How the Hell Do You Pick a 'Good' Olive Oil?

It's hard to navigate when an industry lacks transparency

After we partnered with Gustiamo a few months back, we talked about how we buy olive oil and what we rely on when we’re picking one off the shelf or online. Are we into that super grassy flavor profile, the classic peppery one, or something smoother? Do we have “cooking” olive oil and “finishing” oils? Do we look at the harvest date? Try to find the source? 

This is one of those situations with a thousand variables and no clear resolution, as we discovered when we turned this into a group discussion with Kate, Mark, Melissa, and Daniel of The Bittman Project; Danielle Aquino Roithmayr, then-managing director of Gustiamo; and Rick Easton, Melissa’s partner, owner of Bread and Salt Bakery in Jersey City, who carries Gustiamo olive oils and other Italian products. 

As it turns out, when you care about regional food systems; when you don’t want to support slave labor, and you’re looking for transparency in terms of where food comes from, olive oil is a tough product to navigate. That doesn’t make it unique but it does make it interesting — and challenging. 

Also, we’re sticking to a discussion of mostly Italian olive oil: In the U.S., it’s most often represented in stores and, for now, Italy is exporting the most olive oil in the EU. According to the International Olive Council, “the 2019-20 crop year showed that Italian olive oil and olive oil exports to the U.S. exceeded Spanish shipments for the first time since 2014-15.” Olive oil from Italy, Spain, and Tunisia represents 77.3 percent of all U.S. olive oil imports.

In short: This post is not an olive oil primer. It’s a discussion that illuminates the challenges in how to buy olive oil when the industry lacks transparency.

Paying members: We’re going to take this conversation into our Friday discussion thread from 1 to 3 p.m. EST — and open it up to any questions you have about oils of all sorts: olive oil, flavored oils, vegetable oils, sesame oils. How do you buy them? When do you use “good” olive oil? Do you use grapeseed, vegetable, or olive oil for frying? Join us.

Kate: All right, team, let's do this. Is expensive olive oil worth it (for taste, how it cooks, whatever), or will you be just as happy cooking with a giant bottle of it from, say, Amazon Fresh?

Rick: I will begin by responding with a few other related questions on topics covered by you all recently: Will you be just as happy with seafood caught with slave labor off of the coast of Thailand? Why not just eat feedlot beef? 

Mark: There isn’t a single commodity in the world where we can’t find egregious examples of exploitation or the single most fabulous (and expensive) version of a product. The question is, how do we navigate? 

Danielle: This kind of piggybacks on Rick's: How do you even know it's extra-virgin olive oil

Rick: If you care about food, the people who produce it, and the impact on the planet, I don’t think you get to pick and choose.

Here’s this piece from The Guardian about African migrants having to live in tent camps, getting paid nothing to work in the olive groves of Western Sicily; and another in The New York Times

Human trafficking is an enormous issue in Italy, for example, often to provide cheap or free labor during harvests, olives, grapes, tomatoes, whatever. There are lots of stories about migrants being beaten, going without pay, kept in deplorable conditions all to satisfy a global market for cheap food and to squeeze out whatever profits people can. I know in parts of Sicily, non-migrants (Sicilians, Italian citizens) only make about 40 euros a day picking olives. That is a lot of work for not a lot of money.

[Editor’s note: Like tomatoes harvested in Italy, organized crime may play a part in olive oil harvests, yet according to some, it’s global demand for cheap goods that allow low pay to continue. From a long-form piece in Time: “‘The problem isn’t the Mafia or the migrants. It’s the cost of cheap goods,’ says Yvan Sagnet, an antislavery activist from Cameroon who has been living in Italy since 2010. When retailers tell farmers they will only buy tomatoes for 8¢ a kilo, he says, the farmers can’t afford to pay normal wages. But if the stores charge more, customers will go somewhere else.’ Sagnet, who now runs an antislavery organization called No Cap, for ‘no to caporalato,’ (or no to the Agrimafia,) says uber-competitive grocery stores are contributing to the abuse of migrant labor.”]

Mark: It's "know your farmer know your food." Which is sort of true: If we know our sources we can make good decisions. But that doesn't work for everyone sadly — you have to be able to afford to make good decisions. 

Rick: Personally, I am not the biggest local food guy: I’m much more of a quality food guy and a traditional foods guy, When local is better, I buy it. Global trade has been part of the equation for a long time, of course. Can consumers make better (smarter, more sustainable, educated) decisions buying products like olive oil? Certainly. I won’t live without olive oil, but I also know the difference between good and bad oil. And I labor to educate my customers to know the difference. Tasting good oil is usually enough.

Melissa: What can we say or how can we bring people around who have trained themselves to spend less than $20 on a bottle of olive oil?

Mark: In the case of 90 percent of buyers it's probably not an optional thing.

Rick: Anywhere I have been in the Mediterranean, many old people still cook with lard or lamb fat or even sunflower oil because good olive oil costs money, even there. The idea that everyone worldwide is supposed to have top-quality olive oil is part of the problem. Olives don’t grow everywhere. It isn’t an infinite resource.

Mark: Certainly there’s plenty of potential cooking fat that isn’t being used, and that could be high-quality. But good lard or tallow or even sunflower oil is also expensive. 

Daniel: Assuming almost everyone who buys food in this country is going to draw the line somewhere, how do they prioritize? When you run out of wiggle room, where do you compromise? On the slave shrimp? On the CAFO beef? On the "bad" olive oil? On the T-shirt made in a sweatshop in Vietnam? Is there a hierarchy worth discussing, or is it all or nothing?

Mark: This is the problem: No discussion of food can really end with food — it's about labor and money and the environment, etc. So it becomes kind of a "teaching opportunity" (as they say). How do you enter into an economy without (or even with less) exploitation? How do you make profit not paramount?

And then the question is if there were an actual regional farming system (and Italian olive oil mostly stayed in Italy, or near Italy), what do Northeasterners (etc.) cook with? We need fat (although technically we don't need cooking oil; it's a luxury) ... so lard, chicken fat, tallow, etc. are what makes sense. Sunflower and canola oil. 

Rick: Ultimately, people should use more of those things. Oddly, regionally produced seed oils can cost more than good olive oil because of the lack of scale or infrastructure. 

I also will argue that using better ingredients smartly is more economic than it seems. As American consumers, we are terrible at unit costing and determining real value. We over-focus on price, not value. What is the total drop is the biggest concern: ‘A $20 liter of olive oil!? What? Is there gold in the bottle?’ a customer at my shop asked not so long ago. Do you know how long a liter of olive oil lasts most people? We are talking about pocket change for the amount used in each dish. 

Daniel: I'm staring into my cabinet as I write this: Sure, there are some assorted bottles of cold-pressed, "nice" EVOO (though now you've convinced me that the labels are all nonsense), but there's also a 3-liter behemoth of [grocery store olive oil] that probably costs $19.99. I use that stuff (or stuff like it) ALL the time and go through a decent amount. And of course, I'd be full of shit if I said that my choice of olive oil is the only way that I'm causing undue damage to the food system. The first example that comes to mind: I may not buy/cook industrially raised meat at home, but when I get carne asada from my local food truck, there’s a good chance I’m eating it. What's more virtuous, supporting small business entrepreneurs who made that feedlot beef sandwich, or declining to? I've still yet to meet someone who doesn't suspend disbelief from time to time when it comes to food choices.

OK, sorry for the tangent. Back to brass tacks: If I want a new "house" olive oil that I can cook with all the time, what should I get?

Rick: Don’t get me wrong. I eat plenty of questionable things without a second thought out in the world. But at my own restaurant, never, and try to keep stuff at home of the same quality/care in sourcing.  

What should you buy? Well, Danielle can make the obvious plug for the right oils from Gustiamo that I am a huge fan of myself. But in general, I would say somewhere in the $20/L range can get you perfectly respectable general-purpose olive oil. And even if the labels mean nothing, I think it is important to start with the date. If they are claiming it is from the most recent harvest, that is at least a place to start. No harvest date? I wouldn’t buy it at all.

Melissa: Danielle mentioned extra-virgin: Can we talk about what people should look for on the label besides price?

Danielle: The bottom line is that labels are just marketing. There are basically no laws in the U.S. about what you can or can’t write on a bottle of oil. I could buy some California olive oil, bottle it, label it with a name like Tuscany’s Best Extra-Virgin Olive Oil, and sell it. That would be legal as far as I understand labeling laws. (U.S. production laws are more strict than rules for imported olive oil — find out more here.)

[ Editor’s note: As Julia Moskin reported in The New York Times, “Labeling has become a minefield, despite efforts by the European Union, where a majority of the world’s oil is produced, to enforce rules and make meaningful distinctions among terms like ‘made in Italy,’ ‘imported from Italy’ and ‘packed in Italy.’ The European Union’s system of food certification (appearing as a D.O.P. or P.D.O. seal on a label) is relatively reliable. But the terms ‘extra-virgin’ (meaning the very first pressing), ‘first-press,’ and ‘cold-pressed’ are not as helpful as they used to be, as most producers have switched over from presses to modern centrifuges that produce purer and cleaner oils.

So now we are back in the realm of myth, as labels are ever harder to interpret and trust. For most of the olive oil on the American market today, even a truthful label says little about how it will taste or whether you will like it.”]

Danielle: When we justify using cheap olive oil because it is elitist to say people should use real EVOO, we are saying it is OK to hurt farmers and kill olive oil-producing communities. The problem is that people’s wages aren’t high enough and the consumer packaged goods industry has done unethical things to support the demand for cheap (and has gotten crazy rich in the process). But this is certainly not something we can solve here — as MB said, it's about labor and money and the environment.

What the FDA actually tests could be investigated too. Gustiamo is a tiny company compared to the industrial importers, so perhaps we are not a good example of what the FDA does or does not do. That said, the FDA has tested Gustiamo products in the past, like almonds and dried figs, but has never taken an EVOO sample. 

Our full container loads usually arrive in our warehouse with the original seal from Italy locking the container. Often the government agencies review the paperwork only. [ In a fact-check with Gustiamo, founder Beatrice Ughi said that the FDA not checking their imports may have to do with the fact that it’s a tiny business and a small amount of olive oil is coming in under its name. They’re told that higher volumes for different companies are subject to testing.]

Mark: I would never expect anything of FDA — but is EU different? Do they test exported EVOO? 

Danielle: We know someone in the Italian customs agency and we actually recently asked him about just this. He says they test all EVOO that is exported from Italy, but that the tests are so broad, practically anything passes as EVOO. Also, keep in mind that it is legal to export large drums of oil to be bottled/labeled here in the U.S.

Mark: To me, the bottom line is this: If you can buy direct from the producer, or with just one or two trustworthy people in between, and you can afford to do that, it makes sense. But it sounds like after that you’re kind of on your own: If you can’t buy direct, if you can’t trust the source, if you can’t afford twenty or more likely thirty bucks per liter for trustworthy olive oil, it’s all kind of the same, because it’s a commodity. I do agree with Rick —  if there’s no date on there, forget it, and if there is a date, it should be recent. But like all commodities, it’s going to have problems no matter what.