Olive Oil Labeling Terms and What They Mean

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Light or Extra-Light: Olive oils labeled “light” or “extra-light,” which are pale and very mild, have been refined to remove much of the flavor and color. The terms have nothing to do with fat or calories. All olive oils have 14 grams of fat and 120 calories (all of them from fat) per tablespoon. Because they’re refined, light or extra-light olive oils have a higher smoke point than extra-virgin oil does.

Quality Seals: A quality seal on a bottle, such as that from the California Olive Oil Council, isn’t a guarantee that you’ll love an oil, but it does certify that it has passed chemistry and sensory criteria.

The standards for “extra-virgin,” “virgin,” and “pure,” by the way, were established by the International Olive Oil Council, a Madrid-based organization backed by the United Nations. That said, olive oil production is labor-intensive and expensive, and the end result is inherently delicate and different from year to year. So it’s no surprise that the industry has long been plagued by mislabeling, mishandling (age and exposure to heat and light hastens oxidation), and outright fraud—“extra-virgin” oil that’s made with damaged or overripe olives, or adulterated with an inferior grade or a seed or nut oil. Two studies by the University of California at Davis, in 2010 and 2011, “indicate that the quality level of the largest imported brand names is inconsistent at best, and that most of the top-selling olive oils we examined regularly failed to meet international standards for extra-virgin olive oil.”

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