Counterfeit Olive Oil: Is the Mafia Sabotaging your Diet?

It’s the start of a New Year and you’re probably ready to buy into your next detox. 

Don’t get me wrong, there are some excellent options to choose from, but they should all rely on the power of real foods to help you. 

If your ‘New Year’ affirmation is to cut out bad fats and oils like GMO soybean oil (and what a great goal that is!), try incorporating extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) into your cooking and cleanses. It’s a lifesaving ingredient used for thousands of years with many excellent health benefits (here’s an EVOO DIY video application ).


When it comes to using EVOO, I practice what I preach, using every platform there is to talk about the incredible health benefits found in this rockstar ingredient.  So much so, that a group of 30 of us were invited to attend a luncheon (I’m in the blue sweater!) with the California Olive Oil Council–where they released their 2016 harvest. It was great to be able to support our local suppliers of such a fantastic ingredient that can kick any new year’s diet or cleanse up a notch.


WebMD Stella Metsovas

“My rule of thumb for at-home testing is to pour a few tablespoons of olive oil on a white dish. Look for consistencies that are smooth, although far thicker than corn or vegetable oil. Your olive oil should also smell like olives” –Stella Metsovas

What happens, however, when the ingredients meant to aid you–and the olive oil you’re using to cut out the “bad stuff”– isn’t up to snuff? Is there really such a thing as counterfeit olive oil?

Here’s my short answer: Yes. In fact, the mafia (yes you read that correctly…the mafia!) profits immensely from exporting imitation oil from Italy.  I sure hope they don’t “snuff” me out for exposing their subpar product! In December of 2015 alone, Italian police confiscated 7,000 tons of phony oil on its way to North America for sale. The world of counterfeit foods has become incredibly lucrative, and has grown into a $16 billion industry.

Mafia Olive Oil

Counterfeiting oil for faraway consumers is fairly easy to do. In many cases the “Agromafia” aims to trick consumers by mixing a small quantity of authentic product in with cheaper alternatives like sunflower oil. The authentic product is known as a “deodorizer”; it provides a small amount of color and flavor meant to throw consumers off their trail–and while it’s totally illegal to do so, it’s profitable enough to tempt the less reputable anyway.


If you think this is affecting only a few random bottles at your grocery story, you’ll be sorely surprised to hear otherwise. Experts estimate that 75-80% of the imported olive oil on American shelves is not really extra virgin. One of our most popular brands, Bertoli, is even the subject of a fraud investigation and multiple class action lawsuits.


How to Buy the Good Stuff


Within Italy, there are 60 tasters led by Sergio Tirro that are able to spot counterfeit oil “at first sip”; but what are folks stateside supposed to do? How is an American consumer in the supermarket aisle supposed to avoid being misled?

The simplest step you can take: look for an expiration date–this should be no more than 2 years after bottling.

At the California Olive Oil Council luncheon I mentioned previously, all of the bottles that were released had one. It’s even better if you can find a harvest date–aim for bottles from this year’s harvest for quality and longevity. Olive oil isn’t like wine, it is actually perishable and doesn’t get better with age!

When perusing the shelves be sure to favor bottles that protect against light, heat, and oxygen, which can all cause EVOO to deteriorate and lose its extra virgin qualities. You should also look for the “extra virgin” label specifically; as it’s the only designation that can’t be used if the oil has been chemically refined at all. If you can find a North American Olive Oil Association label as well, you’re in even more luck. They’re a trade group stateside that tests imported oils to ensure they measure up to manufacturer’s claims.

Whenever possible, taste the oil first. It should be peppery and strong, perhaps even catch in your throat. Don’t be put off by bitterness or pungency.

If you think tasting the oil before purchase sounds impossible, you need only look to your best option yet: buy local. It’s the easiest way to ensure you’re buying the highest quality EVOO. If you live in Georgia, Texas, or California you can even seek out Olive Oil Mills and witness the creation process before purchase.

If there aren’t any mills near you; find stores that allow you to sample the olive oils, preferably with the help of someone who knows about their products and brands. You’re most likely in luck if you see their batches stored in easily accessible sealed drums. Many supermarkets, delicatessens, and markets even have Oil Bars (especially in areas with the right climate for growing olives).

If you want the convenience of bottled oil straight off the shelf, local is still the way to go–you’re more likely to find harvest and expiration dates, and proper bottling this way (like those bottles released by the California Olive Oil Council!).


Why Bother at All?


At this point you may wonder: if authentic olive oil isn’t as widespread as I thought, should I bother using it at all?

Quite simply: Yes. This oil is not only a healthy alternative to the soybean you want to remove from your diet, it also has many standalone benefits in its own right. Regular ingestion of EVOO has been linked to increased longevity and implicated in preventing cardiovascular disease, obesity, and breast and gastrointestinal cancers. It has also been shown to have anti-inflammatory, anti-carcinogenic, and blood pressure reducing properties.

It even can aid in digestion; as it stimulates the release of CCK better than a variety of other healthy foods. CCK mediates digestion in the small intestine, it is responsible for the secretion of digestive enzymes and may induce satiety (the sense of being full–an excellent perk if you’re trying to better control your portions).   For more on the benefits of EVOO check this out


How it all Comes Together


Here’s the long and short of it: to gain the most from your dietary changes and cleanses you need to be sure you’re using the highest quality ingredients available–this is doubly true for EVOO. Replacing your other cooking oils or salad dressings with it is a simple cleansing change you can make with major benefits for your health and waistline–but only if it’s the real deal.


To ensure you are getting what you’re paying for look for harvest and expiration dates, local options, and oil bars that allow you to taste their product before purchasing.


As you enter the new year and set your sights on improved health and wellness, I encourage you to go beyond cleanses  and further examine what optimal digestive health really is; of which EVOO is a major component. 


In Good Health,

Stella Metsovas