What Does ‘Extra Virgin Olive Oil’ Actually Mean?

What Does ‘Extra Virgin Olive Oil’ Actually Mean?

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has just fined an olive oil producer for inappropriately labelling a product as “extra virgin olive oil”. However, there’s no nationally mandated standard for what can be described as “extra virgin”. What’s going on?

Picture by Smabs Sputzer

Even non-foodies like myself know that “extra virgin” is a premium branding, but the definition is not actually set in stone or strictly enforced under Australian law. However, as the ACCC explains:

Although there is no mandatory standard for extra virgin olive oil in Australia, it is widely accepted that it is the highest grade oil obtained from the first press of the best quality olives, that it is not blended with other oil and that there are no solvents or refining in the manufacturing process.

An investigation into seven brands of oil sold in Australia suggested that one, Oz Olio, did not meet the broad requirements outlined above, showing a higher level of free fatty acids indicative of being an inferior product. Oz Olio’s producer, the Big Olive Company, has paid $13,200 in infringement notices.

There are some evident commercial machinations here. The ACCC kicked off its investigations at the behest of the Australian Olive Association, which does have its own “Australian Extra Virgin Olive Oil” certification program. Having products which don’t meet this more general standard removed from the market arguably improves the value of the AOA certifications. Despite the fine, the majority of the oils tested did meet the standards needed, regardless of their origin.

If you’re extremely fussy about olive oil, you’ll doubtless have your own favourite suppliers. If you’re just picking up oil for the kitchen, let your tastebuds be your guide, and remember that the “extra virgin” labelling isn’t on its own an absolute guarantee of quality.



  • Olive oil is tricky to sell based on merit, because – lets be honest here – most people don’t really notice the difference between different oils after the meal has been prepared. You can absolutely tell at an olive oil tasting, but that’s completely different to how people use it in the real world (except for those who have plain bread and olive oil, of course).

    As a result, most olive oil companies will slam as many buzzwords onto the label as they can get away with- hand-picked, sun-ripened, cold-pressed, extra virgin, organic, etc. Most of them don’t even have a vague link with the quality of the finished product. I know at least one popular Australian olive oil doesn’t even produce their own; they buy in cheap olive oil from other growers and relabel it. It’s still ‘extra virgin’.

    (disclaimer: I grew up on an olive farm and am still quite involved)

    • Yeah I agree, I prefer the Olive Grove extra virgin Margarine but the truth is, I have no idea what’s actually in it! Could be friggin Canola oil for all I’d know. Hopefully, the producers have some integrity and actually produce a premium product. The other thing to remember is that Olive oil doesn’t keep as well as some of the lesser types of oil and can actually be rancid without having a bad taste. So I’ve stopped buying in bulk.

      • I wouldn’t touch Olive Grove for just that reason – read the label on the container! last I saw it DID contain LOTS of Canola oil ! For immediate eating, olive oil smeared on white bread is delicious ! But doesn’t keep well – I wouldn’t use it for a pre-packed lunch, say. Use BUTTER for that. If you don’t want to pay the major supermarkets’ price premiums on Buttersoft, buy a 600g regular butter & a small pack of cream (or sour cream); melt the butter on a gentle heat, mix in the cream, whisk a little to thoroughly mix the cream & the butter, put in a container and into the fridge. If the cold product doesn’t spread well enough ( it can ‘crumb’ when spreading on bread if not enough cream in it) – just remelt & add more cream, and remember quantities for next time. But I find 600g butter to the smallest sour cream container works well.
        For variation, juice of one to one and a half lemons into the pot first, boil the juice away until just the tiniest bit is left, then pour on the cream (turn down to gentle heat, don’t want to separate the cream) and mix, then cut the butter into medium sized cubes (say 2cm a side) and put in a few at a time, until all the butter is melted, then whisk to mix thoroughly, and put in the fridge. (original recipe was juice of three lemons, but that becomes quite sharp tasting. Or if you want the lemon taste without the sharpness, put say half a level teaspoon of bicarb in the lemon juice before you boil it down).
        Another addition or alternative is to use garlic. I wouldn’t waste my time in the major supermarkets, the chopped garlic they sell is full of additives – buy a jar of pre-chopped in your local asian store (usually better prices there too ) – a good tablespoon works well, with or without the lemon.

  • I once picked up “Pure Olive Oil” by mistake & wow – that stuff is hardcore… I could definately tell after the meal was cooked…
    Agree with Stove though, with EVOO you would never tell after the fact…

    • Hi Bugulugs

      Do you mean the oil tasted bad, or good? Pure olive oil is a marketing term used to refer to refined olive oil. That is, lower quality oil that has been refined through heat or chemical processes to remove bad flavours. Along with ‘light’ and ‘extra light’, it should be the most flavourless oil.

  • Ha, the Big Olive… I applied for a job there once, they seemed really keen until I told them my price (which I thought was very reasonable, and if anything, quite cheap for what they were asking of me), upon which they tone of the interview became decidedly chilly and was wrapped up very quickly, they gave me a call back about 6 weeks later happy to accept my offer (presumably after fielding interviews from other similarly qualified candidates who asked for the same or more than I did), but the way the’d treated me, I wasn’t interested one iota!

  • Most people have almost no idea how to use Olive Oil anyway.

    If you’re using it for cooking, you’re already doing it wrong. Olive Oil is far too expensive, fattier and has an incredibly low smoke point than simply using Canola or Vegetable Oil.

    • Not necessarily. Using it for cooking is fine, but you will loose some of those flavours. I do agree partially as trying to stir fry with olive oil is ridiculous.

      As for the cost, I don’t get it from the supermarket. I get it bulk from the growers who also press on site. I have a fusti in my cupboard and decant what I need into a pourer.

      Another thing of note is that most people have no idea WHEN the olives were pressed. Olive oil is like a fruit juice – the fresher the better. It also needs to be stored away from light/heat i.e. not next to the hotplates!

  • One thing that frustrates me is that everyone is an expert on olive oil. Let me set you straight from someone who has direct industry knowledge….

    SMOKING POINTS of oils are directly related to the Free Fatty Acid Content (FFA) the higher the FFA the higher the smoking point. The smoking point of “Olive Oil” is around 180 degrees celcius whereas EXTRA VIRGIN has a much higher smoking point of 240 degrees celcius or higher! The fat in your meat is around 190 degrees celcius.. so the fat in your meat will smoke before a true EXTRA VIRGIN. See my blog for further information: http://amandabaileyonolives.com.au/wp/marketing/discussion-smoking-point-of-olive-oil/

    As for SPREADABLE OLIVE OIL (as referred above) has actually gone through a process called Hydrogenation which changes the oil to a solid. The FFA’s are changed as a result and you will see TRANS FATS on the nutritional panel. TRANS Fats are bad.. avoid them at all costs. Compare this to a bottle of TRUE Extra Virgin which has NO TRANS FATS! Sorry, no spreads are good in my opinion.

    As for Shelf life of olive oil… this is also part of the problem where the FRADULENT products are already passed their use by date! A true EXTRA VIRGIN can last for many years (i.e. the oil is most stable compared to all other oils). However, when an oil is primarily subjected to heat, light or air the oil will start to degrade in these conditions. Keep your oil in a Dark Cool Cupboard when not in use. Buy in containers you would use within about 6 weeks of opening!

    EXTRA VIRGIN is the healthiest oil as it does not undergo any chemical extraction or refining or any other processes that reduce the FFA content. the FFA Content is the antioxidants and is directly related to health and all the associated benefits that are know about Extra Virgin Olive Oil. It’s the healthiest choice of any oil.

    If you want to discuss any points contact me http://www.theolivecentre.com

    There is also another website which has some great resources: http://australianextravirginoliveoil.com/

    • While olive oil is very stable and does last well as an oil, it loses flavour gradually. There is a noticable difference between pressings from this year and the year before.

      If you’re buying olive oil and you’re going to be tasting it as-is (salads, dipping oil) get some from this years pressing. If you’re cooking it wont make much of a difference.

    • >Hopefully doesn’t happen here

      it already did. There was an expose on most imported olive oils. Eg. La Espanola, etc. They were all using rancid oils, etc. I’ve stopped buying any Italian/imported olive oil as a result.

  • Thank you for some good information Amanda. I am guilty of buying too much and using it over a period of months. Not from now onwards, but at least I keep it in a dark cool cupboard.
    Those in the industry both local and overseas should be outed for selling a substandard product. I read somewhere recently that even grocery chains are guilty of selling poor quality oils. I guess that is to be expected because their business model is based around greed, making money by any means.

  • I was just recounted a story on Saturday about how a Olive Grower in a valley next to the blue mountains will at harvest/pressing time travel with his crop the entire way to the presser up in the Hunter, and watch the entire pressing process to ensure that his crop is properly handled (no brusing etc) and that the press is clean and that his crop is not mixed with anyone else crop.

    The implication was that the processors in Australia are just as susceptible to corruption as the Italians, Spaniards & Greeks are. Who would have known.

    Personally I just buy whatever is at Woolies, as long as its Australian I’ll risk it. Usually the stuff on special is rather green and filled with material. We called the supplier up about it and they admitted that it was the end of sason stuff they were off loading.

    I’m not fussed. Its still far healthier then any other retail level oil, its still tastier then its competitors.

  • I run a small restaurant and I stopped buying imported europian olive oil for front of house about two years ago. It was definetly inferior. I now buy oil through http://www.olivetrader.com.au as they specialise in local produce and you can taste the difference. I’ve also found that you can pan fry with pure extra virgin olive oil – never had an issue with smoke points on the real stuff.

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