Definition: Grades of Olive Oil

Over 750 million olive trees are cultivated worldwide, 95% of which are in the Mediterranean region. Most of global production comes from Southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

The grades of oil extracted from the olive fruit can be classified as:

  • Virgin means the oil was produced by the use of physical means and no chemical treatment. The term virgin oil referring to production is different from Virgin Oil on a retail label.
  • Refined means that the oil has been chemically treated to neutralize strong tastes (characterized as defects) and neutralize the acid content (free fatty acids). Refined oil is commonly regarded as lower quality than virgin oil; the retail labels extra-virgin olive oil and virgin olive oil cannot contain any refined oil.
  • Pomace olive oil means oil extracted from the pomace using chemical solvents, mostly hexane, and by heat.

Grades of Olive Oil

  • Extra-virgin olive oil comes from virgin oil production only, contains no more than 0.8% acidity, and is judged to have a superior taste.
  • Virgin olive oil comes from virgin oil production only, has an acidity less than 2%, and is judged to have a good taste.
  • Pure olive oil. Oils labeled as Pure olive oil or Olive oil are usually a blend of refined and virgin production oil.
  • Olive oil is a blend of virgin and refined production oil, of no more than 1.5% acidity. It commonly lacks a strong flavor.
  • Olive-pomace oil is refined pomace olive production oil possibly blended with some virgin production oil. It is fit for consumption, but may not be described simply as olive oil. Olive-pomace oil is rarely sold at retail; it is often used for certain kinds of cooking in restaurants.
  • Lampante oil is olive oil not suitable as food; lampante comes from olive oil’s long-standing use in oil-burning lamps. Lampante oil is mostly used in the industrial market.

Label wording

Olive oil vendors choose the wording on their labels very carefully.

  • “100% Pure Olive Oil” is often the lowest quality available in a retail store: better grades would have “virgin” on the label.
  • “Made from refined olive oils” means that the taste and acidity were chemically controlled.
  • “Light olive oil” means refined olive oil, with less flavour. All olive oil has 120 kcal/tbsp. (34 kJ/ml).
  • “From hand-picked olives” implies that the oil is of better quality, since producers harvesting olives by mechanical methods are inclined to leave olives to over-ripen in order to increase yield.
  • “First cold press” is generally a purely commercial wording with no factual meaning. It suggests that the oil in bottles with this label is the “first oil that came from the first press” of the olives and that no heat is used. This is not correct.
    First of all, “cold” does not define any precise temperature. A certain exception is made for the European regulation which requires that the processing temperature be below 27 °C in order to be named “cold pressed”. In cooler regions like Tuscany or Liguria the olives collected in November and ground often at night are too cold to be processed efficiently without heating. The paste is regularly heated above the environmental temperatures, which may be as low as 10-15 °C, in order to extract the oil efficiently with only physical means. Olives pressed in warm regions like Southern Italy or Northern Africa may be pressed at significantly higher temperatures although not heated. While it is important that the pressing temperatures be as low as possible (generally below 35 °C) there is no international reliable definition of “cold pressed”.
    Furthermore there is no “second” press of virgin oil, so the term “first press” is meaningless.
  • The label may indicate that the oil was bottled or packed in a stated country. This does not necessarily mean that the oil was produced there. The origin of the oil may sometimes be marked elsewhere on the label; it may be a mixture of oils from more than one country

Retail grades in the United States from the USDA

As the United States is not a member, the IOOC retail grades have no legal meaning in that country; terms such as “extra virgin” may be used without legal restrictions.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) currently lists four grades of olive oil. These grades were established in 1948, and are based on acidity, absence of defects, odor and flavor:

  • U.S. Grade A or U.S. Fancy possesses a free fatty acid content of not more than 1.4% and is “free from defects”;
  • U.S. Grade B or U.S. Choice possesses a free fatty acid content of not more than 2.5% and is “reasonably free from defects”;
  • U.S. Grade C or U.S. Standard possesses a free fatty acid content of not more than 3.0% and is “fairly free from defects”;
  • U.S. Grade D or U.S. Substandard possesses a free fatty acid content greater than 3.0% and “fails to meet the requirements of U.S. Grade C”.

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