you with:

  • Cold Extraction or Extracción en frío.  If you think about this it makes sense that this would be superior because oil extracted under high temperature extracts more juice from the olive but kills the polyphenols (which are the healthiest bit about the oil).  BUT these days with modern centrifugal extraction machines the temperature is kept low anyway and ALL extra virgin olive oil should be expressed at below 27 C (about 80F) for it to even be called Extra Virgin.  So, nice bit of labelling/marketing but meaningless.
  • EVOO does not mature! The fresher the better with olive oil so always read the label to find the Best Before date and, if possible a Harvested date. Generally, the Best Before date will be 18 months after bottling (some large packers store the oil before bottling so it could be 2 or more years old). But let’s not get too caught up in the terminology. If you can find a Harvested date that’s great – the younger the oil the better it should be (assuming everything else is ‘good’ with the oil), if not make sure there’s a decent amount of time left on the Best Before.

I hope this has been helpful, please do remember that all opinions are my own. I do my best to make sure that the information I’m passing on is correct but if you spot an error please do let me know.

Until next time, enjoy that EVOO!

Karen O

The Olive Oil Taster

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