When Does Olive Oil Lose Its Virginity?

Unlike wine, olive oil does not improve with time. And while many might wonder how long an extra virgin olive oil will stay extra virgin, there are too many moving parts for a simple answer.

By Liliana Scarafia - Agbiolab
Feb. 20, 2017 09:36 UTC

How long does an extra vir­gin olive oil stay that way?

This ques­tion is first asked by olive oil pro­duc­ers who would dis­play Best By Date’ infor­ma­tion on their label. And then, by retail­ers and buy­ers (con­sumers included) who would also like to have a rea­son­able answer.

Well, as usual, the answer is: It depends. And it causes con­ster­na­tion in every­one that there is no straight, sim­ple answer.

First, as we well know, olive oils are very dif­fer­ent. Their antiox­i­dant con­tent, usu­ally mea­sured as polyphe­nols, varies greatly among oils, as much as two- to three-fold. These polyphe­nols are not only ben­e­fi­cial to human health, they also con­tribute to an oil’s longer shelf-life.

There are also fil­tered’ and unfil­tered’ olive oils in the mar­ket, with pro­po­nents of one or the other argu­ing end­lessly about their mer­its. Filtration removes resid­ual veg­e­ta­tion water from the oil, as well as any fine sed­i­ment remain­ing from the olive fruit. These two ele­ments are usu­ally asso­ci­ated with fresh­ness’ of oils that are sold as Olio Nuovo. However, if water or sed­i­ment is left in con­tact with the oil, in a short time the oil qual­ity will suf­fer. That’s why Olio Nuovo is meant to be con­sumed soon after har­vest: in three to six months at the lat­est.

However, if the same oil had been racked,” caus­ing fine par­ti­cles to sed­i­ment from the oil over time, or bet­ter yet, fil­tered,” the same oil can sus­tain its extra-vir­gin­ity very likely for a year or two.

Secondly, stor­age con­di­tions, either in the ware­house, store shelf or kitchen pantry will shorten the lifes­pan of an olive oil’s extra vir­gin sta­tus. Two major cul­prits are light expo­sure, espe­cially if the olive oil is in a clear bot­tle, and expo­sure to tem­per­a­tures higher than 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

But a major trig­ger of qual­ity decay is air con­tact, which results in oxi­da­tion.

So, based on sci­en­tific research and obser­va­tions in our lab, what are the esti­mates for the real Best By Date for an olive oil?

  • Olio Nuovo, unfil­tered or non-racked oils: 3 to 6 months
  • Low polyphe­nol, fil­tered or racked oils: 1 to 2 years. But, if exposed to air, light or high tem­per­a­ture, its life may be short­ened to between 6 and 12 months.
  • High polyphe­nol, fil­tered oils: 18 months to 3 years. But, if exposed to high tem­per­a­tures, its life may be short­ened to 6 months.

In con­clu­sion, let’s not be mis­guided by overly promis­ing Best By Dates if the con­tainer offers no clues as to the polyphe­nol con­tent in the oil.

Consume unfil­tered oil soon after its har­vest date. And fol­low the advice of keep­ing the oil stored in a cool, dark place. Once opened, use the oil promptly. Do not buy big jugs that will not be con­sumed within weeks after open­ing. And, of course, the oil must be a good oil to begin with, at the mill.

Liliana Scarafia is a prin­ci­pal at Agbiolab, an inde­pen­dent lab­o­ra­tory help­ing olive grow­ers, millers, and han­dlers to pro­duce qual­ity olive oil.

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