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Sp-oiled for choice

Bottles of olive oil

Supermarket shelves are lined with dozens of different oils, making decision-making tricky. If you’re after extra virgin olive oil, we’ve got some bargain-hunting tips to make choosing easier.

When shopping for oil, you might just feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choice available to you. Sunflower oil, rapeseed oil, coconut oil, several different types of olive oil (including some that are sold in spray cans)… The list goes on.

I’m personally a fan of rapeseed oil for cooking, and extra virgin olive oil for making something like a salad dressing (on the relatively rare occasion I’ll opt for a salad over a burger). I guess this is probably more out of habit than anything else – any recommendations, anyone?

We’ve just enlisted an expert panel to test some premium versions of extra virgin olive oil you can buy in supermarkets, and we were surprised by some of our findings. The experts also helped us discover more about the fascinating world of extra virgin olive oil, like how it takes about 5kg of olives to produce one litre.

Oils on offer

My name is Oli, I’m 23 years old, and I’m a committed bargain-chaser. Should you ever have the veritable pleasure of spotting me in a cereal aisle in the supermarket, you’ll find me scouring the shelves for an offer, or closely examining unit prices like a dog would a tennis ball.

I’m the same with oil, too. I’ve found that extra virgin olive oil is on offer so often that I instinctively turn my nose up at the idea of paying full price.

We tracked the supermarket prices of Filippo Berio Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Napolina Extra Virgin Olive Oil from 13 April 2015 to 12 April 2016, using the independent price-tracking site, mysupermarket.co.uk, and found that you shouldn’t have to spend much more than £3 for 500ml for either.

Asda was the best place to buy Filippo Berio Extra Virgin Olive Oil (500ml), with the cheapest average price of £3.04 – plus it was on sale for 25 weeks for £3 or less, and for 13 of these you could buy it for just £2.

Sainsbury’s had the lowest average price for Napolina Extra Virgin Olive oil (500ml) of £3.07, and you could get it for £3 or less for 24 weeks of the year. At Morrisons it was typically £3.18, but for £3 or less for 23 weeks – and for seven of these weeks it was available for £2.

Extraordinary uses for extra virgin olive oil

We asked Which? members what they used extra virgin olive oil for, and were largely unsurprised to find that many use it for cooking, or as a salad dressing or dip.

I’d never used extra virgin olive oil for anything other than a culinary purpose, so I was amazed to hear of a wide range other uses. I’m yet to use it as a method of removing ear wax, and I’ll likely never use it as a beauty product, but it was fascinating to think of it as such a versatile substance.

If you use extra virgin olive oil for anything other than for food, I’m intrigued to hear about it – let me know below.

You can see the results of our olive oil taste test and investigation in the July issue of Which? magazine.


Just as a background to the matter of olive oil and to save anyone falling for the common heading 69% of olive oil is fake:

It is true that there is/was a large amount of smuggling of oil to Italy from Spain so a higher price can be attached when re-exported. To read an entertaining expose and other information:

While discussing olive oil, it would be useful to have authoritative information about whether it is hazardous to use the oil for frying, as suggested a year or two ago.

Oli the author appears to favour the unhealthy rapeseed for cooking !

” On Trust Me, I’m a Doctor we decided to look at things from a different angle by asking: “Which fats and oils are best to cook with?” You might think it is obvious that frying with vegetable oils has to be healthier than cooking with animal fat, like lard or butter. But is it really?”

Lard, butter, olive oil, goose fat and coconut oil all being better according to the BBC programme in 2015

I think we will need to see more research before we can be sure of what to provide as official advice, but there is now ample evidence that its best to minimise consumption of food cooked at high temperature.

Carbohydrates cooked at high temperatures are classed as carcinogens.

Indeed, though high temperature cooking of proteins in meat is probably a greater problem with regard to cancer. The traditional way of stewing meat is to brown it in the oil or fat of your choice and then add other ingredients and water. There is no need to include this stage.

A subject dear to my heart as I was a food-taster when the science first broke in 2001 and I have followed it closely ever since. The comment of the NZ Health Officer the following year that the odds were that you would be dead from something else before these carcinogens would get you sort of put it into perspective for me.

Bottom line is we are all going to die , but worrying is perhaps the biggest cause of avoidable premature death in my view.

I did give the job up as an awful lot of tasting of sausages and crisps was required several days a week. No point in bucking the odds : )

Thing is, the meat is far tastier when it is browned first, to seal in the flavour – just as you do when cooking a steak or a joint. We are unlikely to shorten most of our lives greatly by indulging in such practices, and as we all have to die at some point, may as well enjoy life while we have it. So many things in life are a risk; we should not let them scare us into avoiding them just in case.

Friends have died as a result of bowel cancer, which is one of the reasons I pay attention to what I eat. That’s why I’m interested in finding out the best available advice on cooking with olive oil compared with alternatives.

According to a cookery book written by an eminent cancer specialist at the Royal Free Hospital in London, olive oil is excellent for cooking, BUT it should not be used for high temperature frying.

That’s right. As the temperature rises the oil changes its chemical make-up.

Simon Poole says:
5 September 2016

Good question. There is a lot of misinformation around. The European Food Safety Authority, based on numerous studies including data from the EPIC study, have concluded it is safe to cook with extra virgin olive oil. Though some of the antioxidants are consumed, a significant proportion are maintained. The “smoke point” of a good quality extra virgin olive oil will be higher than the average temperature of most roasting/ frying ie below 190 degrees. In fact there is now research to show that the absorption of fat soluble vitamins and polyphenols is improved when EVOO is the cooking medium… It is the most ubiquitous fat used in cooking as well as drizzling in the regions known for the famously healthy Mediterranean Diet

It would have been useful to have some insight into how the supermarket own-label oils compare for quality with the highly-priced branded products or whether consumers are literally paying for the fancy Italian-style retro labels. Olive oil is just another bulk commodity traded internationally and although I know users who swear by their preferred ingredients I suspect the differences are not worth the money overall. For people who like to show off the bottle I suppose it’s important but we decant olive oil into a flask to put on the table. Unfortunately there have not been many al fresco eating opportunities this year.

Incidentally, I had never thought of putting a salad over a burger before reading the Intro as it’s usually the other way round on my plate. But it makes sense if you wish to drip a drop or two of oil over the salad. We are never too old to learn and Which? continues to teach.

To find out which is the cheapest major supermarket to shop at, we analyse the price of between 70 and 100 popular branded food and grocery products every month. Our comparison is based on the prices supplied by online supermarkets Asda, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Tesco, Waitrose Deliver and Ocado. Read more: http://www.which.co.uk/reviews/supermarkets/article/supermarket-price-comparison – Which?

I am not clear why Lidl and Aldi are still not included in this exercise given the huge number of shops and share of the market. I also note that the prices are based on “online supermarkets” however the title of the piece “Supermarket price comparison” does not indicate this at all.

Given basics like my olive oil are bought from Aldi and Waitrose I am very interested in comparisons of quality, and if they are of any significance.

Incidentally the flavour of olive oil used cold for dressings is a separate subject and I am sure we would appreciate some comments on that.

We don’t buy many branded products. The choccy bics I buy are half the price of branded – and as nice. The sauce is the retailers own brand – not HP or Heinz – just like the beans, bread, cakes, cereal, toilet rolls and so on. So why not look at the actual contents of an average weekly shop and use the retailers products where appropriate. Why choose branded products?

But retailers own brands are brands, and some retailers brands are more expensive than others.

Hopefully retailers own branded products don’t carry the promotional and advertising costs of major brands. If some retailers own products are more expensive than other retailers that will show up in the basket (trolley) total. Not sure of the point. I’d just like to know what a real weekly shop might cost at the different retailers, not one based only on major (and often more expensive) brands. That doesn’t tell me much about the real value the retailer might offer.

My July Which? magazine arrived at lunchtime today and I see that the “test lab” report on top-end olive oils does indeed include taste tests of the supermarkets’ own-label versions. I have not read the report yet but I cannot understand why the Intro to this Conversation did not say “read all about it in next month’s Which?”.

[Sorry John, the test results are exclusive to Which? members, so I’ve just removed the scores from your comments. Thanks, Patrick.]

This seems to correspond more or less with our food cupboard so I am satisfied now.

Hi John, sorry I had to edit the scores out of your comment as they’re exclusive to Which? member. We linked to the results page from the Convo, but have made a tweak to piece to add the Best Buys page in the Useful links and mention the magazine. Happy eating 🙂

OK Patrick – I thought it was fair reporting and that I would get away with it! I think you have achieved my purpose .

I use Lidl Primadonna olive oil and find it excellent. It was recommended at Nick Nairn cookery school and also came out tops in The Independent top ten of oils

Millie says:
23 June 2016

Interested to read that the olive oils mentioned all seem to be “Toscano” I.e from Tuscany. But in Italy there are different regional olive oils and they all have different flavours. I for one do not like Tuscan, it goes up my nose. My favourites are Ligurian – best for pesto – and Sicilian. I also buy a very good – and very expensive !!!! – Spanish olive oil also at Waitrose called Marques de Valdueza. Really superior. Much apreciated Christmas present…

This Conversation makes me wonder what jollop restaurants slop over their salads or use in their cuisine. I bet they’re not paying £10 a bottle for it or even half that.

I always choose the cheapest no matter what it tastes like all food ends up in the same place where nobody can tell or notice the difference. All any food does it stop the pangs of hunger

Actually all food is not the same in its effects. I see that beef cattle in the US fed on grain may have a different effect on humans compared to grass-fed beef cattle in Europe. The wonders of research!

There has long been a thought that hydroponic grown tomatoes are not as flavoursome and possibly have not the same make-up as earth grown tomatoes. This might be misleading as the tomatoes would probably be different varieties – which in itself gives rise to potential differences.

Once tomatoes become commercial:
” To do this, the tomatoes had to be made tougher so they could survive transport without damage. This meant breeding tomatoes with thicker skins that are less prone to splitting and breeding firmer tomatoes that are less likely to burst or bruise. Producing tomatoes of a regular size and shape also became important as this allowed efficient packing of the tomatoes for their journey. Increasing firmness has also increased the ease of tomato picking. To aid tomato picking further, plants that produce and ripen all their fruit at the same time and tomatoes that separate easily from their stalks have also been bred. These developments have decreased the cost of picking tomatoes and have paved the way for picking by machines.”

This surely is the case with most food? We need it to survive transport, handling, easier to pack, shelf life, yield, tolerance to pests and climate……… a consequence of an ever-growing population requiring food they can afford.

Even growing your own can be a lottery – which seeds do you choose? You need a degree in horticulture to understand what the different varieties properties are. However you can at least control how they are grown, when they are picked and what controls you use. What you cannot do is give round-the-year continuity.

So we rely on the retailers for most of the time. And informants to warn us of hazards. Perhaps we should have a new magazine – Which? Food – to keep tabs on good and bad food? We will miss the resources of the EU when we leave. Will the FSA be enough?

Many people actually enjoy food, so it does more for them than just stop the pangs of hunger. And while all food ends up in the same place, it is what some food does on its way there that causes concern.

Your first paragraph misses out the desire to make profit as the chief driver for changes. And it is pretty much the large retailer who decides what we see to purchase. Food as a percentage of peoples costs has been drooping all this century – and last.

I throw this in as it is lengthy but interesting.
In 1901, food and housing took up about 60 percent of people’s incomes. About 40 percent of a consumer’s income was spent on food and about 20 percent of a consumer’s income was spent on housing. 20 percent was spent on apparel while virtually nothing was spent on transportation. Health care took up about 5 percent, entertainment was2 percent and books were 1 percent. In 1901, 1 percent went for alcohol and the other 11 percent was used for everything else.
The War Years
Between the years of 1934 to 1946, food and housing together took up about 60 percent of incomes, with 34 percent used for food and 26 percent for housing. Clothing used 12 percent of income, and transportation another 10 percent. Health care took up 3 percent and entertainment was raised to 5 percent. Reading took less than 1 percent and no official numbers are available for alcohol because prohibition. Other expenses claimed the final 9 percent.
Boomer Generation
In 1950, food and housing together took up about 55 percent of people’s incomes, with 34 percent used for food and 21 percent for housing. About 12 percent of a consumer’s income was spent on apparel and 11 percent on transportation. Health care took up about 5 percent, entertainment required about 5 percent and reading remained at 1 percent of the income, the same as alcohol. Other expenses claimed the final 10 percent.
Fast Forward
From 2002 to 2003, food and housing together took up about 45 percent of incomes, with 13 percent on food and about 33 percent on housing. About 4 percent was spent on clothing and 22 percent on transportation. Health care took up about 6 percent, entertainment required about 5 percent And reading was about 2 percent. Alcohol was about 1 percent of a consumer’s income. Other expenses claimed the final 15 percent.

US of course : )

I am very disappointed you didn’t try or mention Spanish oils – far better than Italian in my opinion

I am a keen taster, when I received a bottle of olive oil as a present during 2014, it was so good I tried to purchase some more but found it was really only available from on line deli’s or specialist stores where it was quite expensive, however eventually found it later, reasonably priced in Bath at a good wine store outlet.
We hadn’t sorted a holiday for 2015 but my wife surprised me by booking flights to Sicily and 5 nights at the Foresteria on Planeta estate. They have vineyards and olive groves, wineries and an oil press and production facilities. Stay at their lovely Foresteria for their restaurant, wine and of course olive oils. They will also ship wine and oils to the uk at very reasonable prices and the oils from “Planeta” Estate are fantastic!

The author of the olive oil report got carried away by alliteration! Luckily I’ve avoided olive oil addiction and wasn’t aware of the subtleties of the various grades discussed in the report. Thus it appears I not only save substantial amounts of cash. but avoid the anxieties about extra, premium and any other grades and whether I’ve put the right one on my salad.

Paola says:
25 June 2016

Taste reflects quality. I have not bought an Italian olive oil in the UK for many years and would never use again the brands you selected for your ordinary test. My favourite is Greek organic kalamata oil from waitrose. Relatively cheap and wonderful taste. Check the Guardian article where Filippo Berio is compared to bath water. P.S. I am Italian.

My favourite is Cretan Olive oil. When I go to Crete, friends give me a old plastic five litre container ( like the types that hold engine oil, but translucent like plastic milk bottle) with the freshest hand-pressed Virgin olive oil.It is dark greenish. When I open the bottle, it doesn’t smell of olive oil, it smells of olives! Beat that!

Nobody has mentioned whether it is best to choose olive oil in metal, glass or plastic containers. I currently have a can of Sainsbury’s Spanish olive oil, which I keep in a cupboard away from the light and which I rather like. I also cook with olive oil. It’s very difficult to know what to use as much of the advice is conflicting.

On balance I would say that glass is probably best as there is no interaction between the oil and the vessel.

Is olive oil uncertainty the new balsamic vinegar anxiety?

But is it best kept in the dark? So a cupboard or a tin?

Olive oil has a large unsaturated fat content containing mainly monounsaturated and some polyunsaturated fatty acids. It is less chemically stable than saturated fats and subject to oxidation and developing rancid flavours. Keeping it cool and dark will help. Dark bottles may help, especially since we have no control of storage prior to purchase.

Paola says:
26 June 2016

Glass allows interaction with light, a bottle could be sitting for months on a brightly lit warehouse/supermarket shelf. That’s why olive oil in tins looks and tastes better. Tin is also used by local Italian oil producers. Tin is probably best 🙂

You could well be right Paola, but the better taste and appearance of the olive oil in tins might be because it is actually a superior product compared with the bottled varieties. Canning the oil rather than bottling it might be a way of offsetting its higher cost.

Certainly storage within the supply chain could be important. Bottled oils will probably be packed in cardboard outers with a small stock on the retailer’s shelves [of which only the front row will be exposed to much light but with forward facing labels that is also mitigated]. Tins could be in shrink-wrapped multi-packs, palletted, or boxed before being stacked on shelves. A metal enclosure would transfer heat variations more directly to the contents but whether that is significant for olive oil I do not know.

Whatever is used for packaging I think it is best to use it soon after purchase and not let it linger too long in the cupboard after first opening.

I very rarely fry anything other than an omelette about once a month in a non-stick frying pan with only a smear of extra virgin olive oil. I buy tinned tuna in olive oil served on a jacket potato or in a sandwich mixed with a little cider vinigar (about a capful per tin for added piquancy) or, dare I say it, mayonnaise, but I do use it in my ears to remove wax on occasion and also wash my hair with it as olive oil is the main ingredient in Castile soap.

Castile liquid soap has many uses. It is biodegradable and can be used as a:
Face wash, shaving cream, kids bath, shampoo, hand washing clothes, fruit and vegetables, mopping floors, washing pets, cleaning garden tools, washing up, and a general cleaning spray. You can make your own liquid hand soap by mixing

1 tablespoon of Castile soap
1 tablespoon of coconut oil
1 teaspoon of vitamin e oil with a cup (about 250ml) of distilled water
Add a drop of lavender and a drop of tea tree oil – mix and put in an empty liquid handwash bottle. This also works for a quick wipe down on a tissue between bathing for sticky hands, necks and faces.

I am not sure whether Popeye would approve of using olive oil this way or whether he sprinkled it on his spinach to impress his girlfriend but given its widespread versatility and usefulness is it any wonder he named her after it?


Retep says:
29 June 2016

Our family has for many years used for cooking, cold pressed, unfiltered olive oil from Farchioni in 1lt bottles about £8.
For salads and dipping we have used Morgenster from South Africa (it is the very best) 500ml @ £15 from Waitrose. The problem is that this is £5.50 in S.A. and has remained at £15 in the UK for years despite the Rand dropping by 20% against the £!

My apologies for not having read the other posts here as my question may have been answered. I found the
Olive Oil Test most informative and I look forward to using the oil with the knowledge gained. No more using
it in a frying pan. I was sorry not to have read an explanation of why the labels of these oils always includes the word “virgin”. What olive oils are NOT virgin? And I can not immediately think of any other food that uses the word “virgin in its description. I’m sure there must be some and that it refers to the product not being contaminated in some way but I would be interested to hear any ideas of why the word is always used with olive oil. Thank you.

It would be nice to have an answer to your comment about the use of the word “virgin” in respect of olive oil, Julian. I have often wondered. I am also perplexed by the description “extra virgin” as I had always believed virginity to be an absolute state not conducive to grades of condition.

For some reason ‘oil’ attracts curious adjectives, such as “essential”. There is nothing vital or compulsory about ‘essential oils’ – it is just that they are made from essence, e.g. a plant extract [it’s a bit tautologous as well because a plant extract is the oil].

Given it is a general subject I thought the answer of why virgin olive oil is easily found.
Essentially olive oil not chemically or heat altered but naturally mechanically pressed.

If you are more concerned as to the term “virgin” I think you might say that it is not been despoiled by over treatment. Sort of like virgin land waiting for the first farmers. Though virgin wool might be thought tricky it is actually wool that is being spun for the first time.

This is as opposed to Shoddy ” Shoddy or recycled wool is made by cutting or tearing apart existing wool fabric and respinning the resulting fibers.[32] As this process makes the wool fibers shorter, the remanufactured fabric is inferior to the original.”

Hence the naming of the Shoddy Awards which hopefully will grace the consumer scene soon.

John – I have often wondered about ‘extra virgin’ olive oil too. I’m wondering if there are other examples of this terminology or whether this is very unique.

Maybe it just means that the oil is available in large sizes and there is no chance of baby bottles.

I did notice that the Olive Oil tests sampled very few of the available oils. If Wgich? is going to do a test, they should examine many – I do not see a problem. They are keen enough to sample 100’s of white goods a year. For Virgin Olive Oil, we have come, by trial and error, to use Greek Kalamata, oil, specifically iliada. Dark in colour and more viscous than many “cheap” varieties ; again, more for bread dips with balsamic when you actually want a pleasant taste and where it will not be masked. It’s not that a lot is used, but food taste counts for a lot; otherwise I guess it is stew all the way for cheapness?

Dr Phillip Morgan says:
22 July 2016

Olive oil is great, my girlfriend, my niece and a family friend are all made ill by rapeseed oil, it is in everything now including bread. After eating a roll buttered with margarine my girlfriend spent a week in hospital her stomach and intestines were inflamed. God only knows how many people in the UK are similarly affected but don’t know why. Luckily most places sell chiabata which is made with olive oil

Spanish olive oil is regarded by experts to be the best in the world so why no mention of this in the article ?