Olive Oil VS Extra Virgin Olive Oil: What's the Difference and Why it Matters

Extra Virgin Olive Oil is world-renowned for its health benefits, unique flavor, and ability to compliment such a variety of foods.  It is one of the main components of the highly praised Mediterranean diet.  The words alone inspire visions of rolling hills and expansive vistas. 

In recent years, however, articles have been released warning of fraud in the olive oil market.  For a consumer, it can all be quite confusing.  How do we know which brands to choose, where to buy quality products, and if the bottle we’re purchasing is the real thing?  We’re here to help!

The first thing to be aware of when selecting your olive oil is the product advertised on the label (and when applicable, seals of certification) on the bottle.  

Beginning with the lowest category, we first have, simply, “olive oil”.  This means the oil is refined, or in simpler terms that it has been chemically modified and/or heat treated.  With plain olive oil, the taste is very bland.  It lacks the complexity of flavor and spice that we adore in extra virgin olive oil (or EVOO for short). 

You will also notice that the color is clearer, a pale yellow rather than the rich green or golden color of its high quality relative.  If you want the robust complexity olive oil is known for, as well as the antioxidants and other health benefits that “liquid gold” provides, it really is extra virgin olive oil that you’re after.

From here, things can get a bit confusing because some companies try to trick us by using fancier sounding words for products that are of no higher quality than regular olive oil.  Words like, “Pure Olive Oil”, or “Light Olive Oil” can be misleading.  “Pure” is not extra virgin or any different aside from its name.  “Light” refers to flavor and color, due to lower quality, and has nothing to do with calories or fat content. 

While it can be easy to be fooled by lower prices and catchy advertising, it is important keep in mind that quality matters, especially when considering what we put into our bodies.  Extra Virgin Olive Oil is the product to use for quality, rich flavors, antioxidants and other health benefits.  

To be considered Extra Virgin, the oil must be mechanically pressed, crushing the entire olive without chemical or heat treatment.  The words, “cold pressed” refer to this lack of heat involved.  As a result of this method, the acidity is very low, less than 1%.  Health benefits are maximized, retaining the vitamins and antioxidants naturally occurring in the olive itself.  Color is green or golden, and the appearance is often cloudier than that of regular olive oil.

Even with Extra Virgin Olive Oil, quality and origin can vary.  Italy has a great solution to assure the utmost quality.  Look for the letters, IGP or DOP.

IGP (Protected Geographical Indication) regulations mean that the olives must be cultivated in a specific region.  In addition, they must follow strict rules and traditions in their methods of growing, harvesting, pressing, and bottling.  Of course, the final product must have the required chemical and organoleptic characteristics, according to the Consortium for the protection of Tuscan extra virgin olive oil.  What does that mean?  The product undergoes extensive testing and tasting before earning the IGP seal.

Mia Emilia’s Marini Giuseppe Toscano IGP Extra Virgin Olive Oil comes from a beautiful farm near Pistoia in Tuscany, on whose hills all of the olives are grown.  Every evening during the harvest they are pressed within 24 hours of harvesting to avoid any fermentation.   Fermentation would lead to a higher acidity, and their careful processes ensure the final product will meet IGP requirements and, of course, satisfy the most discerning taste buds!

The other seal to consider is DOP (Protected Designation of Origin).   This also has strict regulations, even more so, it could be said, as the DOP refers not only to a region, but a specific area of that region like Tuscany’s Chianti Classico. 

Take for example, Mia Emilia’s Dievole Chianti Classico DOP Extra Virgin Olive Oil.  Its quality and production are certified by the Chianti Classico DOP Olive Oil Consortium.  Every aspect of this extra virgin olive oil, from the trees they’re grown on to the bottling process must follow tradition and regulations of this specific DOP area.  The result is a product of impeccable quality and flavor.  Dievole recommends enjoying this delicious olive oil with porcini mushrooms, a beloved delicacy in Tuscany. 

High quality extra virgin olive oils like these are wonderful when freshly drizzled over your favorite pastas, in soups, over cheeses, or atop a great bruschetta.  What many people do not realize, however, is that they are also healthier alternatives that are safe for cooking and frying. 

Roberta from the Marini Giuseppe farm in Pistoia shared with us (referencing an article from healthline) that studies have shown extra virgin olive oil to be a much healthier alternative for cooking and frying compared with canola and several other vegetable oils because of its monounsaturated fat content as opposed to polyunsaturated fats in the others.  EVOO has also been shown to retain most of its antioxidant qualities like vitamin E, which are to thank for its many health benefits even when cooking or frying.

When we consider the cost compared with the health benefits, the choice is clear.  Extra Virgin Olive Oil is so versatile, so tastefully pleasing, and perhaps most importantly, it’s good for us! 

Unlike wine, EVOO is not made to age.  Italy requires the date to be stamped on the label, and it is recommended (generally, this can vary one product to another) to consume the olive oil within 18 months to two years of its production.  A product made to enjoy!

Remember that Italy’s regions vary greatly in terrain and terroir.  This means a fabulous olive oil from Tuscany and another from Umbria or Campagna might have very different tasting notes.  Have some fun with it!  Go for a little tour of Italy via its olive oils and sample some from different regions.  You never know which might be your favorite!

“But it’s more expensive than oils I normally buy.”  Yes.  With this as well as many things in life, quality costs a bit more.  How much more, truly, when you consider how many meals you will enhance with one bottle?  A dollar or two per meal? 

Consider how much money we casually spend on an evening out in a restaurant with our families. We pay twelve dollars for a mediocre, greasy pasta dish and eight dollars for a glass of a ten-dollar bottle of wine.  And often we have no idea what kinds of ingredients we just put into our bodies. 

Now consider, we can spend twenty to thirty dollars on a bottle of some of the world’s best tasting and most healthy EVOO which we can use in recipes to feed our families many times over.  This allows us to choose other high quality, and nutritious ingredients to complete our meals and we are still spending much less than we would on a night out.  

My husband and I have realized that although we still love to dress up and go out every so often, for our most special occasions we prefer time spent together cooking at home.  Playing Italian music, enjoying an excellent wine, cooking together with delicious ingredients, and reminiscing over special memories while making new ones in our own kitchen.

Is there anything more important than the health and happiness of our loved ones?  Excellent quality extra virgin olive oil will certainly contribute to both, as well as special memories gathered around the table.  Moments we can never seem to get enough of in these busy, hectic days.  

In Italy, instead of, “Cheers!” when toasting, it is common to say, “Salute!” and drink to the health of your family and friends.  What more could we wish for?  Salute!