The Truth in Olive Oil
Article written by Tom Muller
North America has seen an explosion of olive oil shops and tasting bars over the last five years. Stores run by olive oil entrepreneurs and enthusiasts have sprung up like spring flowers across Canada and the United States, as have the locations of several oil and vinegar franchises. In all, something like 500 stand-alone olive oil specialty stores are operating in North America, and their number is growing rapidly. Oil-tasting bars are also on the rise in gourmet food spots like delicatessens, cooking schools, and high-end supermarkets.
The best of these establishments are bringing superb, fresh olive oil from around the world – the Mediterranean, Chile, California, Australia, South Africa and beyond – to a continent that hungers for quality, and all too often can’t find it in supermarkets. Their passionate, experienced staffs are educating North Americans in the fine art of fine oil – the vastly different tastes and styles of various olive oil varieties, how to use them in cooking, why they make us healthy – and helping to drive a revolution in olive oil quality. I’ve written about Beyond the Olive, City Olive, McEvoy Ranch outlets, the Oil & Vinegar franchise, The Olive Press, stores supplied by the Veronica Foods Company, the We Olive franchise, and numerous others. (For more information on these and other organizations, visit this page on the Great Oils in North America. Some of the companies mentioned there have supported parts of Truth in Olive Oil’s work – see here.)
Yet a very different sort of olive oil boutique exists as well, one that’s holding back the revolution, and may be short-changing consumers. They often have the same look as the more careful stores – glossy bottles and gleaming fusti (stainless-steel olive oil containers), lush décor, catchy olive oil lingo, high prices. Eager salespeople push products using polished lines and elaborate cooking tips. All too often, however, oils they sell taste dreadful: flat, rancid, musty, dead. These oils must have been poorly made to begin with, and/or gotten worse with age, meaning that consumers could easily be missing health benefits offered by real extra virgin olive oils. Some of the oils these companies sell under fancy foreign titles may have been adulterated with cheaper vegetable oils.
Truth in Olive Oil has denounced low-grade, faux extra virgins that are widely sold in grocery stores, restaurants, and throughout the food service industry. But bad boutique oils can make supermarket specials seem downright delicious. They are the false friends of the olive oil world, the wolves in sheep’s clothing. The unsuspecting, inexperienced consumer can be attracted by the mystique of olive oil and the sheen of clever marketing, and instead of delicious, healthy, fresh olive juice – the highest grade of olive oil in the world – may get low-grade liquid fat, at a high price to boot. Sellers who ought to know more about the oils they’re selling may themselves be victims. Wherever in the supply chain bad oil seeps in, it results in a betrayal of the consumer’s trust.
As part of its ongoing quality testing program, Truth in Olive Oil has been checking on a number of oils widely available in North America, both boutique and supermarket, and will continue to do so in the future. Among those we’ve looked into are several olive oil boutique shops in Arizona, which are part of a larger network of stores called The Olive & The Grape, an organization which has grown rapidly in recent years – we’ve encountered stores in several US states, as well as in Canada. The Olive & The Grape is headquartered in Tubac, Arizona at the Tubac Olive Oil Company. In a phone interview, Sunil Patel, owner of Tubac Olive Oil and head of The Olive & The Grape network, described how his business operates. He said he began the network about 3 years ago; he now owns 13 stores, mostly in Arizona and Florida, and in all supplies customers in about 250 locations, primarily in the USA with about 8 in Canada. (These customers include stand-alone olive oil stores, wineries, kitchen supply shops, etc.) He said that the packaging and bottling of olive oil for all stores is done in Tubac; and that they sell oil both already bottled, and in 10-liter bulk containers. Patel said they sell more bottled than bulk, packing bottles without labels and affixing a label on the outside of the shipping box, so that their customers can label the product to their own specifications. Patel told me that The Olive & The Grape buys its organic olive oil in bulk containers, and either rebottles it or puts it into their own bulk containers before shipping to their customers. They infuse some of their flavored oils in-house, Patel said, but buy many already infused.
This summer I visited Tubac Olive Oil Company, and another store that Patel owns, the Scottsdale Olive Oil Company, in Scottsdale, Arizona. I also spoke with an employee at another of Patel’s stores, Sedona Olive Oil in Sedona, Arizona. The stores I visited were in up-market locations, with sleek interiors, friendly and energetic staff, and rows of shining bottles containing a wide range of olive oils and balsamic vinegars. The names of the single-varietal olive oils were enticing; I recognized many olive oil cultivars from my travels in oil-making lands. There was koroneiki oil from Greece, moresca and coratina from Italy. There were oils from Spain, Egypt and Morocco. There were house blends, made from an enticing mélange of different olive cultivars.
Yet when I started tasting the oils, I sensed something wrong. Although a few of the oils tasted fine, others had 1 or more of the official sensory flaws detailed in the USDA, EU and other trade standards for grading olive oil: rancid, fusty, muddy sediment, and more. (For details, see the olive oil trade standards of the USDA, p. 7ff, and the EU, p. 75ff.) Certain oils had other bizarre flavors or aromas that I didn’t even have names for. Though a few oils appeared to be extra virgin, all in all, I’ve rarely encountered a wider or more unpleasant range of sensory defects in one place.
Not relying on my palate alone, Truth in Olive Oil bought a total of fourteen samples of olive oil from the Tubac, Scottsdale and Sedona shops, and had them put through a wide range of tests, chemical and sensory, at Modern Olives, located in Victoria, Australia. Modern Olives is one of the most experienced and expert olive oil laboratories in the world, and a pioneer in chemical testing for quality and authenticity in olive oil. I have seen Modern Olives test results for other olive oil distributors, and have had various supermarket and boutique oils tested by them. Their conclusions regarding the samples of The Olive & The Grape oils I sent to them included the following:
- 3 samples, from the Tubac, Scottsdale and Sedona stores, were indeed extra virgin: they met the chemical and taste requirements for that quality grade of olive oil.
- 1 sample, from the Scottsdale store, was extra virgin according to the USDA standard. However, this oil failed the pyropheophytins (PPP) test, an ISO-recognized test for the presence of refined or soft-column refined olive oil, and/or of improper storage, which was developed by the German Society for Fat Science (DGF) and which is part of the Australian quality standard for olive oil. Therefore, under the Australian standard, this oil was virgin grade, not extra virgin. Since the USDA standard does not currently recognize the PPP test, though, this oil is graded as extra virgin according to the USDA. (For more on the meaning and significance of the PPP test, see this UC Davis report, pp. 4, 6-7.)
- 3 samples, from the Scottsdale and Sedona stores, were not extra virgin, but only virgin oils, because they exhibited marked sensory defects (rancid and fusty).
- 5 samples, from the Tubac and Scottsdale stores, were lampante (which in Italian means “lamp oil”) – which by USDA standards is classified as “not fit for human consumption without further processing” – because of serious sensory defects (rancid, fusty/muddy sediment, etc).
- 2 samples, from the Tubac and Sedona stores, contained canola oil – in 1 sample up to 50% of the oil was canola – and lampante or second-extraction olive oil.
Reading these results alongside the descriptions of the oils that I saw at the stores and on The Olive & The Grape website, I saw discrepancies that troubled me. Here are a few examples:
- The organic olive oil was described as follows: “This beautiful extra virgin oil has a flavor profile of ripe olives with a hint of green apple and a nice small pepper finish.” Instead, in samples from Scottsdale and Sedona, the taste panel at Modern Olives detected serious levels of 2 taste flaws – rancid (both Scottsdale and Sedona) and fusty/muddy sediment (Scottsdale) – with limited positive attributes of fruitiness, pungency (pepperiness) and bitterness.
- The description of the Moroccan oil on the website is as follows: “From Morocco, crushed with Picholine olives, this extra virgin olive oil is a toasty little gem with small hints of sunflower seeds, very creamy and buttery with a wonderful smooth pepper finish. This extra virgin olive oil has less than 0.1% acidity.” But according to the Modern Olives laboratory, both samples of Moroccan oil tested (from Scottsdale and Tubac) had significantly higher free fatty acidity (0.4% and 0.3%). Moreover, 1 of the 2 samples (from Tubac) failed the K270 test (with a value of 0.281), and contained canola oil and lampante or second-extraction olive oil.
- The description of the koroneiki olive oil is as follows: “The olives for this oil were hand picked in the Peloponnese and cold pressed to produce this fabulous oil. Some say this is the crown jewel of Greek extra virgin olive oils. Loaded with flavor, often used in recipes for chicken or lamb. Also perfect for dipping and salads. Monovarietal oil made from Koroneiki olives. Acidity is less than 0.4%.” Modern Olives found rather different results. 2 of the 3 samples tested, bought at Tubac and Scottsdale, had free fatty acidity of 1.1% – well above the limit for the extra virgin grade – and major sensory defects (rancid, cucumber): Modern Olives classified these samples as lampante. The lab said that the 3rd sample of koroneiki olive oil, bought in Sedona, in addition to equally serious sensory flaws (rancid and fusty/muddy sediment), contained approximately 50% canola oil, as well as lampante olive oil.
- For further details on the tests performed, see the Footnote at the end of this article.
The Olive & The Grape stores sell many other oils, which Truth in Olive Oil hasn’t tested – they may be excellent. Conceivably, if Truth in Olive Oil repeated the same tests on different batches of the tested oils, they might all pass the next time. Also, Truth in Olive Oil has only tested oils from 3 of the approximately 250 locations supplied by The Olive & The Grape. But the samples tested came from the network’s packing and distribution center in Tubac, and from 2 other stores in The Olive & The Grape organization owned by company head Sunil Patel, which suggests that they may be representative.
When informed of these results, Sunil Patel said he was very surprised, given that his company buys its varietal oils from a reputable importer in California which provides documentation on the quality of the oil with every batch. Also, he said, The Olive & The Grape themselves occasionally test random samples of their products. “So far we had successful results, so we haven’t had a bad batch so far,” Patel told me. He said he preferred to buy their varietal olive oils, which represent only 5% of their sales, from a reputable importer, given the risks of fraud inherent in the olive oil business. “I know how it works overseas,” he told me. “You could make safflower oil into olive oil if you can pay the people. So I don’t want to get into that part. I would rather pay a 7-10% premium over here but have a buying house that does all my buying.”
In an email, Josh Moffitt, national sales manager of The Olive & The Grape, said he that had read my book, Extra Virginity, after which he was “in shock as to the number of incidences of fraud in the olive oil business.” Moffitt said that after reading my book, he had 2 of his company’s oils – the Moroccan, which “we use as the base for all of our flavored olive oils and represents the largest percentage of our production,” and the koroneiki – tested at Baker Wine and Grape Analysis in Paso Robles, California. The results, he said, showed that the oils were indeed extra virgin. Moffitt shared these results with me. (These results are discussed in more detail below.) “After Sunil’s conversation with you,” Moffitt wrote, “he and I spoke and thought it would be a good idea for us to immediately send samples of our products to UC Davis for testing. That was before I saw that you can spend upwards of $1,000 per sample. We have a lot of different products and we may have to look at a less expensive alternative. The testing I had done previously at Baker Wine and Grape Analysis was only $50 per sample.”
In a subsequent email, Moffitt reported that, after my conversation with Sunil Patel, he had sent samples of all of their varietal oils to Baker Wine and Grape Analysis for testing, and that all but 1 had passed their tests. He also shared these results with me (discussed in more detail below). Regarding the 1 oil sample that Moffitt says failed testing – organic oil which he says his company buys in California, and which had a peroxide value of 24 meq/kg (the USDA peroxide limit for extra virgin oil is 20 meq/kg) – Moffitt wrote: “We are immediately discontinuing this product. We are also going to share all of these test results with our customers and offer a voluntary recall on the organic extra virgin olive oil. We stand behind our product quality.” Moffitt further reported that oils from 1 store supplied by The Olive & The Grape, located in Florida, had been tested by the Florida Department of Agriculture. “As expected,” Moffitt wrote, “the test results from the Florida Department of Agriculture showed that it was, in fact, Extra Virgin grade olive oil.” Moffitt has not shared with me the results of the Florida Department of Agriculture testing.
The testing results that Moffitt has shared with me so far comprise 2 chemical tests, free fatty acidity (FFA) and peroxide value. Unfortunately, these 2 tests are only a small part of what is needed to determine whether an olive oil is 1) of extra virgin grade and/or 2) entirely made from olives (ie not adulterated with other vegetable oils). The FFA and peroxide tests are 2 of an entire battery of chemical tests laid out in the USDA standard for grading olive oil, which mirror the chemical testing detailed in the European Union trade standard from which the USDA standard was largely derived. Moffitt was also under the impression that sensory testing for olive oil is not an official part of the olive oil grading system, but sensory testing is in fact an integral part of the standard (details here; see especially pp. 3, 6-7, 9). As Moffitt discovered from UC Davis, the full battery of tests, both chemical and sensory, is expensive. The $50 he mentions only covers FFA and peroxides – which, I understand, are among the easiest for a dishonest producer or oil trader to circumvent via chemical manipulation of the oils.
Patel and Moffitt both mentioned taking occasional random samples, but again, all test results Moffitt has shared with me so far only involve FFA and peroxides, which are a small subset of the chemical tests that make up the USDA, the European Union / International Olive Council, and other major international olive oil standards. It is not clear what other random testing The Olive & The Grape has performed.
Sunil Patel stated that varietal oils represent only about 5% of their business (as compared with about 25% flavored olive oils and 70% balsamic vinegars). However, varietal olive oils are prominently mentioned on The Olive & The Grape and Tubac Olive Oil websites, and the company sells, according to Patel, some 2,500 gallons of varietal oils a year. Also, Josh Moffitt indicated that the company uses the Moroccan oil as a base for their flavored oils. The Modern Olives laboratory detected the presence of canola oil in 1 of the 2 Moroccan oils tested, bought from Tubac Olive Oil Company.
Truth in Olive Oil commends The Olive & The Grape for discontinuing the organic oil which failed the peroxide test, and for offering its customers a voluntary recall of that product. Truth in Olive Oil also urges The Olive & The Grape to exercise greater vigilance and perform more extensive testing on its products. If the recent test results done by Modern Olives laboratory on 14 samples of The Olive & The Grape’s oils provide a representative picture of the company’s product offering, then this is a real concern for olive oil quality in North America. In 3 years of operation, the Olive & The Grape has grown rapidly. A page on the company’s website is called “Open a Store”. It explains how their staff will help people open their own olive oil tasting store, describing in alluring detail the artisanal, high-quality nature of their products and stressing how these products can be sold in a wide range of ways:
Whether you are a seasoned entrepreneur or just taking the first step to financial independence, we have all of the product, knowledge and support you need to get your business opened, running and generating cash flow right away. We even have a business consultant available with 30+ years retail experience in all types of stores all over the country that can help you to select a great location, get necessary permits and licenses, devise a business plan and train you and your staff to ensure your success. [. . .] Our offerings are hand-crafted in small batches and therefore we are able to provide the freshest, highest quality product possible.
It may be that trusting but inexperienced consumers are spending hefty sums for extra virgin olive oil that isn’t extra virgin in flavor, or in some instances, may not even be made entirely from olives. After a bad experience, these people may lose interest in olive oil forever. On their “Open a Store” page, The Olive & The Grape states: "You can sell from your retail location(s), farmers markets, online, to restaurants and other retail locations…." Bad-tasting oils could have far-reaching effects, when sold through such a wide range of sales outlets.
Store owners themselves may also be swayed. Read another excerpt from The Olive & The Grape “Open a Store” page, which tells potential shop owners “We’ll get you started right away!”:
This is not a franchise. You have your own private label and brand. You own your own independent business. [. . .] You come first. Customer service is our top priority.
Some managers of stores supplied by The Olive & The Grape may be influenced by fancy product descriptions, sexy business models, and the recent upsurge in excitement about olive oil in many parts of North America. If the test results obtained by Truth in Olive Oil are indeed representative, then The Olive & The Grape and its client stores may unknowingly be perpetuating the problem of olive oil fraud in America. A revolution in olive oil awareness and enthusiasm is sweeping North America, enabling more and more Canadians and Americans to enjoy fresh, well-made olive oils. But if at any point in the supply chain people are taking advantage of this revolution, they may simultaneously be helping to end it before it brings a lasting improvement in olive oil quality.
Do you know a store in The Olive & The Grape network, and like its oils? Do you own or work in an olive oil tasting establishment that’s being supplied by The Olive & The Grape? If so, I’d be glad to know how you feel about the oils you’re getting. As a consumer, have you ever tried olive oils with names and descriptions like those mentioned in this article – and what was your reaction? Whoever you are, however you feel about this subject, I want to hear from you. Please leave a comment below, or write a private message via the contact form.
Chemical and sensory analysis were performed in August-September, 2012, by Modern Olives laboratory on 14 samples of The Olive & The Grape olive oil. Among the lab’s results were the following:
- 3 olive oil samples – arbosana olive oil (from Sedona), Papa Patel Arbequina (from Tubac), and Moroccan (from Scottsdale) – had all the necessary chemical and sensory characteristics of extra virgin olive oil. Classification: extra virgin
- 1 olive oil sample, the moresca (from Scottsdale), was graded extra virgin according to the USDA standard. However, this oil failed the pyropheophytins (PPP) test (18.5), an ISO-recognized test for the presence of refined or soft-column refined oil and/or improper storage which was developed by the German Society for Fat Science (DGF) and which is part of the Australian quality standard for olive oil. (For more on the meaning and significance of the PPP test, see this UC Davis report, pp 4, 6-7.) Therefore, under the Australian standard, this oil is graded virgin, not extra virgin. Since the USDA standard does not currently include the PPP test, though, this oil is classified as extra virgin by the USDA.
- Koroneiki olive oil (Sedona), K232 = 2.858, K270 = 0.395, sensory defects = 3.0 (fusty/muddy sediment, rancid), stigmastadienes and sterols profile indicate the presence of a large amount of canola oil (around 50%), together with lampante olive oil. Also, the sample had PPP of 32.9 (as explained above), and a 1,2-diacylglycerol (DAGs) value of 29.4. DAGs is an ISO-recognized test for olive oil freshness and authenticity which was developed by the German Society for Fat Science (DGF) and which is part of the Australian quality standard for olive oil, but which is not currently included in the USDA standard. (For more on the meaning and significance of the DAGs test, see this UC Davis report, pp 4, 6-7.)
- Organic olive oil (Sedona), sensory defects = 2.0 (rancid), classification: virgin
- Papa Patel Moroccan olive oil (Tubac), K270 = 0.281, stigmastadienes and sterols profile indicate the presence of canola oil, and of lampante or second extraction olive oil
- Papa Patel Koroneiki olive oil (Tubac), FFA 1.1, sensory defects = 3.0 (rancid, cucumber), classification: lampante. Also, PPP 31.4 (as explained above), DAGs 28.9 (as explained above)
- Papa Patel Moresca olive oil (Tubac), sensory defects = 3.0 (rancid), classification: lampante. Also, PPP 24.9 (as explained above)
- Papa Patel Organic olive oil (Tubac), sensory defects = 3.0 (fusty/muddy sediment), classification: lampante
- Koroneiki olive oil (Scottsdale), FFA 1.1, sensory defects 3.0 (rancid, cucumber), classification: lampante. Also, PPP 32.8 (as explained above), DAGs 27.3 (as explained above)
- Organic olive oil (Scottsdale), sensory defects 3.5 (fusty/muddy sediment, rancid), classification: lampante
- Coratina olive oil (Scottsdale), sensory defects 2.0 (fusty, rancid), classification: virgin. Also, PPP 26.7 (as explained above), DAGs 29.9 (as explained above)
- House Blend olive oil (Scottsdale), sensory defects 2.0 (rancid), classification: virgin. Also, PPP 34.5 (as explained above), DAGs 29.7 (as explained above)