The majority of olive oil producing countries outside the United States follow the regulations of the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC) for defining and labeling olive oil. In order to be labeled “extra virgin” an olive oil must meet certain laboratory criteria which includes an oleic acid content of less than .8%, as well as flavor and aroma criteria (see Tasting EVOO). It is only recently that the IOOC standards for extra virgin olive oil have been adopted in the United States and enforcement of these standards is an ongoing challenge. This means that a lot of what is labeled as “extra virgin” on American grocery store shelves is, in fact, not extra virgin olive oil.
As olive oil production increases in California, the industry is working to address the labeling issues in the United States and California growers and producers are pushing to uphold the highest standards in labeling EVOO.
From a consumer standpoint, the best way to know if what you are purchasing is really extra virgin olive oil is simply to ask! Do a little research (the internet!), ask the grocery buyer at your favorite store and visit your local farmers market. Farmers markets are a great venue to be able to ask questions and get to know a producer.
A few more notes about olive oil labeling: “Virgin” olive oil is a step below “extra virgin”. With a higher oleic acid content, virgin olive oils simply do not meet the grade to be labeled as “extra virgin” and therefore do not have the same nutritional value as true EVOO. The labels “Light”, “Pure” and “Olive Oil” refer to oils that have been refined - that is, oils produced using high heat or chemical solvents. These processes strip the oil of most of its flavor and aroma characteristics as well as it nutritional benefits.