Ever since journalist Tom Mueller broke the story about how more than 70% of the extra-virgin olive oil sold in the world is fake (cut with cheaper oils), olive oil lovers the world over have been scrambling to find authentic, 100% real olive oil.
But how can you tell if your olive oil is fake or not? Does the fridge test really work? What about the oil lamp test?
These tests are often touted as the be-all-end-all for determining if your olive oil is fake, but unfortunately they’re flawed tests that can easily mislead you. There’s only one sure-fire way to know if your olive oil is real, and if you’re a regular reader of my site, you likely already know what that is…
How to Tell if Your Olive Oil is Fake: The Taste Test
Some of us are deluded into thinking we can taste the difference between real olive oil and fake olive oil.
We can not.
We’ve been told that tasting real olive oil is a bit like tasting wine. First, the aroma. It should start with a mildly grassy aroma. Next, the bite. It should finish with a spicy, tingly sort of bite on the back of your tongue.
But when given a variety of real and fake olive oils to test, even the self-proclaimed taste-testing experts were miserable failures:
I conducted a blind tasting of extra virgin olive oils a few years ago for a national newspaper that wanted “the truth on expensive olive oil”.
We had a dozen oils, and a panel consisting of an importer, an Italian deli owner and a couple of eminent foodies: the results were so embarrassing and confusing the piece was never published. The importer went into a fugue after he was informed that he’d pronounced his own premium product “disgusting”; the deli owner chose a bottle of highly dubious “Italian extra virgin” as his favourite (it had cost £1.99 at the discount store TK Maxx); and both the foodies gave a thumbs-up to Unilever’s much-derided Bertolli brand.
The Taste Test Verdict: UNRELIABLE
How to Tell if Your Olive Oil is Fake: The Fridge Test
The premise behind this test is that exta-virgin olive oil is comprised of mostly monounsaturated fats which solidify when cold.
So, if you put real extra-virgin olive oil in the fridge, it ought to become thick and cloudy. Some high-wax varieties of olive oil will even solidify completely.
But this is not a fail proof way to tell if your olive oil is fake.
EXAMPLE 1: The extra-virgin olive oil is a high-wax variety (which would normally solidify when cold), but it’s cut with low-grade oils from other plants. So, when you put it in the fridge, it thickens up, but doesn’t solidify. This fake oil would pass the fridge test because the so-called olive oil STILL thickened up and became cloudy.
EXAMPLE 2: The extra-virgin olive oil is 100% real, but “winterized” (chilled and filtered). Many olive oil producers choose to winterize their oils so that it doesn’t become inconveniently solid on cellar shelves during the winter. By chilling the oil and filtering out the wax that solidifies or clumps up, they can ensure that their oil is always pourable. This 100% real oil would fail the fridge test, and would only become slightly thick (but not solid) when frozen.
The Fridge Test Verdict: UNRELIABLE
How to Tell if Your Olive Oil Is Fake: The Oil Lamp Test
Extra-virgin olive oil ought to be flammable enough to keep an oil lamp burning. It will also burn without producing any noticeable smoke. So, if your olive oil will not keep a wick lit (or if it can, but produces a lot of smoke), you can trust that it is fake olive oil.
However, other oils can keep a wick lit, too. So if your olive oil is adulterated with an oil that also burns, it will pass the test even though it’s fake.
The Oil Lamp Test Verdict: UNRELIABLE
How to Tell if Your Olive Oil is Fake: Know Your Farmer
I am fortunate to live in central Texas — a place where olive trees do relatively well. As such, I’ve got quite a few local olive growers to choose from. These are people I know. They are not mobsters or buyers for multi-national corporations. They are real people with real families who are passionate about what they do.
Artisan and locally-produced olive oils (the variety you can find from small family farms) have always passed every single scientific test of authenticity. So, buy locally.
Buy from a farmer you can get to know and trust, and you’ll be set.
But what if you can’t buy olive oil locally?
We live in the real world, and not everyone can buy local olive oil. So who can you trust? How do you determine if an olive oil you find online or in stores is real or fake?
UC Davis has done a series of studies on this, and I recommend reading their concluding report. In short, they found that domestic olive oil from single producers or co-ops was always real. In the foreign oil market, it helped to buy from growers who bottle their oil directly for retail sale.
Based on these findings, I recommend buying from a single family farm or small co-op of growers.
That’s because almost all olive oil adulteration happens with the middle men — the people who buy olive oil in bulk from individual farmers and collect it in bulk to sell to corporate buyers. The corporate buyers are usually buying olive oil they think is 100% real, and they’re then mixing, sorting, and branding it to sell it in grocery stores.
So, if you cut out the corporation, cut out the middle man who buys from hundreds of scattered farms and is likely adulterating the oil, and go directly to the source — the small family farm or small co-op of growers, then you’re going to get the real deal.
What if you already have a favorite non-local olive oil and you want to have it tested?
If you want an absolutely definitive test done on your store-bought olive oil, you can send in a sample to UC Davis’ Olive Oil Center. They will perform the same testing on your sample that they performed in their original, ground-breaking study.
Where to Buy 100% Real Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Online
If you don’t have any local olive growers near you, then I personally vouch for the online olive oil supplier found here. This olive oil is hand-selected by The Olive Oil Hunter himself, T.J. Robinson. T.J. is one of the world’s leading experts on quality olive oils. He spends 9 months out of the year touring family-owned olive groves to find the best-tasting oils. He then watches the oil be pressed, bottles it, and distributes it to members of The Fresh-Pressed Olive Oil Club (psst! I’m a happy club member).
Even better, get a FREE bottle of REAL olive oil.
After I spent hours interrogating T.J. about the growing and harvest methods of the growers he sources from, how the presses are managed, and how his bottling process works, I asked him to hook up my readers with a test run of his olive oil. He generously agreed!
This post has been sponsored in part by Jovial Foods and The Fresh-Pressed Olive Oil Club. Thank you for supporting the companies and products I believe in!
(photo credit: Jovial Foods)