What’s the Difference Between Extra Virgin, Virgin, and Light Olive Oil?
Most olive oil in supermarkets is labeled “extra virgin,” but extra virgin is only one of several types of olive oil.
- Extra Virgin: Extra virgin olive oil is the highest quality and generally cost the most. The oil is extracted by grinding and pressing olives; no other chemicals, heat, or processes are used. According to the International Olive Council (IOC), extra virgin olive oil contains a low presence of oleic acid—that’s the omega-9 fatty acid that is linked to good health. Extra virgin olive oil tends to be darker in color then lower quality oils, somewhere between a golden yellow and a dark green. EVOO has a distinct olive flavor, and in the highest quality oils, you should be able to taste almost a little bit of spiciness. Extra virgin olive oil has perfect flavor with no flaws.
- Virgin: Virgin olive oil is the second highest quality of olive oil, one step down in quality and price from EVOO. It is produced in the same manner as extra virgin olive oil, and has good flavor with minimal flaws.
- Light: Despite its name, light olive oil does not mean that this variety of oil has fewer calories or a lower fat content. Instead, this label refers to the oil’s lighter color and neutral flavor. Light olive oil is a refined oil, produced using heat after the first pressing of virgin oil. Rather than a deep green, light olive oil has a golden yellow hue. It keeps longer on the shelf and has a higher smoke point than other types of olive oil, but also has fewer nutrients due to the heat-pressing.
Extra-virgin olive oil is made from pure, cold-pressed olives, whereas regular olive oil is a blend, including both cold-pressed and processed oils.
EVOO is made by grinding olives into a paste, then pressing them to extract the oil. There's no heat involved, hence the "cold-pressed" label you often encounter. The resulting oil has a forest-green color; a grassy, peppery flavor; and a fruity aroma. This method, while effective, takes a substantial amount time. Certifying the product pure EVOO is also a rigorous, time-consuming process. These factors contribute to the oil's higher price.
Any cold-pressed oil that doesn't meet extra-virgin standards is then refined to get rid of undesirable impurities, giving the oil a more neutral flavor and lighter color. It's then blended with a bit of premium EVOO to produce what's labeled as just "olive oil."
So how does this affect your cooking? We suggest keeping a bottle of both on hand: Plain olive oil for general cooking and sautéing, and a nice top-shelf extra-virgin oil for dips, dressings, uncooked applications and as a finishing touch for plated food. While you could technically use EVOO in all your cooking (the myth that it turns bitter at high temperatures has since been busted), you won't be able to taste its subtleties in something like a rich stew.
Refined Olive Oil
Refined Olive Oil is Virgin Olive Oil that has been processed and refined create a mild, light tasting, and more stable oil. The refining process also removes many of the health benefits that Extra Virgin Olive Oil offers (though this is debated). On a retail shelf, this olive oil is labeled “Light” Olive Oil.
Olive Oil (Pure Olive Oil)
Defined by the USDA, the grade “Olive Oil” is commonly referred to as “Pure Olive Oil” in the U.S. bulk and retail markets. In fact, this grade is comprised of Refined Olive Oil blended with Extra Virgin or Virgin Olive Oil; common blend ratios are 85% Refined and 15% Extra Virgin/Virgin, though they can range from 70/30 to 99/1. These ratios are determined by the supplier/manufacturer and can account for some of the price differences in Pure Olive Oil across the market. This oil has a milder taste and color than Extra Virgin or Virgin Olive Oil, but not as light as the Refined Olive Oil.
Olive Pomace Oil
Olive Pomace Oil is oil that is extracted from the pomace of the olive. “Pomace” is pulp made from the olive pit and already-squeezed olive fruit. When an olive is picked, it is ground into a paste which is squeezed or spun to get the initial oil out. The dry pulp left over is called the olive pomace.
A solvent (typically hexane) is added to the pomace to extract any remaining oil. The solvent is removed, and the remaining Pomace Oil is refined. This is a similar process used to manufacture any seed oils like Soybean or Canola.
Virgin Olive Oil
Virgin Olive Oil is processed in a similar way to Extra Virgin Olive Oil. The thing that differentiates Virgin and Extra Virgin is the acidity level after pressing: Virgin Olive Oil has a max acidity level of 2.0% while Extra Virgin Olive Oil must be below 0.08%. The difference in acidity level is caused by the olives themselves and the time delay between harvest and production. After the some of olives are harvested when they’re waiting for pressing, the fruit continues to be affected by its natural environment. For example, some olives may remain in the field longer, some may be slightly riper or have more sun exposure. Each of these natural elements causes them to oxidize faster, which increases the acidity level.
Refined Olive Oil
Refined Olive Oil is Virgin Olive Oil that has been processed and refined create a mild, light tasting, and more stable oil. The refining process also removes many of the health benefits that Extra Virgin Olive Oil offers.
Olive Oil (Pure Olive Oil)
Defined by the USDA, the grade ‘Olive Oil’ is commonly referred to as ‘Pure Olive Oil’ or ‘Pure’ in the U.S. bulk and retail markets. In fact, this grade is comprised of Refined Olive Oil combined with Extra Virgin or Virgin Olive Oil; common blend ratios are 85% Refined and 15% EVOO or Virgin, though they can range from 70/30 to 99/1. These ratios are determined by the supplier/manufacturer and can account for some of the price differences in Pure Olive Oil across the market. This oil has a milder taste and color than Extra Virgin or Virgin Olive Oil.