Two shoppers are trying to make sense of olive oil labels at a Nugget Market in Davis. There’s a large selection of olive oil from top notch local oil to imports better suited for oil lamps.
"I’d look for the fancy label first," says David Mattos.
Nancy Boyd rattles off a series of names: "Arbequina, Arbosana, Koroneiki."
"Composed of refined olive oils and virgin olive oils," Mattos reads from the label of one bottle.
"So it could be Greek olives, Italian olives," says Boyd.
Mattos falls for the term ‘”pure.”
"You’d think pure olive oil would be pretty good," he says.
Nancy Boyd peers through her glasses, dubious.
"I’m not sure what extra-virgin is. Are you or aren’t you?" she asks with a hearty chuckle.
Dan Flynn, executive director of the UC Davis Olive Center, is not surprised by the confusion. He learned from the recent UC Davis survey Consumer Attitudes on Olive Oil that only one in four of us understands olive oil grades.
"We’ve inherited a lot of the marketing terms for olive oil," explains Flynn. "They’re not terms that are providing clarity to the consumer about the level of quality that they’re buying."
The word “pure” is problematic but legal.
"Pure, which is such a great word from a marketing standpoint, indicates to a lot of consumers that they’re buying the very best olive oil but in fact it’s a lower grade," he says.
To be clear, extra-virgin is the highest grade. Even more maddening is that the term pure connotes oil that’s made from olives, maybe not such great olives. Which brings Flynn to the term refined, which he explains "doesn’t mean elegant or high class."
Refined oil is chemically-processed with solvents to mask off-odors and flavors.
Dr. Selina Wang is the Research Director at the Olive Center. She’s a chemist who oversees this lab and designed the study. Wang is from Taiwan, where olive oil is not so familiar.
"It probably took me several months to figure out all this terminology and nomenclature. It’s very confusing," says Wang.
Orietta Gianjorio is a member of the UC Davis olive oil taste panel. She's from Rome but now lives in Carmichael. As she arranges about a dozen bottles of olive oil of varying height, origin and quality on a kitchen countertop, she says olive oil labels confuse Italians, too.
"When I go home to Italy, I see people standing in front of the bottle of olive oil, thinking and pondering which one do I buy," she says.
Her advice? Taste it and smell it when you get home. Gianjorio says you’ll know it’s rancid.
"If the olive oil smells anything like wax, bad salami, old peanut butter… I can go into some other terminology that is not that nice, as for instance, baby diaper, manure, old gym clothes, sweaty socks…"
Rancid oil can form harmful free radicals. Extra-virgin olive oil, with its polyphenols and antioxidants, is only healthy when it’s fresh. And freshness depends on the harvest date.
"If the back label doesn’t have harvest date, you may consider putting that bottle back in the shelf," she advises.
The UC Davis Olive Center’s Dan Flynn says America may need its own labeling system.
"We need to get to the point in the United States where a consumer can pick up a bottle of olive oil and at least be assured that it meets a minimum standard of quality, just like they can do now with wine," says Flynn.