WEST PALM BEACH — Olive oil, produced from the fruit of the olive tree, dates back to ancient times. In recent years, it has become a more sought-after part of the American diet for its flavor and health benefits.
Celebrity and television chefs such as Rachael Ray, who seems to use "EVOO" or extra virgin olive oil, in just about everything, and the Mediterranean diet have helped increase the oil's popularity.
More than 50 percent of U.S. households use olive oil, up from 30 percent five years ago, according to the North American Olive Oil Association in Neptune, N.J. Americans consume an average of 1 liter of olive oil per year.
Naturally, anything that's in demand globally and can be high-priced is a target for unscrupulous people who want to cash in and deceive the public.
Olive oil is the top food when it comes to fraud, a study in the Journal of Food Science published by the Institute of Food Technologists last year found. The fraud can be anything from the substitution of Greek olive oil for Italian olive oil to the addition of cheaper oils such as corn, hazelnut and palm oil.
A major problem is the labeling of cheaper olive oil as "extra virgin" when it's not. About 60 percent of olive oil sold at retail is extra virgin, and the rest is olive oil or light-tasting olive oil, the association says.
"Extra virgin" is the highest quality grade of olive oil under standards established by the International Olive Council in Madrid and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's voluntary standards. In addition to certain acidity levels, extra virgin must also meet flavor and aroma criteria.
Dan Flynn, executive director at the University of California Davis Olive Center, said two recent studies his group conducted found that two-thirds of the largest imported brand names did not meet the international standards for extra virgin olive oil.
"My main piece of advice is to look for a harvest date on the label and the bottle," Flynn said. "Olive oil is a natural product, and the fresher the better. We are not used to thinking of it that way. It has been sold like a canned good, basically," Flynn said. Olive oil should be consumed within 15 months of harvest, Flynn said.
The North American Olive Oil Association blasted the University of California group's findings, saying they were flawed by across-the-board bias against imported olive oils.
But Consumer Reports' September issue reported findings similar to what the UC research found when it tested 23 products.