The backbone of the healthy “Mediterranean Diet,” extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) is one of the world’s great foods, and one of the very few combining decadently delicious taste and flavor with well documented medical benefits. It has been proven to be heart-healthy and is very high in monosaturated fats and omega-3 and 6 fatty acids. In addition, it is high in antioxidants and many other potentially important health benefits have been tied anecdotally to EVOO, from anti-ageing to anti-carcinogenic to anti-inflammatory properties.
The American Heart Association noted that “earlier this year, researchers reported in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology that people who ate more than half a tablespoon per day had lower rates of premature death from cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other causes compared to people who never or rarely consumed olive oil. ‘Olive oil is the hallmark of the Mediterranean diet, and its link to lower mortality is well established in southern European countries. But this is the first long-term study to show such a health benefit here in the U.S.,’ said Dr. Frank Hu, the study’s senior author.” Similarly, a conference summary from the National Institute of Health noted that, “the use of olive oil as the nearly exclusive dietary fat is what mostly characterizes the Mediterranean area. Plenty of epidemiological studies have correlated that the consumption of olive oil was associated with better overall health.”
Not surprisingly, the highest levels of both taste and health come from the highest quality oils, and the good news is that in recent years it has become much easier to buy very high-quality extra bottles. For decades stories of olive oil fraud and mislabeling have regularly made the news, and in my New York Times bestseller Real Food, Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating & What You Can Do About It, I thoroughly documented these issues and gave concrete tips on how to shop better for extra-virgin olive oil and dozens of other fraud-prone foodstuffs. But in the seven years since, labeling, testing, enforcement and the overall retail landscape for EVOO have improved, and it has gotten much better for consumers.
The bad news is that the European olive harvest this year is one of the worst in recent memory, supplies are down, prices are way up, and anytime shortages and higher prices affect a food, fraud is almost certain to follow suit. But even without mislabeling, there is just less good olive oil to go around, and this can make finding high quality bottles difficult. This is exacerbated by the fact the United States is by far the largest importer of olive oil, 35-40% of global imports, according to our domestic trade group, the North American Olive Oil Association.
“I’ve just returned from the 2023 Italian olive harvest and, while climate always plays a huge role in determining olive quality and quantity, this season set the record for challenges. The main culprit was rain, torrential Spring downpours that decimated the blossoms on trees. Few blossoms meant that many regions of the country had little to no olives. Then there was a drought starting in the summer, and unprecedented heat into November,” said T.J. Robinson, a globally recognized expert on olive oil and the rare American certified to judge oils in Europe. Robinson, aka “The Olive Oil Hunter,” is the founder of the Fresh Pressed Olive Oil Club, a mail order subscription service, which is where I have been getting my oil from for years, ever since I first food out about it and tasted his selectins. Robinson travels the world seeking out the best artisanal oils, has them bottled at the peak of freshness, shipped back to the states by air, and dispenses them to his club members before–often months before–the current harvest bottles reach store shelves in this country.
“I was fortunate because the 20-year relationships I’ve built with artisanal producers guaranteed that the best olive oils were reserved for members of my club,” said Robinson. “But for the average person, even those living in the Mediterranean region and certainly for Americans, chances are that the olive oil on store shelves is not going to be of the quality people are used to. The current crisis has led many mass producers to squeeze out as much oil as they can without regard for taste and then set sky-high prices for it to boot.”
But it was not just Italy. While the country has marketed its oils very well and to many consumers is synonymous with them, Spain is by far the…