Olive oil is considered by many to be one of the healthiest of the plant-based fats, and has gained notoriety in recent years for its link to lower cholesterol levels and reduced risk of heart disease.
Unfortunately, many popular brands of olive oil sold in stores today are not actually olive oil, but a blend of lower-quality vegetable oils that may include less than 20 percent actual olive oil per volume.
Among the list of oils that brands are “cutting” their olive oil with are genetically modified (GM) canola, soy, cottonseed and corn oils. There are currently no genetically modified olives in production, so customers wishing to avoid GM ingredients often look to olive oil as a healthy alternative.
Surprisingly, as much as half of all the olive oil sold commercially in the United States fails to pass the strict testing standards used to qualify it as authentic. In addition to genetically modified vegetable oils, some companies also add flavoring chemicals and dyes to give the illusion of real olive oil.
As odd as it may sound, the promotion of fake olive oil may also have links to the Mob.
"Olive oil piracy is one of the Italian Mafia's most lucrative enterprises, to the extent that it appears that most olive oil on the market is either greatly diluted or completely forged by a massive shadow industry that involves major names such as Bertolli," says investigative journalist Pauli Poisuo about the olive oil conspiracy.
Author Tom Mueller makes the case in Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil that the fraudsters are busier and richer now than ever before.
Bertolli and its supermarket rivals have also corrupted the meaning of extra virginity, a controlled definition of high-quality oil since 1960.’Gentle’, ‘smooth’ and ‘not peppery on the throat’ are the sort of words Bertolli and its rivals used in ads promoting their generic extra virgin oil. But true extra virgin oil is peppery – it bites the back of the throat so fiercely it can make you cough. The flavors are vivid. ‘Peppery’ is an official, positive attribute of ‘extra virgin’ whereas smoothness will reliably indicate a low-quality oil.”
So Bertolli and other brands came to need low-quality genetically modified vegetable oils in order to hoodwink the public into paying a premium for what they assume is natural and high quality oil.
Tests conducted by researchers at the Australian Oils Research Laboratory and the University of California, Davis also found that many major olive oil brands do not pass International Olive Council (IOC) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) authenticity tests for olive oil. The failing brands in their study included Bertolli, Carapelli , Filippo Berio, Mazzola and Pompeian.
UPDATE: Since the publishing of this article, Pompeian has reached out to inform us that they are the first olive oil company to receive USDA Quality Monitoring Verification for two of its products: Extra Virgin and Extra Virgin Organic. Look for the USDA "Quality Monitored" seal.
Fortunately, there are a number of simple ways to determine if you have purchased fake olive oil.
Look for the International Olive Council (IOC) label of authenticity. Imported olive oils that bear official IOC labels of authenticity generally undergo strict quality control testing.
Buy local. US growers and manufacturers are often held to stricter standards than companies that export to the United States. The California Olive Oil Council (COOC) seal is a good one to look for.
Refrigerate your olive oil. If authentic, olive oil will thicken and become cloudy.
See if your olive oil is flammable. Real olive oil is flammable. Try putting it in a fireproof pan and lighting it with a match. If your olive oil does not burn, it is most likely not real.
Check to see if it bears the Non-GMO Project seal. The Non-GMO Project rigorously evaluates companies before verifying their products. Look for your favorite brands here.