When shopping for olive oil, you might notice a few terms commonly used to describe it: extra virgin, unrefined, cold-pressed, organic — but what do all these words really mean? Here, we’re going to define a few key olive oil terms to help you understand the way your olive oil was grown and processed, and what that means for you.
One of the most common terms you’ll see used to describe olive oil is “extra virgin.” This means that the oil is a product of the first pressing of olives. Olives are pressed to extract as much oil as possible, producing different tiers of quality. So, the first batch of oil that’s produced is “extra virgin” — after that, the olives are further pressed and processed to extract more oil, but the flavor and quality decreases from there. Extra virgin olive oil has a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid, of not more than 0.8 grams per 100 grams. Finally, extra virgin olive oil must taste like olives and must not have any negative tastes that professionals refer to as “defects.” It is considered the highest quality olive oil, and you’ll want to use it in ways that highlight the inherent flavors and characteristics of the olives.
Extra virgin olive oil is made using a process called “first cold-pressed.” This means that the oil was extracted (“pressed”) from the olives without exceeding 81.9 °F. No heat or chemical additives are used to extract the oil from the olives, which can alter and destroy the flavors and aromas of the olive oil. Without adding heat to the processing, the olive oil also retains its full nutritional value. Lower quality oils, on the other hand, are the products of a process which adds heat to the olives in order to extract the most oil possible, but the resulting product is diminished in flavor. Something to keep in mind: all extra virgin olive oils are cold-pressed.
Unrefined olive oils are the immediate result of oil pressing, and have not been processed or treated. These oils may have visible, tiny pieces of olive flesh or visible sediment — this is normal and desirable for flavor and nutrients. Refined olives oils have been processed to make them easier to blend with other oils. All extra-virgin olive oil is unrefined, but you might still see this quality called out on labels.
Organic olive oil, like other organic products, is grown and produced without the use of chemical pesticides, fertilizers or other harmful additives. Instead, farmers use alternative, sustainable methods to ward off insects and invasive plants, and develop natural, biodynamic fertilizers to encourage growth. These methods allow olive farms to flourish while preserving the surrounding ecosystems. Because olive oil is a raw food, and high quality olive oil is minimally processed, the potential for chemical exposure is high in conventionally-grown olives. With organic olive oil, you can feel better about avoiding these chemicals.
We hope that this guide has helped demystify olive oil just a bit! Once you understand these key terms, understanding what you’re getting (and how it got to you) becomes a lot easier. If you’re looking for an organic, fairly traded, extra virgin olive oil, try Equal Exchange’s special Nabali olive oil from our partners at the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee in the West Bank.