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: “Extra Virgin” Oil Label can be Misleading

“Extra Virgin” Oil Label can be Misleading

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Much has been proclaimed about the health benefits of using vegetable oils over butter or margarine for cooking. Solid margarine and butter can be high in saturated fat, which can raise cholesterol and increase the risk of heart disease. Some margarines contain trans-fats, which not only increase cholesterol levels but also cause lower high-density lipoprotein (HDL), aka "good," cholesterol levels.

Vegetable oils (such as canola, olive, walnut, and peanut, among others) contain healthy fats and omega-3 fatty acids that reduce cholesterol and heart disease risk.

One type of oil that is often called out as among one of the healthier of options is extra-virgin olive oil. In addition to being a source of healthy fats (monounsaturated, polyunsaturated), extra-virgin olive oil is high in antioxidants, which are believed to help prevent heart disease and cancer.

The term "extra-virgin" refers to oil that is extracted from the first cold pressing of the olives. This differentiates it from oils produced through processes that use repeated pressings, heat, and chemicals. The use of heat for oil extraction may not only reduce the health benefits of the oil but can actually have an opposite effect. Long-term consumption of heated oils has been shown to increase blood pressure and cholesterol and cause vascular inflammation.

Unfortunately, buying authentic extra-virgin olive oil is not as simple as pulling it off the shelf at your local grocery store. Tests have shown that many olive oils labeled as "extra-virgin" do not meet criteria set by regulatory agencies that define them as such. A study from 2010, conducted by the UC Davis Olive Center and the Australian Oils Research Laboratory (AORL), found that 69 percent of imported olive oil samples and 10 percent of California olive oil samples--all labeled "extra-virgin"--did not meet standards set by the International Olive Council (IOC). The IOC is an intergovernmental organization that serves as a forum for policy making regarding the sustainable and responsible development of olive growing. In 2011, a second study was conducted (again by UC Davis and AORL) using fewer brands but analyzing more samples of each brand. Again, failure rates were high: 73 percent of the samples failed the IOC standards.

These oils could be failing these tests for several reasons: manufacturers fraudulently passing off lower-grade oil as "extra-virgin," overexposure to higher temperatures and/or light after bottling, aging, processing flaws, or improper storage. American and Australian olive oils did better than the Italian brands. According to the UC Davis reports, California Olive Ranch passed the most tests, including the IOC extra virgin standards and chemical tests.

Calls for more regulatory control over olive oil grades and their labeling have grown in recent years in California and Europe. In the meantime, the UC Davis reports provide useful information on the testing and standards used in the tests and summarizes the results of who passed and who didn't. You can download the full texts of the 2010 and 2011 reports on the website.

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