Before May 2009, olive oil sold in Oregon could be labeled extra-virgin– even when it wasn't. That's because labeling standards in the United States do not conform to grading standards set by the International Olive Council
The difference matters. Not just because extra virgin olive oil is higher quality, low in acid and tastes best, but also because it contains an abundance of health promoting nutrients. It is the first press of the olive pulp, produced without using heat or chemical extraction.
"Ninety percent of the oil labeled extra virgin in the United States is not extra virgin," says Wayne Branche, a former electrical engineer with Xerox, turned olive producer.
Now, thanks to a bill sponsored by former state Reps. Chip Shields and Larry Galizio, all extra virgin olive oil sold in Oregon meets that international standard. The same is true for California, fast becoming major producer of olive oil. But in Washington state -- and across the country -- many people are buying lower grade olive oil that lacks the health promoting benefits they are seeking.
In countries that conform to International Olive Oil Council labeling standards virgin olive oil means oil made by the same process as extra virgin oil, but with a higher acidity and judged to have a good taste. Other oils are often blends of virgin oil and refined oil—which has been chemically treated to improve its taste. Refined oil doesn't necessarily confer the health benefits of extra virgin oil.
"After the extra virgin oil is extracted the pulp and water is treated with chemicals and heat to extract more oil." Branche says. "And when you see an oil labeled "light" olive oil, that is probably 90 to 95 percent refined oil with 5 or 10 percent of virgin oil. And most of your nutrients are sucked away in that process."
Branche, who imports Andalucian Girl olive oil to the United States, and distributor Paul Knauls Jr., lobbied Shields and Galizio on the extra-virgin labeling problem.
Originally from Trinidad, Branche has lived in Baltimore and Portland Oregon. But after he met and married Marie Soria, he moved to Andalucia, Spain and began learning all about the family's olive business. Often mistaken for the actor Samuel L Jackson, he jokingly calls himself "Olive" Branche and appears in a promotional video for the Soria family's Andalucian Girl brand.