Olives 101

As children, olive oil was perhaps something we associated primarily with the cartoon character Popeye. But today, olive oil has become a staple ingredient in most of our kitchens. Much more healthful than most other oils, olive oil is high in monounsaturated fats and antioxidants, which has led to its increasing popularity in American diets. 

But as a consumer, you may be overwhelmed when faced with the growing spectrum of types, brands, grades, and prices. Is there really much difference? Are the highest priced oils always the best? How do you choose the “right” kind?

Though all olive oil comes from the pressing and crushing of olives, the processes used determine the type of olive oil extracted.

All About Olives

Olive Oil Grades

Extra virgin olive oil is the highest grade of olive oil. It undergoes the least amount of processing and is usually more expensive than other grades. Extra virgin olive oil must conform to four basic criteria: It must be from the mechanical extraction of olives, be cold pressed, exhibit an acidity level of less than 1%, and it must have a perfect taste.

Though extra virgin has the best flavor, once it is heated, it starts to break down, causing it to lose the flavor you’ve paid top dollar for. Therefore, extra virgin is best for salad dressings, marinades, drizzling over foods, or as a dip.

Virgin olive oil may contain some flaws in taste or acidity that keep it from extra virgin status. Some producers use heat or chemicals in addition to pressing machines during the refining process. This grade is usually much more economical than extra virgin and is sufficient for sautéing, grilling or frying.

Pure or 100% olive oil is a blend of low-quality virgin olive oils refined using mechanical, thermal and/or chemical processes. “Pure” refers to the fact that no other kinds of oil have been mixed with the olive oil. The most widely marketed grade of olive oil, it is a combination of extra-virgin oils and refined virgin oils and must have an acidity level of less than 1.5%. Like virgin olive oil, pure olive oil is a good choice for cooking.

After the first pressing, the debris may be pressed again, resulting in the lowest grade of olive oil, called pomace or sometimes olive-pomace oil. Some extra virgin may be added for flavor. This grade is mostly used in bulk food service and is not available to the general consumer.

Finally, there is light or extra light olive oil. These terms refer only to the color and taste and have nothing to do with fat or calories. This type may contain only a minute proportion, if any, virgin oils. Sometimes marketed in a way that makes consumers think the oil has less calories than virgin olive oil, the caloric content is still 125 calories per tablespoon. Yet, because the olive flavor is very mild, light olive oil is great for baking or cooking when you don’t want to detect an olive taste.