The terms that matter—and those that don’t.
We get it. Olive oil shopping can seem intimidating—lots of bottles with lots of different terminology on them. For many of us, it’s an integral ingredient in our everyday cooking, but it can be hard to figure out exactly what we’re getting, or what we should be looking for on olive oil labels.
Here at the Deli, we want the process of picking out the perfect olive oil to be fun and not overwhelming, so we’re reviewing some of the most common terminology you’ll see on olive oil labels. That way, you can shop with confidence and have a better understanding of what information is important and what it means—as well as why labels aren’t always everything.
Common Labeling Terms
Ari Weinzweig, one of the founders of Zingerman’s, wrote Zingerman’s Guide to Good Eating: How to choose the best bread, cheeses, olive oil, pasta, chocolate, and much more (Houghton Mifflin, 2003). In it, he covers a lot of the most common terms you might see on olive oil labels. Some of them come from the two main organizations that set standards and regulations for olive oil: the International Olive Council (IOC), which is an intergovernmental organization that brings together olive oil producing and consuming stakeholders and sets international standards, and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), which sets regulations for the United States. Here are eight of the most common terms that you might notice on olive oil labels:
Extra virgin is a grade of olive oil primarily distinguished by its naturally low levels of free oleic acid, meaning that there is almost no oxidation of the oil. According to the IOC, to qualify as extra virgin, an olive oil must have “a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid, of not more than 0.8 grams per 100 grams, and the other characteristics of which correspond to those fixed for this category in the IOC standard.” Those other characteristics the IOC is looking for relate to the flavor of the olive oil and its levels of bitterness, fruitiness, and pepperiness. Extra virgin is also a term for olive oil that is harvested, milled, and bottled within 24 hours.
Virgin olive oil allows for more oleic acid, between 0.8% – 2.0% oleic acid. Ari notes that this is two to three times the free acid of extra virgin olive oil, and adds, “Take note that ‘free acid’ doesn’t mean the oil will taste acidic; on the contrary, oils with high levels of free oleic acid tend to be greasy and taste either unpleasantly sweet (as in overripe fruit) or, alternatively, of benzine. You’re less likely to come across bottles of virgin olive oil on our store shelf, but that doesn’t mean they’re inherently bad. They can be fine for general cooking purposes and tend to be less expensive; just don’t expect them to have the same level of complexity as their more expensive, extra virgin counterparts.
This refers to the technology used to extract the oil from the olives and means that heat is not used, the temperature never gets above 86°F during the pressing process. As Ari explains, it’s one sign that a producer is trying to make good oil, as “the friction created by industrial pressing methods can damage the quality and flavor of the oil.” Olives are often first crushed with stone wheels, then the resulting olive mash is spread on mats, which are stacked and hydraulically pressed to extract the liquid. Though there are a couple of newer options, including the “sinolea” method, in which steel blades run through the mash, collecting oil that adheres to the blades, and the “continuous-press” technique which first crushes the olives with small hammers and then spins the mash in a large metal tube which separates out oil, solids, and water.
This means the oil has been extracted from a press, and the olives have been pressed only one time. (Olives can be pressed more than once to try and get more oil out.) According to the International Olive Council, to officially qualify as extra virgin olive oil, the oil must be first cold pressed olive oil. Roi Carte Noir is the very first oil off the Roi olive press, but this one isn’t even pressed. This oil is from the “tears of the olives,” the natural flow of oil off the olive mash without using any press to extract it.
Olio Nuovo or Olio Novello
Olio Novello (or Nuovo) is Italian for “new oil” and is the name given to early harvest extra virgin olive oil that is freshly pressed from green olives. It is a celebration of the beginning of the olive harvest season, which typically starts in December each year. These oils are bottled straight from the press, whereas most oils are stored in steel casks for a few months before bottling to let the flavors settle, so these fresh, young oils will tend to have bolder flavors. We typically start to see these oils arriving at the Deli in November and December. A few of our favorite new harvest producers are Petraia from Italy and Castillo de Canena from Spain.
Most olive oil sent to America is filtered, meaning that it is run through filters to clarify the oil and remove sediment. Whereas unfiltered oils are left in their natural state, so they’ll be cloudier due to the presence of olive sediment. There’s debate among olive oil producers about the benefits of filtering (or not), so choose based on your own personal preference. Ari tends to gravitate toward unfiltered oils, like Eric’s Oil, as he enjoys the thicker mouth-feel.
Light or Pure
These are both marketing terms that don’t mean much of anything, though “light” could be an indicator that the olive oil has been mixed with other less flavorful oils, like canola.
This tells you where the oil was packaged. So, “packed in Italy” means the oil was bottled in Italy, but it doesn’t necessarily mean all of the oil is from Italy! By working with small producers who are pressing and bottling the oil themselves, we know not only where our oils are packed, but where the olives are grown. Our producers can actually point out exactly which trees and groves on their farms produced which olives for which oils!
Why Labels Aren’t Everything
Many of the terms are just for marketing. Better to know producers, as we do, so you can have a more nuanced understanding of the olive oils, how they are produced, and what they taste like.
As you now know, not all of the common terms that appear on olive oil labels are sanctioned or regulated. And, even among those that are, a lot of oils on the market today are labeled with terms like “extra virgin,” but don’t actually meet the standards*. This is precisely why we work with producers we know and only carry olive oils that we have a nuanced understanding of. We can’t wait to help you find an olive oil that you’re as excited about as we are. Come on in and chat with our olive oil sommelier or shop our olive oils online. And keep your eye on our events calendar for upcoming olive oil events and taste with us! *This is a frustrating, but fascinating phenomenon. If you want to learn more about how and why that happens, and dive into both the history of olive oil and the current state of the olive oil industry, consider picking up a copy of Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller.