The 'Flavored Extra Virgin' Oxymoron

Flavored oils are the low-hanging fruit -- an abandonment of the educational track the industry has been following to lure buyers with Sriracha and smoke.

By Curtis Cord
Nov. 14, 2018 11:12 UTC

Flavored oils have been around a long time, but these days they seem to be every­where.

Modern life leaves dwin­dling time for cook­ing while culi­nary short­cuts in the Instant-Pot era offer 30-minute meals in ever fewer steps. Flavored oils pro­vide a fat and sea­son­ing in one swoop.

I’ve never been a fan, even going on record with a Washington Post writer back in 2013 with harsh words for the idea” of fla­vor­ing and infus­ing olive oils with herbs, fruit, smoke or any­thing else. But there’s a spe­cial place in the wrong col­umn in my view for bot­tling fla­vored con­coc­tions and call­ing it extra vir­gin’ on the label.

By def­i­n­i­tion, extra vir­gin olive oil, or even plain olive oil, can con­tain no addi­tives. Once you add another ingre­di­ent, it falls into a cat­e­gory of an oil-based condi­ment and should not include olive oil” on the front of the pack­age at all.

Extra vir­gin olive oil is the only food that needs to be tasted by a human to ver­ify its clas­si­fi­ca­tion. Trained tasters look for sub­tle signs of defects that would dis­qual­ify the extra vir­gin sta­tus. Any addi­tive makes this ver­i­fi­ca­tion process impos­si­ble.

It’s not just my peeve. The International Olive Council (IOC), the U.N.-sanctioned inter­gov­ern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tion whose stan­dards are rou­tinely ignored around the world, has tried to get its 15 mem­ber coun­tries to abide by its rules that for­bid call­ing any­thing with an addi­tive olive oil,’ no less extra vir­gin.’

The IOC’s exec­u­tive direc­tor, Abdellatif Ghedira, told Olive Oil Times, fla­vored oils can­not be con­sid­ered olive oils” and can’t be labeled as such under IOC rules.

That has­n’t stopped some of the biggest brands within IOC-mem­ber coun­tries from doing so. Extra vir­gin” on the label com­mands a higher price lead­ing to greater sales. Whether or not the oil inside deserves the valu­able dec­la­ra­tion has long been con­ve­niently over­looked by mar­keters.

To guar­an­tee greater trans­parency for con­sumers in mar­kets around the world, it is impor­tant to respect stan­dards and the bod­ies that reg­u­late them in every coun­try,” Ghedira added in a wish­ful refrain.

The prob­lem comes down to this: When you buy choco­late milk, you can be rea­son­ably con­fi­dent it’s milk fla­vored with choco­late — and if you wanted to, you could get a chem­istry lab to prove it. Extra vir­gin olive oil is a prod­uct viewed with a well-founded degree of sus­pi­cion and a long his­tory of frauds. Add any ingre­di­ent to the mix and an inde­pen­dent ver­i­fi­ca­tion becomes impos­si­ble.

From a pro­duc­er’s per­spec­tive, if you’re going to add chili, Sriracha, smoke or Meyer lemons to the mix, why use extra vir­gin olive oil when it’s cost­lier to pro­duce and defects in a lower grade would be effec­tively con­cealed by the fla­vor­ing any­way?

The rea­son, of course, is that extra vir­gin sells — whether it’s on the front of a bag of potato chips, a jar of may­on­naise, or a blend with another oil entirely.

Nancy Harmon Jenkins, an olive oil pro­ducer in Italy and author of the New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook was eager to con­cur. I know there are pro­duc­ers I admire who make fla­vored oil,” she told me, but the pure, fresh taste of high-qual­ity olive oil is so unique that I have to ask — why bother adding to it? Would you add rasp­berry fla­vor to a high-end cham­pagne?”

Harmon Jenkins rec­om­mends adding ingre­di­ents inde­pen­dently to main­tain the integrity of their indi­vid­ual qual­i­ties. If you want to add a lit­tle lemon or gar­lic or basil to the oil at the moment you’re serv­ing it, that’s the best way. What hap­pens with fla­vored oil is the same thing that hap­pens with fla­vored cof­fee — the fla­vors have no sense of fresh­ness to them at all, just old and tired Herbes de Provence added to old, tired oil.”

(A few pro­duc­ers who mar­ket fla­vored oils labeled extra vir­gin were asked to pro­vide their per­spec­tives but declined to com­ment.)

Slowly but surely, prompted by an end­less stream of new dis­cov­er­ies of the health ben­e­fits attrib­uted to extra vir­gin olive oil and the rise of promi­nent chefs who took the time to explore its culi­nary pos­si­bil­i­ties, con­sumers are finally becom­ing more edu­cated on what extra vir­gin” means and why it deserves the higher price tag.

Flavored oils labeled as extra vir­gin are the low-hang­ing fruit. It’s a way to move olive oil through retail by aban­don­ing the edu­ca­tional track the col­lec­tive indus­try has been fol­low­ing and lur­ing buy­ers with Sriracha and smoke — while open­ing the door to even more mis­in­for­ma­tion and deceit.


Related Articles