Australian consumers have access to many different types of olive oils with labels that can vary significantly between and within brands. The two common types of olive oil are virgin olive oil and refined olive oil.
Virgin (or pressed) olive oil is extracted from olive fruit by mechanical or physical means. Chemicals or heat aren’t used to extract the oil. This physical production process ensures that the oil is not altered and that it retains its nutritional value. The terms used on labelling for pressed olive oil are extra virgin and virgin olive oil.
Extra virgin olive oil
Extra virgin olive oil is the fresh juice from the olive and is considered to be the highest grade olive oil. The main determinants are low acidity and the absence of flavour defects. Like other food products, extra virgin olive oil doesn’t stay fresh forever—the beneficial nutrients and fresh flavours will decrease and change as the oil ages.
There are international and local voluntary industry standards that provide guidance for producers and consumers as to what chemical and flavour properties extra virgin olive oil should have. The Australian Consumer Law prohibits labelling olive oil as extra virgin if it is not of this quality.
Virgin olive oil
Virgin olive oil is lower quality than extra virgin olive oil. It is more acidic and may have some flavour defects. Virgin olive oil is not very often sold in supermarkets mainly because consumers tend to demand the higher quality extra virgin olive oil.
Pressed olive oils that don’t fall within the quality grade of either extra virgin or virgin can be refined using chemical processes to remove impurities. The end result of this refining process is an oil that is lighter in colour, flavour and acidity than a pressed (or virgin) olive oil. This oil can be blended with small amounts of extra virgin or virgin olive oil to return some of the flavour and characteristics that you’d expect in a pressed olive oil. The proportion of extra virgin or virgin oil that may be blended with the refined oil varies. Refined oils are free of defects, but typically don’t have the same nutritional value as pressed olive oils. Refined olive oils also have a higher cooking temperature, or ‘smoke point’, than pressed olive oils and are generally better suited to cooking or deep frying.
There are a number of terms associated with refined olive oils that can be a bit confusing, including terms such as olive oil, light, extra light or pure. These oils are not extra virgin olive oil.
Olive oil typically consists of refined olive oils blended with virgin olive oils.
Light or extra light olive oil
Refined oils labelled light or extra light are milder in flavour and colour than extra virgin olive oil. Light and extra light olive oils do not have reduced kilojoules (or calories) or fat content as compared to other types of olive oil.
Pure olive oil
Pure olive oil is typically a blend of refined and virgin olive oil. It consists of only olive oil rather than oil extracted from any other fruits or vegetables.
Buy it fresh. The fresher the oil, the better it tastes. Like any fresh product, the flavour and nutritional value will decline over time. Some extra virgin olive oil producers label their bottles with harvest dates or best before dates. It’s important to look for these dates to ensure freshness.
Olives are a winter crop, so in Australia the harvest season is usually before the end of June, while in the Mediterranean the harvest can run from November to January. So, olive oils from Australia and the Mediterranean are fresher at different times of the year.
Store it properly. Products sold in dark glass bottles or tins will help conserve the oil, but once opened it’s important to store olive oil properly, particularly if you buy it in larger quantities.
Keep it in the dark. Light will cause the quality of olive oil to deteriorate, so make sure you store your oil away from light in a cool, dark place like in a cupboard or pantry.
Keep it cool. Heat also causes the quality of olive oil to deteriorate. It’s best to store it in a cool, dark place located away from the stove. Avoid storing olive oil in the fridge because the low temperature can also affect the taste and the consistency.
Keep it sealed. Once opened, make sure the container is sealed properly after use to minimise oxidation.
It is illegal for olive oil suppliers to mislead or deceive consumers or make misleading claims or representations. This includes claims about the standard, grade or quality of olive oil.
Look for products with a recognised certification that their oil meets a standard such as the Australian Standard for Olive Oils and Olive Pomace Oils (AS5264-2011) and/or the International Olive Council’s Trade Standard for Olive Oil.