The backbone of the healthy “Mediterranean Diet,” extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) is one of the world’s great foods, and one of the very few combining decadently delicious taste and flavor with well documented medical benefits. It has been proven to be heart-healthy and is very high in monosaturated fats and omega-3 and 6 fatty acids. In addition, it is high in antioxidants and many other potentially important health benefits have been tied anecdotally to EVOO, from anti-ageing to anti-carcinogenic to anti-inflammatory properties.
The American Heart Association noted that “earlier this year, researchers reported in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology that people who ate more than half a tablespoon per day had lower rates of premature death from cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other causes compared to people who never or rarely consumed olive oil. ‘Olive oil is the hallmark of the Mediterranean diet, and its link to lower mortality is well established in southern European countries. But this is the first long-term study to show such a health benefit here in the U.S.,’ said Dr. Frank Hu, the study’s senior author.” Similarly, a conference summary from the National Institute of Health noted that, “the use of olive oil as the nearly exclusive dietary fat is what mostly characterizes the Mediterranean area. Plenty of epidemiological studies have correlated that the consumption of olive oil was associated with better overall health.”
Not surprisingly, the highest levels of both taste and health come from the highest quality oils, and the good news is that in recent years it has become much easier to buy very high-quality extra bottles. For decades stories of olive oil fraud and mislabeling have regularly made the news, and in my New York Times bestseller Real Food, Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating & What You Can Do About It, I thoroughly documented these issues and gave concrete tips on how to shop better for extra-virgin olive oil and dozens of other fraud-prone foodstuffs. But in the seven years since, labeling, testing, enforcement and the overall retail landscape for EVOO have improved, and it has gotten much better for consumers.
The bad news is that the European olive harvest this year is one of the worst in recent memory, supplies are down, prices are way up, and anytime shortages and higher prices affect a food, fraud is almost certain to follow suit. But even without mislabeling, there is just less good olive oil to go around, and this can make finding high quality bottles difficult. This is exacerbated by the fact the United States is by far the largest importer of olive oil, 35-40% of global imports, according to our domestic trade group, the North American Olive Oil Association.
“I’ve just returned from the 2023 Italian olive harvest and, while climate always plays a huge role in determining olive quality and quantity, this season set the record for challenges. The main culprit was rain, torrential Spring downpours that decimated the blossoms on trees. Few blossoms meant that many regions of the country had little to no olives. Then there was a drought starting in the summer, and unprecedented heat into November,” said T.J. Robinson, a globally recognized expert on olive oil and the rare American certified to judge oils in Europe. Robinson, aka “The Olive Oil Hunter,” is the founder of the Fresh Pressed Olive Oil Club, a mail order subscription service, which is where I have been getting my oil from for years, ever since I first food out about it and tasted his selectins. Robinson travels the world seeking out the best artisanal oils, has them bottled at the peak of freshness, shipped back to the states by air, and dispenses them to his club members before–often months before–the current harvest bottles reach store shelves in this country.
“I was fortunate because the 20-year relationships I’ve built with artisanal producers guaranteed that the best olive oils were reserved for members of my club,” said Robinson. “But for the average person, even those living in the Mediterranean region and certainly for Americans, chances are that the olive oil on store shelves is not going to be of the quality people are used to. The current crisis has led many mass producers to squeeze out as much oil as they can without regard for taste and then set sky-high prices for it to boot.”
But it was not just Italy. While the country has marketed its oils very well and to many consumers is synonymous with them, Spain is by far the world’s largest producer, responsible for nearly half the global supply, followed by Italy and Greece, all of which had bad years along with most of their Mediterranean neighbors. Earlier this month the Associated Press reported that olive oil prices had increased by 74% since the beginning of 2021, “dwarfing overall annual inflation.” In Spain prices climbed 115% from August 2021 to August 2023, following a 2-year drought. The AP noted that Spain’s Agriculture Minisrty expects olive oil production to be nearly 35% below the past four year’s average.
I recently traveled to both Turkey and Greece, major oil producers, on separate trips and I heard the same laments about low yields again and again.
“When Greece hit rock bottom during the financial crisis, there was this running joke that at least we have olives, essentially referring to the most dependable Greek food, something that saved Greeks from starvation during the most difficult periods of their long history. But the world is upside down now, isn’t it, and not even olives are there for us in any sort of reliable way, at least if this year’s harvest is any indication.,” said Diane Kochilas. She is a Greek-American food expert, cookbook author and host of the PBS television series My Greek Table.
In addition to her TV shows and books, Kochilas speaks on Greek food around the world, and runs cooking schools, mainly for American travelers, at her farm on Ikaria. This Greek Island has famously been singled out one of the world’s so called “Blue Zones,” because its residents’ health is so high. Kochilas attributes this in part to Greece’s extra-virgin olive oils, and she exports her favorite to the United States, along with other Greek specialties. Her selection comes from a small family operation in the famous Kalamata olive region of the Southern Pelaponessus. It’s certified Organic and made from 100% Koroneiki olives (like wine grapes, there are hundreds of varietals) and is unusually high in polyphenols and low in acidity, both desirable traits in EVOO.
“Climate change-mainly extreme heat-and pests have severely limited the harvests in Spain and Italy, with Greece not far behind. An excessively hot summer coupled by unprecedented downpours and flooding in some of the country’s most important agricultural areas have seen yields diminish, so much so that olive and olive oil theft has suddenly become a threat. Greece is the third largest producer of olive oil and the first in consumption, so this year we definitely won’t be saying that at least we have olives,” she added.
I use high-quality olive oil all year round, about a bottle a month, and it has become a mainstay of my cooking and eating lifestyle. If you also use high-quality oils and want to stay ahead of this crisis, here are some tips:
Buy Fresh: Olive Oil is actually fresh squeezed fruit juice, and it has a much shorter shelf life than most people realize. The Norrhtenr hemisphere harvest (The U.S. and all of Europe) takes place in late fall, around the beginning of November. It takes about two months for the first oils to be tested, bottled, labeled, shipped by boat and distributed onto U.S. store shelves, some take up to four, and oil is at its very best within six months of production, so you are already losing time when the first shipments arrive. The end of the year holiday season–right now–is the worst time to buy European oils because everything on store shelves is already at least a year old. However, higher quality oils last longer, and unopened bottles can still be very good for up to two years. So, if you’re going to buy from the Mediterranean now, get the very best. Kochilas’ oils are from the 2022 harvest, and are excellent enough to get you through until the 2023 harvest arrives on her website by March.
Until the new oils arrive in widespread retail fashion from Europe next year, consider oils from California, which land sooner, but make sure they have a 2023 production date on the label. I’d look for oils from the Southern hemisphere, where seasons are reversed, so these were pressed this spring and are appreciably fresher. The most widely available producers are Australia, Chile, Argentina and South Africa (great olives tend to grow where great wines are made) all of which produce excellent oils. Or just order from the Fresh Pressed Olive Oil Club and get the freshest expertly curated oils ahead of everyone else.
Read Labels: Producers are not required to put production dates on bottles, but better producers do. The “Use By” dates are unregulated and meaningless, and it is beneficial for producers to exaggerate these, so unsold stock can stay on shelves longer. The only relevant date is the “pressed on” date, and just having this information is an indication of a quality producer. I personally would not buy any oil that didn’t have it.
Better producers also put details of the chemical composition, such as acidity, on the label (most bottles do not have this), and while you don’t have to bother leaning to decode this, I take it as a good sign. Also, when looking at country of origin, remember that no one country is better than another. Italy, Spain, Turkey, Greece and company all make both good and bad oils, so I usually do not shop by country. However, a big red flag is a label that says, “bottled in” rather than “made in” or “product of.” The former suggests the oil, often cheaper oil, was imported just to bottled and passed off as coming from a more desirable country. Italy is infamous for this.
Do not buy anything other the Extra-Virgin Olive Oil. Other possibilities on shelves are Virgin, Pure, Light and such. Olive oil is graded both in labs and by human tasting panels, and extra-virgin is the highest grade and the one you want if you are going to cook with it or eat it.
Shop Quality Retailers: When buying in person, patronize places that let you taste the oil. That is the best way to get good quality. In this country there is a network of locally owned olive oil stores that follow a communal model and dispense from steel tanks (very good for quality storage), carry a range of regional oils and different olive varietals, have excellent signage and do tastings. These are great places to buy. Some gourmet stores do this as well. For mail order, besides Kochilas and Fresh Pressed Olive Oil Club, I am a big fan of Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Zingerman’s is a deservedly world famous deli and gourmet purveyor that spends a lot of time and effort scouring the globe for the best small producers, many of whom they have been working with for years. They have a mail order printed catalog, very good website, and their EVOO selection is topnotch, with more than two dozen offerings from Italy, Spain France, Morocco, Greece and California.
Proper Storage: Once opened, EVOO begins to deteriorate dramatically. I make it a point to use up the bolted within a month–forget the year or two shelf-life once you’ve cracked it. The enemies for EVOO are light and air. Once you open it you can’t keep the air out. For light, store it in a cupboard and never leave bottles on counters or near windows. For this reason, many buyers prefer cans, which block all the light, and most better oils in glass come in dark colors or are wrapped in foil– don’t buy clear.
Because it starts to decline after opening, whenever possible, buy smaller bottles or cans, or if you go to a store that dispenses from the tap, buy the smallest amount and return frequently. Two 375ml bottles will give you fresh oil longer than one 750ml.