As much as 75 percent of the olive oil in the U.S. is counterfeit and may contain chemical and artificial colors that mask the color and smell of the cheaper oils it contains. Why is this? How can you purchase real fresh olive oil?

According to a recent Sixty Minutes report, the Mafia has corrupted Italy’s olive oil business. Several sources say the most common type of fraud is mixing Italian extra-virgin with lower quality olive oils from North Africa and around the Mediterranean. In other cases, a bottle labeled “extra-virgin olive oil” may not be olive oil at all, just a seed oil like sunflower made to look and smell like olive oil with a few drops of chlorophyll and beta-carotene. Other imposter ingredients include hazelnut oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil, vegetable oil, soybean oil, palm oil and walnut oil.Much olive oil that claims to be “from Italy” is actually brought into Italy and re-exported from there. If you are paying seven or eight dollars for a bottle of Italian extra virgin olive oil, it’s probably not Italian extra-virgin.

In two studies, UC Davis researchers analyzed a total of 186 extra virgin olive oil samples against standards established by the International Olive council, as well as methods used in Germany and Australia. They found that an estimated 69% of store-bought extra virgin olive oils in the US are probably fake. These brands failed their testing: Bertolli, Carapelli, Colavita, Star, Pompeian, Filippo Berio, Mazzola, Mezzetta, Newman’s Own, Safeway and Whole Foods. The real deals are: California Olive Ranch, Cobram Estate, Lucini, Kirkland Organic, Lucero (Ascolano), McEvoy Ranch Organic. (Note: This research is considered controversial by some since UC Davis is in the forefront of energetic attempts to grow the California oil industry. And, the research was funded by companies behind two of the California oils that were tested and by the California Olive Oil Council. From Nancy Harmon Jenkins, well known author of several books on Mediterranean cuisine.)

To make a more informed olive oil purchase, here’s what you can do:

Look closely at the label. Turn the bottle over. Ideal packaging requires use of dark glass bottles. Is the oil actually produced in Italy? If so, where? The olive tree is native to the Mediterranean; this is its natural environment, which influences its taste and nutritional qualities. The fewer sources of olives for your bottle, the less time the olives spend in transit, being handled, packaged and processed. Be encouraged if it’s from a city in Sicily or Puglia, both known for producing olive oil. Consider buying online directly from Italian producers like Lucia Iannotta. (You can also go to to see the 2016 award winners.) Pay attention to both the expiration date and the harvest date. Usually the expiration date is 1 to 1-½ years away. If there is not an expiration date do not buy it.

Look for the harvest date. Olive oil is not meant to age. You want to consume olive oil within 1-2 years (one year is ideal) of its harvest date. And ideally that date is in late October or November of the previous year. If the back of the label doesn’t have the harvest date, you may consider putting that bottle back on the store shelf.

Look for seals of approval. Many California olive oils are sent to the California Olive Oil Council’s panel of trained tasters. If the oil passes, the producer is given permission to place the COOC seal on the label. Small producers may find this action cost prohibitive; usually these bottles show a harvest date.

Smell and taste it. As soon as you get the olive oil home, smell it and taste it. Ideally you won’t encounter the off odors which can be described as wax, bad salami, old peanut butter, baby diaper, manure or sweaty socks.

Take it back. Tell the store manager the oil is rancid and return it.

Real Food, Fake Food by Larry Olmsted