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Olive oil grading and testing: An overview

The global demand for olive oil continues to increase at a torrid pace. According to one industry estimate, worldwide consumption of olive oil now stands at nearly 3.3 million tons, representing an increase of 73% in just 25 years. And changing dietary habits among consumers are driving even greater demand in both established and emerging economies, with triple digit increases in major European markets like the UK, Germany and France, and a remarkable 1400% increase in consumption of olive oil in Japan1.

But the growing market for olive oil has also attracted a flood of counterfeit olive oil products and less than scrupulous producers. In one of the most recent examples, Italian authorities arrested 33 people who are suspected of exporting fake extra virgin olive oil to the U.S2. And in 2016, the Italian Antitrust Authority (Autorita Garante della Concorrenze e del Mercato) determined that a number of specific olive oil brands, including Bertolli, Sasso and Carapelli “did not match the category ‘extra virgin olive oil’ declared on the label, being instead ‘virgin olive oil.” The determination led to a fine of 300,000 Euros against the Spanish company Deoleo, the producer of the brands.

In an effort to thwart this type of fraudulent activity, regulators in the European Union (EU) and other countries have strengthened their oversight of olive oil composition and labelling, At the same time, some distributors and retailers are imposing additional requirements on olive oil producers, such as pesticide residue testing, in order to more effectively promote the quality and safety of their products.

In the remainder of this article, we’ll provide a summary of the mandatory and voluntary testing to which olive oil is subject to in the EU and elsewhere.

Olive Oil Grading

Olive oil products are classified according to the results of various chemical tests that assesses quality according to a number of different indexes, including acidity, amount of peroxides and other factors. While there are as many as nine different grades, olive oil for human consumption must be graded as either “extra virgin olive oil” (EVOO) or “virgin olive oil” (VOO). EVOO-graded olive oils represent approximately 50% of all global olive oil production.

Required Testing

In general, olive oils intended for human consumption are subjected to a significant number of chemical tests. These tests include:

  • Oil content — Oil content testing helps olive tree growers evaluate which trees are more productive or less. Specific oil content tests include solvent extraction, cold press, and near infra-red analyser (NIR).
  • Moisture content — Olives with high moisture content can result in oil in diluted concentrations, and may also result in reduced flavour and lower levels of antioxidants. Moisture content testing provides data that complements oil content testing, and allows growers to optimise their production.
  • Free fatty acids — The presence of free fatty acids (FFAs) signals degradation of the oil through poor handing during processing. FFA testing is another way to evaluate the effectiveness of harvesting and handling techniques.
  • Peroxide value — Testing for peroxide values (PVs) measures chemical by-products that are produced as a result of exposure to oxygen, which can lead to a rancid taste or smell.
  • Fatty acid profile — A fatty acid profile (FAP) assesses the ratio of individual fatty acids found in a tested sample, which can affect both the stability and the nutritional value of the product.
  • Ultraviolet absorption — Ultraviolet (UV) absorption testing evaluates changes in the structure of fatty acids, and is useful in the identification of oils that are old or have been refined.
  • Wax content — Chiefly a test method useful in identifying the presence of adulterating agents, such as pomace oil.
    Threshold values for some of the above tests for EVOO and VOO grading may vary depending on applicable regulations and standards.

In addition to chemical testing, sensory testing (also known as organoleptic assessment) is a critical test in assessing an oil’s acceptability for consumption. Sensory testing involves the use of a Panel Test (PT) team, a group of assessors with specialised training and expertise in the key sensory components of olive oil, which include aroma, flavour, pungency and bitterness. Samples are assigned positive and negative attributes for each of these key components (positive attributes are fruity, fragrant, bitter and pungent, while negative attributes include muddy, rancid, fusty, metallic, sour, etc.)

Sensory testing is a requirement for EVOO products intended for sale in the EU.

Additional Testing

While not expressly required in the EU, testing for pesticide residues may be necessary to comply with certain jurisdictional regulations, such as requirements of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Food Standards Code for Australia/New Zealand. In addition, some importers, distributors and retailers may require pesticide residue testing as a condition of procurement.

There has also been increased interest of late in assessing food and food packaging materials for mineral oil hydrocarbons (MOS), including mineral oil saturated hydrocarbons (MOSH) and mineral oil aromatic hydrocarbons (MOAH). Earlier this year, the EU Council published a recommendation (Recommendation (EU) 2017/84), encouraging EU Member States to monitor the presence of MOH in food during 2017 and 2018, and to forward to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) collected data on MOS for further review and analysis. This action could portend future regulatory measures in the EU.

For these reasons, including testing for pesticide residues, the presence of MOS, as well as other optional tests is recommended as part of a comprehensive test suite for olive oil and olive oil products. Such additional testing may save time and help producers gain access to additional markets.

How we can help you?

Located near Florence, Italy, TÜV SÜD’s pH Laboratory is a leader in the testing of olive oil products. It is also one of just a handful of testing laboratories in the EU accredited by EU authorities to conduct sensory testing of olive oils, with a Panel Test team of 13 expert assessors. Our state-of-the-art testing laboratory is also staffed with experts and technicians with extensive food contaminant testing experience, including biomolecular testing and testing food products for dioxins and pesticide residues. Finally, TÜV SÜD scientists are developing proprietary testing protocols to evaluate the presence of mineral oil hydrocarbons (MOS) in food and food packaging materials, as required under EU Recommendation 2017/84.

For additional information about TÜV SÜD’s olive oil testing services, contact us here.

 

[1] “World Olive Oil Consumption Increased by 73 Percent Over a Generation,” Olive Oil Times, March 2, 2016. Available here.
[2] “Italy Arrests 33 Accused of Olive Oil Fraud,” Olive Oil Times, February 16, 2017. Available here.

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