Olive oil – price doesn’t always guarantee quality

by , Senior Home Researcher Money 30 June 2011
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Olive oil seems straightforward, but actually offers a bewildering range of choices. And when you’re picking the best from supermarket shelves, forget about price – our research shows it’s no indicator of quality.

Olive oil bottles

Virgin or extra virgin? Fruity or mild? Italian or Greek? This isn’t the only question people ask when they’re shopping for good olive oil. The other is ‘How much does it cost?’

However, from our latest research, the question you should be asking is; ‘does more expensive mean better quality?’ The answer to that seems to be, not necessarily.

As olive oil expert Charles Carey explains in our video interview, it’s always good to have two bottles of extra virgin olive oil – an inexpensive oil for cooking and making dressings, and a pricier ‘estate-bottled’ olive oil for dipping bread in or finishing dishes with.

Not so special after oil

Possibly with one eye on capturing the market for premium estate-bottled oils, both Napolina and Filippo Berio now make extra virgin olive oils that are more expensive than their standard oils. These are labelled as ‘Special Selection’, so we wanted to find out what is was that made them ‘special’.

The answer? Not a lot. According to our experts, not only did they not meet the high standards of estate-bottled olive oils, they didn’t even beat out the much cheaper oils we tested.

Filippo Berio Special Selection, priced at £4.99 for a 500ml bottle, scored lower than four cheaper olive oils we tested. And Napolina Special Selection was rated lower than standard Napolina, despite costing almost £2 more. So it’s clear that these ‘Special Selection’ oils aren’t worth paying extra for.

Well oil be damned!

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that Aldi’s olive oil, the cheapest on test at £2.25, came second behind just Napolina’s standard bottle. Other supermarkets didn’t fair so well, with Tesco’s oil being described by one expert as ‘like a mouldy piece of bread’ and Marks & Spencer’s as having ‘farmyard flavours’.

We Brits consume 28 million litres of olive oil a year, so we could definitely save a fair bit by going for cheaper offerings, without compromising on taste. How much do you spend on olive oil and what brands do you buy?

How much would you pay for a 500ml bottle of olive oil?

£2 - £2.99 (35%, 358 Votes)

£3 - £3.99 (26%, 265 Votes)

Less than £2 (16%, 160 Votes)

£4 - £5.99 (15%, 153 Votes)

I don't buy olive oil (5%, 47 Votes)

More than £6 (3%, 36 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,012

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34 comments

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Benetta Adamson

A neighbour of mine supplies most of the street with a single estate unfiltered olive oil produced in Greece by a friend of hers. It’s a beautiful bright green and tastes fresh and fruity with a real depth of flavour: it blows most commercially available olive oils out of the water! It costs about £8 a 750ml bottle but I buy cheaper olive oils to cook with so it lasts a good while.

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Mike McC

I’m puzzled as to why you’ve restricted your sources of oil to high street multiples.

Even if you don’t have a neighbour with useful connections (like Benetta Adamson), it doesn’t take a huge amount of sophistication to look for specialists or online retailers. I would assume that people who enjoy olive oil and similar products are likely to be willing to look a little further than an edge-of-town supermarket.

How does the oil sold by Carluccio restaurant/delicatessen chain compare with the high street brands, for example? I’ve regularly bought 5 litre cans from Olives et Al (I quite like their Psaltiras @ £45 per 5 litres). Could I do better? I’d love to know, please, Which?!

Hi Mike,

Unfortunately there is a limit to the number of olive oils our experts were able to test in one day, so we were only able to test the most popular and widely available oils – i.e. those from supermarkets and major brands. And with so many smaller brands and estate-bottled oils out there, it would have been difficult to fairly select a small number to test.

If it helps, the experts felt that the standard of the olive oils on test was generally not that high, and even the Best Buy would not match up to a good estate-bottled oil.

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Julia4J

How much??? I think they saw you coming mate!

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David S.

Much nonsense is spoken about olive oil, the basic problem being ignorance. A longstanding knowledge of the Mediterranean together with an deep empathy with those folk who are lucky enough to inhabit her shores is a rare asset. However let us not despair, nor let us empty our wallets on the mistaken assumption that great oil demands great expense. I totally agree with Benetta that extra virgin olive oil from either the Greek Peleponnese (e.g. PDO Kalamata) or from Crete, is of consistent quality, has superb depth of flavour and good shelf life. This is mostly due to the olive variety common to these areas: ‘Koroneiki’. Nonetheless Benetta, you really must not pay this kind of money! The ‘tourist’ price in Greece for fine locally pressed oil is no more than 5 or 6 Euros per litre! Let’s now talk about UK availability. My local Macro sells ‘ILIADA’ extra virgin oil (PDO Kalamata) for £22-£23 for a FIVE litre can! My local Aldi sells ‘MINOS’ single estate extra virgin oil (PDO Sitia, eastern Crete) for £3.49 for a 750ml bottle! These are the oils I use for ‘very best’ — dipping bread, on salads, etc. For cooking, look no further than ‘EVOO’ blended ec extra virgin oil from (again) Aldi. For ‘beginners’ to the art, NEVER buy: ‘pomace oil’, ‘refined’ oil, or plain ‘olive oil’. These are inferior products extracted chemically from the ‘mush’ left over from pressing the olives to produce extra virgin oil. They are often no cheaper than extra virgin oil either.
For those who are inspired to learn more, try Amazon for this (? out-of-print) book: ‘Olive Oil’ by Charles Quest-Ritson. Also visit Crete in November to see the start of the olive harvest, and sample the green oil direct from the press. I hope this has been of some interest.

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Chris Nation

Re Davis S’s comments – I’ve just looked up ‘Macro’ and they are a Cash & Carry outlet selling to businesses only. If he is not buying as or on behalf of a business, can he tell us how one goes about doing same?

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Neville Medford

There is a brand of Olive Oil by the name of James Plagniol. It is French with a very distinctive taste. So far I have been unable to locate it anywhere in the Country. My last purchase was in Trinidad a few months ago. Would like to know if anyone has come across this brand and where I can get it. In the mean time I usually purchase my olive oil from either Lidl or the Aldi, about 2 bottles a month. I use it both for cooking and in salads. I have checked some sites and have found that there is quite a lot of interest in locating this brand.

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margaret

I too am looking for James Plagniol olive oil. TT grocery says it has it in stock, but I cannot get them to respond with a shipping price! Please let me know if you find it! margaret

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PHIL

HELLO,
CENTRAL GROCERY IN NEW ORLEANS,LA TELEPHONE 504 523 1620
HAS PLAGNIOL——IT IS THIS VERY BEST FOR A LOT OF THINGS!
BEST REGARDS PHIL

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Anne Banks

I remember when you could buy olive oil in a chemist, but now I live in Spain surrounded by olives,
grapes and almonds, our olive picking season starts usually in December and continues through January, making use of the family gathering at Christmas. I was taken aback at the prices you pay
in England for the oil, our local Co-op Bodega ,where the olive are pressed, charges 12euros for
5 litres and that,s gorgeous “Aceite de Oliva Virgen” a lovely green oil. We use a lot of it and I,ve
even known people who have a lot of oil use it in their cars along with sunflower.

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Sophie Gilbert

Just like with wine there is a huge amount of snobbery involved with olive oil. The cheapest is by far not necessarily the nastiest, and the most expensive can be a complete waste of money.

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Julia4J

If it’s not from Crete I am not interested. We buy loads each time we go there from a friend who grows his olive trees organically, it tastes fabulous. I think it has something to do with the white soil where his trees are and the fact that he uses no insect repellent. The insects (mostly mozzies) are drawn to the water so he does not water his trees in the mozzie season, therefore the trees have developed very deep roots and they survive really well, and the oil is utterly glorious, tons nicer that Iliada, though I will buy that if I have run out of my Cretan oil. After all the originating country for olive trees is Greece and don’t let anybody tell you any different. Yassas!
With reference to Ann Banks comment about buying olive oil from the chemists (and it was dreadfully expensive) this was in the days when even Spaghetti Bolognese had not been heard of! So nobody really knew what its purpose was so we used to use it on a cotton wool pad to loosen the wax in our ears!

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Chris Nation

I’m amused to find that 13 people, who do not buy olive oil at all, voted in the poll. They may well have read the article it’s based on, too. Why?

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David S.

Chris, you’re perfectly right, I do have my own business — nothing to do with olive oil I might add.
If none of your friends/relatives have a ‘Makro’ account (sorry, mis-spelt in my comments), ask your window cleaner if he has one, and could oblige.
I have to admit,though, like Julia my true weakness is for Cretan oil. Try Asda’s extra virgin oil from central Crete (PDO Vorios Mylopotamos). These cylindrical 500ml bottles are often generously discounted. While you’re in Asda, an unusual (but not quite as inexpensive) Spanish treat is their extra virgin oil from Catalonia, made from the Arbequina olive variety. I hope this is of help.

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Sam Johnson

Greek olive oil is definately my favourite and I buy mine from Amazon.co.uk who have a massive choice available. I have been buying the Altis brand which is the No.1 Greek brand, Gold Great Taste winner, tastes superb and at under £20 for 4 litres delivered free, I have found to be fantastic value

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mrc65

The problem with olive oils is also adulteration. Although probably less frequent than in the past, adulteration of extra virgin olive oil with cheaper olive oil and/or seed oils still happens in producing and importing/exporting countries. The procedure has now reached such a high level of sophistication that even experts find it very difficult to distinguish oils that have been adulterated from oils that have not, by simple organoleptic examination. Not even lab tests are at times sufficient to dispel doubts on the oil origin. I admit I have not read the full article, however I wonder whether Which? has carried out lab tests on the oils tasted by the expert.

Hello mrc65, the test was purely a taste test, rather than a lab test. When you said ‘The problem with olive oils is also adulteration’ I was slightly perplexed. The phrase ‘those cheating oils!’ jumped into my head…

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ImpossibleBird

It’s a shame the Which report didn’t include lab tests for heat-treatment and adulteration. I’d expect their tests of foodstuffs to be as rigorous as those for other “stuff”. “He indoors” went to buy olive oil the other day, and came back with LIDL’s Luccese, which is most definitely NOT “extra virgin”. I opened a bottle today and suffice it to say I’ll be using it on my hair. And in oil lamps the next time we have a power cut. Most unpleasant, though I’ve no reason to suspect it’s adulterated, as well as heat-treated. I did an internet search and, sure enough, this particular oil was slated in an archived report on “Olive Oil Label Fraud in Discount Supermarkets” from Der Feinschmecker Magazine (2005). A pity, too, that EU rules override individual countries’ attempts to legislate for better labelling of olive oil.

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David S.

What points are mrc65 and Impossible Bird really trying to make?
Surely there are always ‘bad apples(oil merchants)in every barrel? Caveat emptor! — all the more reason for us all to accustom ourselves to the taste of fine extra virgin olive oil.
Back to the subject of the original Which? article. It really is NOT necessary for us to pay silly prices to enjoy good extra virgin oil. It is churlish to assume that spending extra money will protect us from the dubious products of unscrupulous oil merchants. Indeed, this would plainly be playing into the hands of the wily middle-man. Those of us who have tasted (and bought) green olive oil direct from a village press will understand exactly what I mean.

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ImpossibleBird

I’m sorry about David S’s apparent puzzlement; I thought all contributors were riffing on the subject of the Which article. I share the good fortune of some of the previous posters, in that I’ve tasted excellent, authentic extra virgin olive oil, having, in the past, been gifted some scrumptious oil from a named small grower. But I seriously doubt whether very many people in the UK have had the opportunity to taste or buy “green olive oil direct from a village press”, and many won’t have the means to visit Crete yearly for the olive harvest, making the authenticity of supermarket-bought oils crucial – that was my essential point.

I’d wager, regretfully, that many would find the taste of good olive oil initially overpowering; a great many people are accustomed to bland food of all sorts, albeit supplemented by artificial “flavour” enhancers. Let us by all means accustom ourselves to the taste of fine extra virgin olive oil; surely a prerequisite is to have a reliable supply of it in the first place. If oils are dishonestly labelled as extra virgin olive – if they are heat-treated and/or adulterated/replaced with oils that never saw an olive – we have no reference point. Even people in countries, such as Spain and Italy, so much better acquainted with olive oil than people in the UK, have been, and continue to be, duped into buying fake or sub-standard oil, occasionally with fatal effects (Spain 1981). Ersatz oil has been sold to and distributed by some of the biggest and best-trusted companies. There’s an awful lot of it out there; the potential profits are enormous; misappropriated EU subsidies are the icing on the cake; regulation is inadequate; enforcement is a joke; and the EU, FDA and the rest of the alphabet soup of relevant authorities apparently regard policing of food adulteration a low priority.

I never implied that we need pay astronomically high prices for such a basic foodstuff; idiotically high prices at one end of the scale, and “pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap” at the other, are elements of what makes oil fakery so profitable. But we need to be realistic about the price of producing and distributing good food, and we’ve grown accustomed to food prices falling in real terms over the last few decades. It’s a matter of regret that food price inflation is as likely to be indicative of the commoditisation of food as it is to be of any improvement in quality. Some cheap oil is part of the “loss leader” culture, which allows large distributers to remain in profit, to the detriment of small producers in particular; however, some of it is simply lower quality than we are led to believe.

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AJ

Is there an expert or someone who has tested olive oil for its smoke content please? I have read that extra virgin olive oil is not good to fry or roast with as it has a low smoke point before it becomes dangerous to health. I buy mine from Lidls (Extra Virgin) which is reasonably priced but thinking that maybe I should now buy a very light oil for frying or roasting. Any comments would be appreciated, especially from someone who is an expert on the testing process!!

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David S.

Extra virgin olive oil can be used for all cooking processes with confidence. It can stand temperatures well over 200 degrees Celsius. Such is its heat resilience that, providing it has only been used to bake or fry vegetables, it can be cooled, put through a tea strainer and re-used once again. Extra virgin olive oil is used exclusively in our kitchen. We simply never use seed oils or butter, which are much less heat stable. These points are clearly made in the paperback “The secret of good health – Olive Oil” by Nikos and Maria Psilakis, published in Crete (ISBN 960-7448-18-9).
I hope this helps to answer your concerns.

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Chris O.

Consumers have different perception of what “good” olive oil is and it depends to what you are used to consume. Cheap oils are usually blends made from multiple producers, olive varieties and harvest years. Most big Italian brands blend Italian, Spanish, Greek and Tunisian oils and they sell them as “Italian”. This changes the smell and taste of the final product. It can also cause increase of the acidity. These oils are cheap to produce but they can be extra virgin.
More expensive oils usually come from single estates or local agricultural cooperatives, which are highly regulated. Unfortunately, most of these producers lack of economies of scale. I have discussed the issue with some of them and logistics is the major obstacle to keep the price low. I personally consume a Greek organic olive oil distributed in the UK directly from the producer and it’s called Narrow Leaf. I think it’s great and it comes from a single Greek variety, which is rare. I don’t mind paying something in the region of £10-£12 for a good organic olive oil.

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manos giannoylis

hi all . sorry for my English language but i am from Greece-creta and my city is “chania” …
when i was read all this articles seemed funny , because here in creta we produce the oil own(ourselves).
in creta my family have arable land with oil trees and every year we collect the olives ourselves we go to the olive press ourselves and we have our extra virgin olive oil. here in creta almost all families do the same. this oil is perfect you must taste it the moment that produced in the olive press it is amazing !!!
I can help everyone here who want the specific type of extra virgin oil i can send a certain quantity in some way to you.
I am not a seller or a company i am 28 years old and i am a simple internet user ciao !!!

[Hello Manos, we have edited your comment as we don't allow personal contact details. Thanks, mods.]

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Mik

Why does Olive oil labelling in the UK never include the acidity level of a particular oil – like it does in all other parts of Europe where olive trees grow?

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ImpossibleBird

Hear, hear!

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ImpossibleBird

And let’s have the polyphenol content anaysis on there, too!

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teresa

the only olive oil I am used to in Italy is the ones family members process themselves. Everyone has there own olive groves. It’s nice to pick your own olives and send it to the press. Liquid gold is readily available to all farmers in Southern Italy. Back here in the USA we are force to buy what is given to us.

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Colin

My wife and I have thirty eight olive trees in western Crete. They are organic, we use sheep to graze and fertilize and use no insecticides. The trees have a very limited watering, once a month for a couple of hours at a time , water supply is very limited. We stay with our olives from harvest to oil so know what we are getting.They produce far less olives than the commercial grown nearby but the local farmers, and an Irish top chef say that ours is the best they have tasted. Unfortunately we have not had ours properly tested, just the test at the mill which gives usually an acidity test of 0.04%, we would like to get it tested properly but can find nowhere in Crete to do this. We use 50-60 litres a year, the rest, our relatives and friends are lucky enough to get as gifts.

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David S.

Hello Colin,
Your oil sounds superb. If my knowledge of western Crete serves me correctly, there is an official olive oil quality testing facility not too far from you (you don’t say exactly where you are).
This is situated in Kastelli-Kissamou on Odos Polemiston, almost opposite the family Bikakis Hotel. There may be others, they are small and inconspicuous. I have previously sampled and been given/bought oils directly from village presses (November) at Spilia and Ano Kalathenes, and these were unforgettable. My wife and I hope to return this November.
Best wishes.

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Colin

Hi David
Thanks very much for the information, we know of this place, we stayed nearby for a while, but thought it was for canning the oil. Will give it a try when we harvest this year, we went past it the other day ( it is closed in the summer I think ! )
This year will see a bumper harvest probably our biggest yet we have never seen so many olives on the trees, we could be looking at 300-400+ ltres off 38 trees, we will be drinking the stuff by the glass to get it used !!!!
Of course when you come over in November you would be very welcome to few litres, or are you coming over to harvest your own ?

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David S.

Hello again Colin,

Glad to be of help. No, we don’t have a property in Crete. We visit in November mostly to enjoy the autumn wild flowers. How could we possibly not accept your kind offer.

[Perhaps those good people at Which? Conversation would be kind enough to send you our e-mail address.]

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Nixon

l am a bit late for the “party” but hope one of your knowledgeable selves can help.
As the best before date approaches, doesn’t the nutrients level in the extra virgin oil decrease?
would appreciate answers with reliable website information

l had a 5L tin of extra virgin oil delivered today and it had only 4months left before the best before date,
should l claim an exchange or is it not worth it.

thanks in advance

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David S.

Sorry for this late reply — just back from a pre-Easter break.
This is a very good question, and I fear that it deserves more space than I can give it here. In the northern hemisphere the annual olive harvest is carried out between November and January. The olives are pressed immediately after collection to produce extra virgin oil. This is either filtered and packed for dispatch, or allowed to settle in large containers (unfiltered) for some six weeks before decanting and packing. Subsequent blending with other extra virgin oils is yet another scenario. ‘Use-by date’ gives an estimate of the presumed longuevity of the final product — of course assuming ideal storage conditions. The variety of olive tree from which the oil was made plays a major part in this. Put simply, oils from some varieties last longer than oils from others. Thus the time interval between pressing and ‘use-by date’ varies, and can be as long as 18 months.
If an oil is only to be used for cooking, observing the use-by date is perfectly reasonable. But an oil to be relished drizzled on salads or for dipping should be as young as possible. This is because an exra virgin oil will tend to lose its ‘fruitiness’ as it ages — again some more quickly than others.
Your question therefore hinges on 1) What your can of oil will be used for; and 2) If for cooking, will you use all 5 litres in 4 months?
Your query about decreasing ‘nutrient’ levels is something that we do not have room to fully discuss here. Suffice it to say that the oils with the highest levels of beneficial polyphenols also have the best longuevity.
Incidentally, have you tried the extra virgin oils sold by the discount store B&M? (They appear to have an excellent buyer.) In particular, a fine Catalonian Arbequina and a single estate Sicilian extra virgin oil — both at very, very low prices.

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