The Olive Oil Scam: How To Avoid Getting The Wrong Oil
Dr. Linda Khoshaba
March 1, 2021
Visit any supermarket and you’ll find isles and isles filled with olive oil, many with picturesque labels informing you this is the true Italian extra-virgin olive oil.
But in actuality, the reality of olive oil is a little more complicated than that.
And this is not a small business either – it's estimated that this is a $16-billion-per-year enterprise for the Mafia. Olive oil fraud is a very real thing and even more, concerning is, most olive oils are never even tested.
So, what are the health threats of this scam? And how to tell real olive oil from the fakes?
The 60 Minutes report producer, Guy Campanile, offers an exploration into the olive oil industry and adds a few tips on how to find the true extra-virgin olive oil amongst a sea of fakes. So just keep on reading, and you’ll find out!
The Olive Oil and Mafia
First things first, you need to watch the 60 Minutes report on the olive oil scam. Seriously, you need to.
It's an exploration into how Italy’s olive oil business has been corrupted by the Italian Mafia, which is making a fortune by meddling with Italian food products in ways that can affect consumers all over the world.
As the 60 Minutes producer, Guy Campanile says: “The Italians call it ‘Agromafia’ and it’s estimated to be a $16-billion-per-year enterprise. One result: "Much of the olive oil we import isn’t as pure as it seems.” The most common type of olive oil fraud is mixing it with lower-cost oils, often from North Africa and around the Mediterranean.
In some cases, what is labeled ‘extra-virgin olive oil’ may not be olive oil at all – rather, seed oil like sunflower made to look and smell like olive oil with a few drops of chlorophyll and beta-carotene.
Is Your Italian Olive Oil Really from Italy?
Some may be shocked to hear that Italy only produces 15% of the world’s olive oil. In recent years, factors such as attacks from the Xylella fastidiosa bacteria and weather fluctuations, have meant that Italy’s olive oil production has plummeted to record lows.
The issue is that while there is far less oil produced, the demand constantly rises, making "Made in Italy" designations both highly coveted — and highly falsified. As the New York Times warned: “much of the 'extra-virgin Italian olive oil' flooding the world's market shelves is neither Italian nor virginal.”
The author of Real Food, Fake Food, Larry Olmsted, notes that a lot of the oil labeled as Italian is actually only bottled, not produced, there. The Italian police have already uncovered massive scams in which tons of cheap, low-quality oils from Syria, Turkey, North Africa, and Spain are being bottled and sold as authentic Italian extra virgin to international markets. One of the biggest victims of this fraud is America, to which Italy exports around 30% of all its olive oil.
Even Europe isn’t left out – a 2013 European Parliament report concluded olive oil as Europe's most adulterated, tampered with, and counterfeited agricultural product.
Despite attempted regulation and legislation changes, 2020 report by the U.S.'s American Botanical Council discovered that adulteration of olive oil is still rampant. It also highlights the two main reasons for this fraud: low availability of high-quality olive oil and soaring demand.
The Dangers of Olive Oil Fraud
The dangers might be bigger than you think, especially if you have a peanut or soybean allergy – since those are often the oils mixed into the actual virgin olive oil. But the threat doesn’t stop with allergies. Numerous contaminants, including hydrocarbon residues or pesticides, have been found in these fake oils.
If this wasn’t enough, pomace oil, which is a common adulterant often containing mineral oil as well as PAHs – both proven carcinogens that can also damage your DNA and immune system, is also often contained. Sometimes, it has even life-threatening consequences. In the early 1960s, olive oil doctored with jet engine oil left 10,000 people in Morocco seriously ill, when rapeseed oil mixed with an industrial additive, sidenote: sold as olive oil, killed 800 people and injured even more others.
But don’t take my word for it, take Tom Mueller’s - a New York Times Bestselling author of the book Extra-Virginity, where he mentions all these cases and so much more.
How Much of a Role Does Storage Play?
Organized crime isn’t the only factor threatening the safety of olive oil. As reported in the 60 Minutes exposé, the storing of olive oil is a much wider problem than might seem on the surface.
You have to remember; olive oil is easily spoilt food. Owing to its elegant taste and innumerable nutrients, heat, light, time, and exposure to oxygen are all factors which can decrease its quality and safety. Giant corporations, who are likely to care more about making a quick buck than your health, can on its journey from the olive oil trees to your kitchen easily expose olive oil to these natural elements.
Both the fake olive oil and its decrease in quality as a result of improper treatment lead to, as Tom Mueller estimated: ‘75 to 80 percent of the oil sold in the US not meeting ‘the legal grades for extra-virgin oil.’
Conclusion: You’re Overpaying for ‘Wanna Be Olive Oil’
As the 60 Minutes report exposed, you’re overpaying thinking the product you’re buying is the highest quality of olive oil – extra virgin olive oil – when in reality you’re getting a much more second-class product, or even one which has been altered.
Unfortunately, this is nothing new for the olive oil business.
Olive oil fraud has been around for almost four thousand years. But as Campanile says, “the difference now is that the food supply chain is so vast, so global, and so lucrative that it's easy for the bad guys to either introduce adulterated olive oils or mix in lower quality olive oils with extra-virgin olive oil.”
There have been numerous examples of the oil imported to the US not meeting internationally accepted standards. In July 2010, researchers at the UC Davis Olive Center set out to inspect samples of imported olive oils, only to discover that 69% failed to meet international standards for the oil to be considered extra virgin. Both NBC News and the Wall Street Journal have reported that cheap, fake ‘extra virgin olive oil’ is rampant and American stores are flooded with it.
Even Forbes magazine urged: ‘the olive oil in your pantry, the one you bought for its health benefits and for some sliver of the seductive Mediterranean lifestyle, is most likely a scam.’
And what’s most maddening about this? It’s preventing you from the insane health benefits of authentic extra virgin olive oil! From lowering ‘bad’ cholesterol or cutting your risk of heart disease and stroke, to protecting you against cancer – particularly breast, colon and prostate cancer, lowering blood pressure and even minimizing your risk of diabetes, its health benefits are remarkable.
Not to mention it has been shown to reduce joint pain and inflammation, reduce the risk of osteoporosis due to improving calcium absorption, and it can even lower your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Even your immunity isn’t left out – it's full of antioxidants and polyphenol, which help balance your immune system and aid it with protection against diseases. So, finally, how do you avoid the fakes to get a taste of the real deal?
The Best Way to Avoid Olive Oil Scam
Because methods of adulteration have become so sophisticated, it’s increasingly more difficult for olive oil specialists and law enforcement, let alone consumers, to spot fake olive oil from its real counterpart. The scams often operate at high-tech refineries, to the point that the resulting product is difficult to detect even via chemical analysis.
But not to worry, Campanile still has some answers.
There are two main ways really: look at the label and google.
Firstly, he suggests you look at the label. Is the oil really from Italy? If so, Campanile recommends two main places – Sicily and Puglia, which are known for producing olive oil.
And secondly? Google! There are many honest farmers around the globe who intentionally avoid big selling to a middle man, often influenced by the Mafia, and instead sell directly to the customer. Campanile mentions Italian producers like Lucia Iannotta or Nicolo Clemenza, who offer olive oil directly to American consumers.
As the date of production also matters, Campanile suggests buying from California, which can produce and deliver extra virgin olive oil much faster. But if it’s true Italian olive oil you want, prepare your wallet: ‘If you're paying seven bucks or eight bucks for a bottle of Italian extra virgin olive oil, he says, ‘it's probably not Italian extra-virgin.’
And when you taste the real olive oil, you’ll fall in love. True extra-virgin olive oil is made exclusively from the first pressing of the olive harvest and is devoid of additives. “You know, when you see it there [in Italy], it's this almost luminescent green," Campanile says, "it looks like nothing you've seen before, and tastes like nothing you've tasted before.”
“When you walk into the mill, you are just hit with this extraordinary aroma of olive oil that is just so pleasing, it makes the hair on the back of your neck kind of stand up," he tells Overtime editor Ann Silvio, “I don't know what it is, but it's almost primeval how wonderful it is.” So don’t forget to throw out the ‘extra-virgin olive oil’ from your kitchen, and join true olive oil club!
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