Have you ever gone shopping for olive oil and been completely overwhelmed by the myriad of choices?  Extra virgin, cold pressed, expeller pressed, light, refined.  And why do all the bottles seem to look exactly the same?  That’s usually when the panic sets in and I end up picking the one with the prettiest label….lol!

If you’ve got a few “pretty label” bottles of your own then today’s article is a must read.  I’ll be giving you some tips that will have you shopping like a connoisseur in no time!

When buying olive oil, one of the most important things to consider is the quality of the oil.  In order to choose the best quality you must first look at how the oil is extracted from the fruit.  Once you know that, you will quickly see that all olive oil is not created equal!

There are two main methods that are used for extracting the oil – cold pressed and expeller pressed.

Cold pressing is the gold standard because it is done without using heat or chemicals.  The seeds are placed in an oilseed press and crushed in order to extract the oils from the fruit. Cold pressing allows the oil to retain most of the antioxidants and nutrients that contribute to the health promoting benefits of olive oil.  It also gives you that wonderful olive flavor.

Expeller pressed oils are made with an expeller press which uses extreme pressure and friction to extract the oil.  Although there is no added heat used in this process, the friction naturally creates some heat which is usually around 104-210 degrees Fahrenheit.  This will have a slight affect on the nutritional benefits but overall it’s still a much better option than using high heat or chemicals.

Now that you know how the oil is extracted, let’s take a stroll down the grocery aisle and look at the different types of olive oil that you will likely see.

1.  Extra Virgin Olive Oil aka EVOO – This is the most flavorful and healthiest form of olive oil because it is always cold pressed.  EVOO has a lower acidity and higher antioxidant level making it best suited for dressings or for finishing a dish after cooking.  Extra virgin olive oil has a lower smoke point which means when it’s exposed to high heat, the oil breaks down and you lose all of the nutritional benefits.  For this reason, EVOO is not a good cooking oil.

2.  Virgin Olive Oil – This oil is also cold pressed and is sometimes labeled “cold pressed olive oil.”  It has a milder taste, slightly higher acidity and a lower antioxidant level.  Virgin olive oil is typically cheaper than EVOO and although this is still a good choice, it is less pure than EVOO.

3.  Light Olive Oil – Don’t be fooled by the name of this one.  Light does not mean lighter in calories – it simply means this oil has a lighter hue or color.  Although it’s cold pressed to start with, it is then refined using high heat and chemicals.  This refining process removes much of the flavor and color as well as the phytonutrients.  Light olive oil would be a good choice to bake with because the flavor is not overpowering and it has a high smoke point – 465 degrees.

4.  Pure Olive Oil – This is another one where the name can be deceiving.  Products labeled “pure olive oil” are actually some of the least pure because they are a mixture of cheap refined oils and virgin oils.  Pure olive oil is highly processed and void of any nutrition or flavor.  It would be a good idea to skip this one altogether.

Once you have your bottle of olive oil in hand, it’s always a good idea to check the ingredient list on the back of the bottle.  A good quality olive oil will have only ingredient – olive oil.  You also want to look for the words “unrefined,” “extra virgin,” or “cold pressed” on the label.  Never, ever buy an olive oil that has “refined oil” listed as one of the ingredients.  This means that chemicals have been used in the extraction process and that is definitely not a good thing.

EVOO has a shelf life of about 18-24 months so look for a harvest date on the label to ensure the oil is not rancid.  A dark amber or green bottle will protect the oil from light and preserve the quality of the oil.  When I buy olive oil in the grocery store, I usually avoid the bottles on the top shelf for two reasons.  One, I can’t reach the top shelf and two, those bottles have had more exposure to those huge bright fluorescent lights that seem to be on 24/7.

Shopping by price can sometimes be confusing.  Just because an olive oil is more expensive does not necessarily mean it’s the best quality oil.  One of my favorite places to find imported olive oil is at HomeGoods.  Yep….you read that right!  HomeGoods has a small food section in the corner of the store and they carry an amazing selection of high quality imported olive oils at very reasonable prices.  You won’t break the bank here when you are shopping for EVOO!

Choosing an olive oil by the country of origin can be tricky.  Because the climate and growing conditions can vary from country to country, it’s sort of like comparing apples to oranges.  At this point, it really comes down to taste and personal preference.

Speaking of taste, if you want to sample before you buy, you might consider doing an olive oil tasting.  It’s kind of like a wine tasting only with olive oil.  I know sipping olive oil may sound a bit strange but I’ve done it many times and I would highly recommend giving it a try.  You’ll be amazed at the wide range of flavors that you will discover.

Over the past few years, olive oil tasting rooms have been popping up all over the country.  Here in Tucson, we have a franchise called Alfonso’s.  They sell a wonderful selection of olive oils as well as balsamic vinegars and you can sample as many as you like.

If you’re heading towards Phoenix, you’ll want to make a stop at the Queen Creek Olive Mill.  This is a family owned company that grows and presses high quality olives used to make their award winning extra virgin olive oils.  They have over 7000 olive trees with 16 varieties of olives.  Be sure to check out their website and read the story of how they got started.  It’s inspiring.

With all this talk about olive oil, I would be remiss if I did not give a shout out to the source of this liquid gold…..the olive.  Eating a whole food is always, always the best source of nutrition.  I love olives so sometimes I find myself skipping the olive oil altogether and tossing in a handful of olives instead.  The briny, salty flavor of the olives is sure to brighten up any dish.

As you can see, all olive oil is not created equal but now you’ve got the knowledge to shop with confidence knowing that you will be buying the perfect bottle of olive oil.  And if you are ever in doubt, EVOO gets my vote every single time!

Look out olive oil aisle…..here we come!

Happy shopping 😉

olive oil and tomato image