Joseph R. Profaci is executive director of the North American Olive Oil Association.
With Mediterranean Diet Month upon us, it’s the perfect time for North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) members to further strengthen the already rigorous standards we require for labeling, testing and taking part in our Quality Seal Program. The NAOOA’s efforts to enhance these standards potentially impact the diet and health of millions of American consumers, with member products representing an estimated 85% of all branded olive oil sold in the United States.
Olive oil, a staple of the Mediterranean diet, is one of the healthiest things grocery shoppers can put in their carts. Not only does olive oil help people maintain a healthy weight, it has been shown to decrease risk factors for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke and certain types of cancer. It’s one of the healthiest fats around, and it happens to be a delicious and versatile food, with a broad range of flavors that can suit anyone’s palate.
The media, for its part, has done a great job of touting those health benefits. Where it has fallen short — even sometimes in reputable news outlets — is in making sensational claims that are either not based in sound science or are outright fake news. The idea that fake olive oil is pervasive, for instance, or that people can test whether their olive oil is authentic by putting it in the refrigerator, are examples of the false and misleading information that have become all too common.
While such articles may purport to help consumers be more discerning in the grocery aisle, the reality is they needlessly confuse and mislead readers. The growth in olive oil consumption in the United States decreased dramatically after these stories started coming out. The unfortunate result is that the consumers who avoid olive oil because they are worried they won’t get the real thing are missing out on the health benefits that olive oil provides.
Unbiased and independent research indicates consumers have every reason to be confident in the purity of the olive oil sold in U.S. supermarkets. In a study published at the end of 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration researched olive oil authenticity by testing 88 products labeled extra virgin olive oil from Washington, D.C.-area retail stores. Of the 88 samples, the FDA found that only three (or 3.4%) of the tested oils (two from South America and one from Greece) did not meet U.S. purity criteria, but the FDA pointed out that those results could be due to false positives. The bottom line is that the FDA could find no confirmed adulteration and concluded that the occurrence rate of adulteration for the market samples they analyzed was “low.”
That squares with findings from the NAOOA, which has supervised the testing of an average 200 olive oil samples per year for more than 20 years. These samples are analyzed in independent labs certified by the International Olive Council (IOC), the global quality standard-setting body of the olive oil industry chartered by the United Nations nearly 60 years ago. The NAOOA’s testing results support the conclusion that 98% of the olive oil sold in the U.S. is authentic.
The NAOOA hopes that toughening its already rigorous standards and labeling requirements will help consumers better understand the product they’re buying and have confidence in its integrity. The enhancements, which for the most part reflect business practices already voluntarily adopted by our members, include:
Best-by dates, which are the easiest way for consumers to gauge freshness, are now required on every NAOOA member label. The NAOOA has adopted a maximum best-by date of two years from the time of processing or bottling, which is even stricter than IOC requirements. Dan Flynn, executive director of the UC Davis Olive Center, will discuss this timely topic more at the NAOOA’s upcoming 4th annual Olive Oil Conference.
“Imported from” or “Packed or bottled in” statements must now be immediately adjacent to the country-of-origin statement. This helps consumers understand where the olives for the oil were grown.
Blends of olive oil with other oils, which were already required to carry descriptive names or phrases, must now have even clearer, more informative language on member labels.
Clearer recommendations for storage and usage will appear on all member labels, helping consumers prolong the shelf life of their olive oil, which can deteriorate with exposure to heat, light and air.
Organic products that participate in the NAOOA Quality Seal Program must submit copies of organic certification documents from certifying agents authorized under the National Organic Program (NOP) or by another certification body recognized by NOP to carry “organic” on their labels.
To fight misinformation, the food industry and the journalists who report on it should start by providing consumers with up-to-date, unbiased, independent and thoroughly vetted sources of information. While there is a lot of confusing information out there about olive oil, we should strive to give consumers the tools to choose with confidence, based on what tastes best to them and fits their budget.
Because when it comes to something as healthy and delicious as olive oil, the only bad choice would be not to buy it at all.