You may have heard that the olive oil we commonly find available in grocery stores is often fake or fraudulent. More specifically, you may have seen Facebook or other social media posts claiming that testing has revealed that 69% of olive oil sold in the US is probably fake. You may have also heard that this is a huge, widespread problem that causes consumers to be regularly duped by fake olive oil brands. According to such reports, these oils are often adulterated, which means they contain other oils besides just olive oil. Even worse, they are sometimes outright fakes, containing no olive oil at all. Every year, websites publish lists of fake olive oil brands to avoid.
See also: Can You Deep Fry With Olive Oil?
I’m sometimes absolutely shocked by the brands that show up on these lists. Where are they getting their data? The fact is, the only data showing any evidence at all of fraudulent and fake olive oil brands is very old and out of date, from 2010. It has proven to be undependable has even been discredited in the courts.
Testing of Olive Oil for Authenticity or Quality
Olive oils can be tested using sensory panels or chemical tests. Many of the biggest brands of olive oils have been called fakes because they supposedly failed a sensory test. This really just means they don’t taste all that great. It doesn’t necessarily mean they have failed chemical tests and have been revealed to be adulterated or fake. I will concede, however, that it may an indication that they may be oxidized, poor quality, or adulterated.
Evidence of Bad or Fake Olive Oil
This infamous source often relied upon for evaluation of commonly sold olive oils in the United States is the Evaluation of Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Sold in California by UC Davis (PDf). This report was partially funded by the California Olive Ranch and the California Olive Oil Council. AboutOliveOil.org, published by the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) had some choice words to say about the ‘purpose’ of this report, claiming it was a brazen attempt by American olive oil brands to discredit their European competition. I do not know that this is true and I do not believe that an industry-funded study should be automatically dismissed. Funding is one of many factors to consider when evaluating such information. So, let’s leave motivation off the table for now.
To get the details of the sensory and chemical tests, read the PDF linked above. For testing, UC Davis evaluated 18 samples of each olive oil they wanted to check. Some of the top-selling brands had a high failure rate for both sensory panels, from 11 to 94%. Of these, Lucini was the best at 11% and Pompeian was the worst at 94%. Other brands with high failure rates were Calavita, Star, Bertolli, and Filippo Berio. Some of the samples of these brands also failed some of the chemical tests. Again, the worst of these was Pompeian (Pompeian oil participates in a voluntary quality program).
California Olive Ranch had no failures. Again, they partially funded the research. A highly rewarded Australian oil, Cobram Estate, also had no failures. I actually like both of these brands very much.
Star olive oil had no failures in the chemical tests, despite its 11% failure rate in the sensory evaluations. Besides the California oils, Lucini fared best overall, in both sensory and chemical tests. The only failures in any chemical tests were in the UV absorption tests, a measure to show elevated absorption of UV which could indicate oxidized or poor quality oil. Yet, despite failures in this measure, all the oils performed fine in all the other chemical tests. In other words, almost all of the negative reports were based on subjective taste tests rather than a large-scale failure upon chemical analysis.
Since this report was published, UC Davis has included a new disclaimer saying that this 2010 data should not be used to characterize the quality of olive oils sold today. But even at the time the report was published, they never found that “69% of olive oil was fake.” They simply found that some of their samples did not meet the criteria to be labeled extra-virgin. In other words, all the olive oils were olive oil, they simply were not good enough, based on testing criteria, to be called extra-virgin.
Failure to Replicate
In addition to the information being out of date, other tests, done for the class action suits against olive oil brands that occurred because of this report, failed to replicate the findings in any way, causing the cases to be dismissed or dropped.
Newer Data Shows No Widespread Instances of Fake (Adulterated) Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Furthermore, a newer, independent study done for the FDA has shown no such problems. This report, published in the Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society is named Authenticity Assessment of Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Evaluation of Desmethylsterols and Triterpene Dialcohols and was published in December 2015. Despite the NAOOA’s seeming pretense (I’m not really sure what they are saying) that adulterated olive oil has never been a big problem (and here’s proof!), the report begins by stating that “Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) has a long history of economic adulteration…”
This study tested 88 samples of olive oil purchased between October and October 2013 in the Washington, DC area and found that three of them failed to meet purity criteria. AboutOliveOil.org, the abovementioned website of the NAOOA, claimed that there was no confirmed adulteration of any tested. I’m not sure why they say this. Perhaps they consulted an earlier version of this research (they gave no date) or perhaps the word ‘confirmed’ was carefully chosen, for reasons we will see later. Here is the actual language used in the report:
“Three of the 88 samples labeled EVOO failed to meet purity criteria, indicating possible adulteration with commodity oil and/or solvent-extracted olive oil.”
Possible adulteration, not confirmed adulteration. But, two others failed to meet purity criteria. This is generally a very positive outcome given the number of samples.
This assessment was based on a subset of purity criteria specified in the US standards for grades of olive oil and olive-pomace oil. They used eight parameters to test the purity of the oils. They also used known blends of olive oils and other (commodity oils) as a control comparison. In addition to this, they intentionally spiked a particularly good sample with commodity oils such as sunflower, soybean, canola, safflower, peanut, corn, and palm oils. All of this seems to have been done to tease out difficulties in detecting and evaluating adulteration of EVOO.
Overall, the report found a low occurrence rate of adulteration (<5 %) based on purity criteria for total sterol content, desmethylsterol composition, and triterpene dialcohols as specified in the US standards for grades of olive oil. The report also points out that this is consistent with UC Davis Olive Center findings, in terms of adulteration with refined nut, seed, or vegetable oils.
Of the three olive oils that failed purity standards, again, only one was thought to have failed based on adulteration with other commodity oil, although further analysis would have been needed to confirm this. The report also pointed out that a false-positive was possible due to the inherent difficulties and variability of olive oil composition around the world. You can download the report here.
So, what are we left with? It seems we are left with the knowledge that there is little to no data to support the assertion that lots of extra virgin olive oils are fake or adulterated. While some olive oils may be fresher and higher quality than others, it does not seem that many can be called fake or fraudulent and, indeed, it seems that we can be fairly assured that the olive oil we purchase at the grocery store is the real deal.
Lists of Fake Olive Oils Seem to be Fake
Yet, I continue to see lists of fake or bad olive oils. I can find no other sources of data from which these lists could be drawn. Among the ‘bad’ olive oil brands I have seen listed are Newman’s Own, Whole Foods, Mazzola, Mezzetta, and Filippo Berio. Pompeian Oil always seems to make the lists, as well. Kirkland Organic is often named as a quality oil, based on what, I do not know.
While we may not wish to draw a lot of conclusions about how bad or good these olive oils are, I think we can rest assured that these or any other major brands are NOT likely to be fake or adulterated at all. Based on the amount of hype about fake olive oil, you would have thought that there were just reams of evidence to support all this hysterical reporting. There never was. It was all based on one report that is no longer relevant. Unlike other sources, I am not blaming or discrediting UC Davis Olive Center in any way. I am just confirming what they themselves have said, that this data should no longer be relied upon.
14 Fake Olive Oil Brands To Avoid
A top source for information about ‘fake’ olive oil brands is ‘WorstBrands.Com.’ This website hosts a page published April 9, 2021 entitled 14 Fake Olive Oil Brands To Avoid. The article lists 14 olive oil brands that it claims are fake or have, in the words of the article ‘failed to meet EVOO standards.’ The first thing to realize is that failing to meet EVOO standards does not make an olive oil fake or adulterated.
Relying, again, on the outdated UC Davis report (which the article misinterprets), WorstBrands claims that the 14 olive oils on its list are adulterated with cheaper vegetable oils, use old rancid and bitter olives, contain perfumed or flavored oil, and are often too cheap to be real olive oil. None of these accusations can be backed up by any real evidence. While some of the brands may not be the highest quality EVOO on the market, the accusations in the article are false until proven otherwise. The olive oil brands listed are:
- Filippo Berio
- Pietro Coricelli
- Whole Foods
- Antica Badia
It appears that this article may be a rewrite of an article from another website, Awaken.Com which also has an article with the same name, listing the same fourteen supposedly fake olive oils, relying on the UC Davis report, and dated February 18, 2017. Neither article should be considered reliable.
Some of these products participate in voluntary quality assurance programs.
Olive Oil Quality Assurance Programs
The NAOOA has a quality seal program based on extensive quality tests done on randomly purchased samples from grocery stores. To be included, olive oil brands must agree to have the NAOOA randomly test their products and pay a fee to license the AboutOliveOil.org seal to use on their packaging. They also agree, upon any failure during a random test, to recall all their products from stores in North America. That’s a pretty severe penalty, I’d say. Below is a list of the brands participating in this program. However, be aware that the absence of the AboutOliveOil.org seal absolutely does NOT mean that an olive oil is fake.
Olive Oil Brands Participating in NAOOA Program
Note that while I am listing the general brands, the actual program identifies particular products subject to testing. All the products of a brand may not be included and I have not done additional research to ascertain which products of each brand are included and which are not. This is just a general list of the companies involved. You can get a more complete list of products here.
- Colavita (lots of products)
- Filippo Berio (lots of products)
- La Tourangelle
- Napa Valley Naturals
- Origin 846
- Pompeiian (lots of products)
- Primal Kitchen
- Terra Delyssa
- U.S. Foods
- Whole Foods
You can also look for European olive oils bearing the P.D.O. seal, or “Protected Designation of Origin.” Such oil is certified by the European Union to meet strict quality requirements, origin traceability, adherence to traditional methods, and methods that are protective of the environment. This ensures that your olive oil comes exactly from where it claims to be from and that the “characteristics of the product are due essentially or exclusively to its place or origin.”
Colavita Olive Oils, a participant in the NAOOA program, above, may also bear the Cermet seal, which is the mark of the Italian program, similar to the PDO, below.
PDO High-Quality Olive Oils from Amazon
Here are some high quality European olive oils that are certified PDO and which you can purchase through Amazon: