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Is there really a difference between olive-oil brands?

The experts agree on one thing: all olive oil is not alike. The designations extra-virgin, virgin, pure and pomace are more than marketing labels; they greatly affect how olive oil tastes, and they dictate how it should be used. However, when it comes to brand names and nationalities, the experts are decidedly divided. Many claim that inexpensive supermarket brands can hold their own against a number of their more expensive counterparts, while others disagree.

In olive-oil taste tests, cheaper, readily available supermarket brands are often pitted against the products of small harvest, boutique olive-oil brands. While some of the results are confounded by the tasters' admitted preferences for certain nationalities of olive oil (and there are differences, the experts tell us), the most credible reviews employ blind taste tests, with the only proviso (and common denominator) being that all of the olive oils tested are of the extra-virgin variety.

However, this is where things become even more complex. Recent news reports allege olive-oil tampering, claiming that some companies, in order to cut costs, are diluting their extra-virgin olive oils with inferior grade oils. In the last few years, these charges have become so widespread that the International Olive Oil Council has heightened its regulatory practices, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has updated its standards of grading.

Given the vagaries of personal preference when it comes to food and the individual nature of the human taste bud, olive oils praised by some connoisseurs may be an acquired taste for others. This is primarily because in olive oil, bitter is a good thing. The experts tell us that some degree of bitterness is a necessary part of the fruity, olive-y, robust flavor of the oil. The olive oils most prized by connoisseurs are those with the most olive taste. However, what tastes pleasantly, olive-y bitter to one palate may taste downright harsh to another. Nevertheless, the experts agree that whether it's a full-flavored or a light variety olive oil, anything that could be mistaken for canola oil gets bad marks. As for testing methods, experts tell us that the best way to taste olive oil is to let it slide over your tongue (but don't swallow it) or to dip into it with a good, crusty bread. 

While some review sites aim to include a wide variety of prices, producers and nationalities in their taste tests, other sites deliberately limit themselves to the pricier, less accessible varieties. That's why we give kudos to the editors at Bon Appetit for their "Supermarket Standoff" published in April 2011. Editors theorize that most cooks keep one brand of extra-virgin olive oil on hand for cooking and another brand -- the expensive stuff -- for drizzling and dipping. Ratings focus on finding a dual-purpose, supermarket brand of olive oil that is good enough to eat drizzled as-is, yet cheap enough to be used in quantity for cooking.

A review published by Cook's Illustrated is also helpful, not only because editors regularly update olive-oil reviews, but also because they include inexpensive, readily available supermarket brands alongside premium, artisanal products in taste tests.

TheNibble.com's Stephanie Zonis slurps her way through more than 90 olive oils, ranging from inexpensive favorites to small-harvest imports. Another foodie website, SeriousEats.com, also ranks high in our Our Sources chart with its 2009 taste test of "cheap-but-good" olive oils. Good Housekeeping and ConsumerReports.org both weigh in with similar taste tests from 2007 and 2004, respectively. A comprehensive overview published by The New York Times in 1997 continues to be noteworthy because the olive oils tested are still readily available. However, just as with wine, olive harvests change from year to year, both in quality and quantity, so recently written reviews are more relevant.

Most of the remaining major review sources tend to concentrate on a small niche market in terms of price and availability. This is when the cult of olive-oil connoisseurs resembles that of great wine aficionados. Two British newspaper sources, The Observer and The Independent, serve up luscious, mouth-watering descriptions of small-harvest, private-producer oils not readily available in the U.S. Both sites also include inexpensive U.K. supermarket brands in their top picks, but those choices from Tesco and Sainsbury's stores also aren't available in the U.S. Bon Appetit's Amy Albert confines her research to premium-priced oils rather than supermarket-shelf staples, but she does devote a page to California olive oils. Australia's Choice magazine, another reliable consumer-review source, selects as its top picks for 2010 a bevy of Australian olive oils, all of which would require some serious searching online for U.S. consumers.

Finally, we checked the message boards at two foodie sites, RoadFood.com and Chowhound.com, where we found quite a few informative -- albeit highly subjective -- opinions about the best olive oils.

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