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Olive oil is touted for its health benefits in many diet books and recipes. But is it really the nectar of the gods that it’s made out to be -- and is the olive oil in your pantry as healthy as you think it is?

In his book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, author Tom Mueller claims that much of the olive oil sold in the U.S. as "extra-virgin" is really adulterated in some way and lacks the health and the taste benefits of real “extra-virgin” olive oil.

olive oil and olives

So what can you believe, and what's hype? Here are answers.

Olive Oil Basics

Olive oils are graded based on their extraction process and on the acidity of the pressed oil, says Timothy Harlan, MD, assistant professor of clinical medicine at Tulane University and the author of Just Tell Me What To Eat!

True extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) is extracted from olives using only pressure, a process known as cold pressing. "Extra-virgin olive oil has just 1% acid. It’s the oil that comes from the first pressing of the olives, and is considered the finest, having the freshest, fruitiest flavor," Harlan says. Virgin olive oil also comes from the first pressing, and has about 3% acid."

In addition to “virgin” and “extra-virgin,” you might also see one of these descriptions on the bottle:

  • Fino: a blend of extra-virgin and virgin oil
  • Light: an oil that has been filtered to remove much of the sediment. ("Light," in this case, has nothing to do with fat or calories. It only refers to color.)
  • Pure: a combination of refined virgin and extra-virgin oils

What You See Isn’t Always What You Get

Unfortunately, you can’t always rely on what the bottle says, says Ruth Mercurio, a board member of the California Olive Oil Council. The U.S. government doesn’t regulate the labeling of extra virgin olive oil.

"Many olive oils claim to be virgin, extra-virgin, or light extra-virgin, but they don't in fact meet the standards of a true extra-virgin olive oil," she says.

What’s more, Mercurio adds, if the label says "Packaged in [name of a country]" (such as Spain or Greece), it’s more than likely that the oil wasn’t grown in that country, just bottled there to give it more cachet. And if there’s no harvest date on the label, you run the risk of purchasing an old, possibly rancid oil. True EVOO has a shelf life of only 18-24 months.

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