A new study by a Spanish consumer association has reignited the debate over whether olive oil is being wrongfully labeled as “extra virgin.”
According to the latest report by the Consumers and Users Organization (OCU), many of the top-selling olive oil brands in Spanish supermarkets and superstores are not extra virgin despite what their labels say.
The organization looked at 41 products, testing their flavor as well as other factors, and found that 20 did not deserve to be labeled as extra virgin, but instead belonged to the lesser category of virgin.
BRANDS THAT PASS THE TASTE TEST
Results of the OCU study
The olive oil industry has dismissed the results, arguing there were irregularities in the analysis and that their products comply with all regulations that authorize the use of the tag.
Olive oils are classified according to a European Union regulation which divides products into extra virgin, virgin, olive and olive-pomace. A product must meet certain physical and chemical parameters to be classified as extra virgin, and it must also comply with sensory standards that are measured through a very strict taste test. In the OCU study, 21 of the 40 analyzed products failed this sensory test, which is compulsory in Europe.
BRANDS THAT DON’T PASS THE TASTE TEST
Results of the OCU study
But the industry argues that the taste test is too subjective, and cannot be trusted. “No physicochemical problems have been detected, the only problem was in the taste test, which is an unreliable method,” says Primitivo Fernández, the director of the National Association of Edible Oils Bottlers and Refiners (Anierac). Fernández says the industry has been trying for a long time to design an “electronic nose” to reduce the subjective element of the test and provide more reliable results. “Oil is the only food product in the world that is defined using a tasting, and the differences in criteria cause a problem because of the lack of legal security.”
Primitivo Fernández, Anierac
The products that received the best score in the sensory test were Oleoestepa’s Extra Virgin Olive Oil, which comes in a one-liter plastic bottle (which received top marks in four of the five studies carried out by OCU since 2000), Carrefour’s Extra Virgin Olive Oil in a one-liter plastic bottle, and Hacendado Gran Selección Cooperativa in a 750-milliliter glass bottle. Labels owned by supermarket chains like the French group Auchan also made the list, while others – like Hojiblanca’s El Nuestro one-liter plastic bottle – were wrongly labeled as extra virgin, according to the OCU report.
Controversial taste test
The taste test is an important factor in deciding whether a product is given the extra virgin label. According to the EU regulation, for a product to be classified as extra virgin it must have no flavor or scent defects and have a fruity aroma. Few laboratories are accredited to perform the analysis in Spain. Taste testers must be well-trained experts. During the tasting, the name of the product, which must be kept at a constant temperature, is hidden, as is the color of the oil.
In previous studies, the OCU has discovered products that have been mixed with other oils and a lampante oil – an unrefined substance that is banned from commercial sale. This year, the organization has not found such serious breaches but instead various defects in taste and flavor, a problem that has also occurred in Belgium, Italy and Portugal, although to a lesser degree.
Different physicochemical variables are also analyzed to decide whether a product belongs to the extra virgin category. These include authenticity, which measures if the product has been mixed with other types of oils; acidity, and the presence of peroxides, which reveals the grade of oxidation. All products reviewed by OCU met with the characteristics required of an extra virgin olive oil.
The OCU maintains its study was completed in accordance to the royal decree on comparative food studies published to inform consumers. After the first exam in the laboratory is finished, the samples are handed over to a government agency so that brand representatives can pick them up and run their own tests. If there are differences between these two exams, a third test must be done by law in the presence of a representative from each side.
Fernández says the olive oil industry has doubts about how representative these samples really are, and suspects they were not properly cared for. The product, he says, was “bought in February and deposited in the laboratory of the ministry [of agriculture] in March. The final taste tests were done in September and October, after many months had passed, which could mean it’s possible that there have been notable changes. The defects the OCU says it has found are slight.”
Fernández adds that these are defects an ordinary consumer would not be able to notice, and says there are even discrepancies between taste testers: “To us it is unfair and commercially devastating.”
English version by Melissa Kitson.