Norman Van Aken Tips for Buying Olive Oil: It Should Smell Like Olives

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Shoppers at the supermarket are bombarded with a variety of brands and types of olive oil to choose from but the reality is that as much as half the stuff sold in the U.S. as "extra-virgin olive oil" is either deceptively mislabeled or just plain fraudulent, according to Tom Mueller in his new book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.

Many Italian brands are either adulterated with other types of vegetable oils or made with rancid olives, depriving the consumer of the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of olive oil.

The extra-virgin classification has as much to do with the way olive oil is made, as well as its chemical composition.

Extra-virgin olive oil is made by crushed olives and is not refined in any way by high heat or chemical solvents, and has a low level of oleaic acidity.

The introduction of stainless steel milling techniques in the 1960s and '70s has allowed manufacturers to make better quality olive oils.

However the process of making and storing extra-virgin olive oil can be very expensive, which has led some people to blend it with inexpensive, lower-quality oils.

The problem is further compounded by lax labeling standards in the United States. The U.S. Department of Agriculture does not legally recognize olive oil classifications, such as extra-virgin.

The 23-country International Olive Council in Madrid governs olive oil quality and standards, but the U.S. is not a part of it. Fortunately for the layman buyer, Miami Culinary Institute head chef Norman Van Aken has a few tips to tell if its the real deal.

"It should smell like what it should smell like olives," says Van Aken. "No off odors, no strange chemical smells attacking my olfactory."

A bad quality olive oil might not have the clarity of good oil, it could taste waxy and smell a bit off, says Van Aken.

Be dubious of the brand, says Van Aken. If it's something you've never heard of before, check the fine print. Some brands labeled as Italian can be a concoction of olive oils from several countries, making it difficult to control the quality.

Good quality olive oil usually has nothing to do with price, says Van Aken. 

And then there's taste. Ask for a sample, it should have a peppery taste. Good olive oil contains substance called oleocanthol that produces a peppery bite on the back of throat similar to what you get from ibuprofen.

"The travesty is that...honest hard working people go down with others who are adulterating olive oils," says Van Aken. "There should be some sort of investigative process for labeling."

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Do most people know what a fresh, just-picked olive smells like? I wouldn't think so unless they live in a place that produces olives. The smell of a CURED olive is not what you're looking for.  For a couple of articles about olive oil tasting and what to look for, check out the olive oil appreciation page at   Time for American olive oil consumers to take back the shopping cart...


As Kelly mentions, traceability is critical in quality assurance.  An overview of the situation in the US and various lists of 3rd-party certified EVOO producers can be found here:

Kelly Martinez
Kelly Martinez

Good article. However, if fraud is pervasive in the market and real olive oil is not available to the public it really doesn't help consumers. What would actually help olive oil consumers is for restaurants to use, and for stores to sell, real olive oil that is bottled at the same mill where it is extracted. Olive oil that is bought & sold in bulk is always mixed with other non-olive oils. There is good information at


"Fortunately for the lehman buyer"

I think you mean layman?

David Minsky
David Minsky

If supermarkets really cared about the quality of oil they sell, they'd offer samplings; then again, if consumers really cared, they'd ask for one.

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