- a) promiscuous olive oil (with no standards)
- b) anti-freeze mixed with dog pee
- c) inferior grade oils from North Africa (Tunisia and Morocco)
- d) industrial seed oils with chemical solvents and pesticides that occasionally have Mafia blood on them
Answer: C and mostly D. Olive oil fraud has been around since Roman times. In fact, many emperors amassed wealth from the olive oil trade and thus came to power—the equivalent of today’s oil sheikhs. More recently, Southern Italy has become the epicenter of the the thriving olive oil scam. The Agramafia controls every step of the process—from harvesting to hiring their own workers, setting the prices, managing transportation, and putting their products on supermarket shelves—and they have infiltrated the entire food chain from the farm to your mouth.
They use cheap industrial oils like sunflower and canola and the waste products from olive oil production which are processed with chemical solvents and are full of additives and pesticides, as well as inferior oils from other countries. They deodorize them with additional chemicals to hide the cheap oil taste and add chlorophyll for color. The Agromafia manipulates other foods as well—wine, bread, butter, tomato sauce. They have tried to rip-off Italian shoppers with mozzarella whitened with detergent and rotten seafood deodorized with citric acid. “Food crime” (yes, that’s a thing!) is apparently a $16 billion yearly enterprise.
A member of the Italian Elite Food Police revealed in an interview that he defied the mob by convincing 200 farmers to eliminate Mafia middle men and to sell their oil directly to distributors. “On the day I started the consortium, they burned my car, they burned down part of my home and I was inside with my wife and my daughter…it was a message to stay quiet.”
But back to you: Now you know that you are paying for a phony product. Most consumers believe that real olive oil is cheap and are used to paying less than they should. They’ve also gotten accustomed to the compromised taste. But not you. You care, you want the health benefits *, and you want quality food for yourself and your family. So pause before you buy. And take note of some recent offenders:
- Antica Badia
- Filippo Berio
- Newman’s Own
- Whole Foods
Yeah, I know: Whole Foods burned your eyes. Mine, too. Turns out that even they have limited power over the Mafia. These brands are suspect because their products have been tainted. But it doesn’t mean that every product in each brand is bad. In fact, one of Bertolli‘s products won an award this year, but not the one in your supermarket in the clear bottle. That one sucks.
Here’s what you can do:
- Beware of anything that is Made in Italy. Also be informed that the fraud has spread to Spain, Greece, Brazil and elsewhere.
- Know what to look for: the healthiest olive oil is extra virgin, first cold pressed, unfiltered, and housed in a dark bottle. The grossest olive oil is pomace which is solid residue left over from traditional olive oil production and treated with chemical solvents like hexane at extremely high temperatures.
- Buy a local brand at the supermarket. US olive oil is subject to more stringent standards. However, the FDA does nothing to precent illegally adulterated foods from being imported and sold unless it’s related to a disease outbreak. Check for seals of approval: a D.O.P seal on European oils and a California Olive Oil Council seal on US oils.
- Buy at a farmer’s market.
- Tour a mill where fresh olives are turned into oil. It’s easier to trust what you can see with your own eyes!
- Visit an olive oil specialty store where you can taste test different varieties.
- Whenever you go out to eat ask what kind of oil they use. Feel free to inquire about the brand. There’s no shame! The only way to improve what restaurants do is to educate them (starting with the waitstaff) and to make it known that you care. Beware of a very low-grade version of olive oil called pomace oil.
Also, do some research. What is extra virgin olive oil? Who wants to know the difference between extra virgin, fine virgin, and premium extra virgin olive oil? This site explains it. By law, it cannot have undergone chemical manipulation. Which brands passed the test in the California University Study? Which ones are recommended by the North American Olive Oil Association? This site recommends quality oils at good prices and gives helpful descriptions and commentary. Want to know the international winners for 2017? This is a super cool resource for connaisseurs but the list goes on forever and you might wear out your finger while scrolling. Suggestion: Look for American brands. You can actually search with ten different filters in case you want one that is organic, robust, American, from Arbequina olives, and a gold winner. Maybe you’ll get lucky and find something local.
And to learn more about the industry and the scam, check out Olive Oil Times—a whole online publication devoted to this grandiose oil. Here’s a good piece of investigative journalism by 60 Minutes. For those with more time on their hands, just type olive oil hoax or olive oil fraud into your search engine and enjoy hours of fun.
For those of you who don’t like to do research, you are lucky because I have done it for you. I’ve reached out to my most culinarily aware, nutrition-conscious friends, chefs, and holistic health providers to find out what they use.
And here’s the GFF-approved Top 10:
- Rallis Olive Oil
- Nunez de Prado
- Sola Stella I’m calling this one out because of its high polyphenol count—the telltale sign is that it’s a bit spicy. The polyphenols protect the integrity of the oil at higher temps.
- Whole Foods 365 Brand Extra Virgin
- Napa Valley Naturals
- Texas Olive Ranch
- California Olive Ranch
- Texas Hill Country
Special note: if you or your kids are sensitive to seeds, you should be even more concerned about your “olive oil”, because it likely contains degraded seed oil.
*In case you didn’t know: A number of well-documented studies on populations in Spain and other Mediterranean countries have demonstrated that populations from those regions, where fresh olive oil is a part of the daily diet, live longer and have lower risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. Olive oil is rich in antioxidants, oleocanthal, squalene, and lignans. Olive oil is known to promote healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It supports the heart, bones, and joints.* It also provides support to the immune system and promotes healthy weight loss.