The 101 of olive oil designations and definitions

The International Olive Council (IOC) groups olive oil and olive pomace oil into four main designations:

  • Virgin Olive Oils – olive oils that are made only from cold extraction of oil from the olives;
  • Refined Olive Oils – olive oils made from refining Virgin Olive Oils;
  • Olive Oils – products made from blending Refined Olive Oil with Virgin Olive Oil; and
  • Olive Pomace Oil – not technically an “olive oil”, but a by-product made from the solid “pomace” that is leftover after Virgin Olive Oils are extracted.

Testing and grading criteria olive oil are particularly complex at the detailed level, however the critical elements of olive oil grading are summarised below.  To find out more about olive oil testing, click here.


Virgin Olive Oils

Virgin olive oils are obtained directly from the olive fruit solely by mechanical or other physical means under conditions, particularly thermal conditions, that do not lead to alterations in the oil and which have not undergone any treatment other than washing, decantation, centrifugation and filtration.  Virgin Olive Oils can be filtered or unfiltered, the latter in which residual fruit sediment is visible by the cloudiness of the oil.  The product may be a blend of olives, or a single variety and depending on the type of olive used and the point in the harvest, the colour can range from yellow to green, such that colour is not a definite indication of quality.  Virgin olive oils fit for consumption as they are include:

Extra Virgin Olive Oil is the highest grade of virgin olive oil and must (amongst other criteria) have a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid, or not more than 0.8% and should be assessed in sensory analysis as being free of taste defects (median of defect = 0) and having a positive fruity attribute (median of fruity attribute > 0).  Extra Virgin Olive Oil is most prized for being generally considered to have the highest levels of antioxidants and polyphenolic content of all virgin oils.

Virgin Olive Oil must (amongst other criteria) have a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid, or not more than 2.0% and should be assessed in sensory analysis as having defects (median of defect ≤ 3.5) and having a positive fruity attribute (median of fruity attribute > 0).  Virgin Olive Oil is still prized for containing antioxidants and polyphenolic content of all virgin oils, however generally considered to be less healthy and less flavoursome than Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

Ordinary Virgin Olive Oil must (amongst other criteria) have a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid, or not more than 3.3% and should be assessed in sensory analysis as having few defects (median of defect ≤ 6.0) and not requiring any positive fruity attribute.  While deemed fit for human consumption, Ordinary Virgin Olive Oil may only be sold direct to the consumer if permitted in the country of retail sale.

Virgin olive oils not fit for consumption as they are include:

Lampante Virgin Olive Oil is virgin olive oil with a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid, of more than 3.3% and/or with a high level of sensory defects (median of defect should be assessed in sensory analysis as having few defects (median of defect > 6.0).  Lampante Virgin Olive Oil may only be sold for further refining or if intended for technical use.


Refined Olive Oil

Refined olive oil is the olive oil obtained from virgin olive oils by refining methods which do not lead to alterations in the initial glyceridic structure.  Among other requirements, it should have a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid, or not more than 0.3% and should have an acceptable odour and taste and be of a light yellow colour.  Since the refining process, which can be physical or chemical, targets the removal of colour, odour and flavour from the fruit, a high quality refined olive oil will be nearly transparent, odourless and tasteless.   Refined olive oil is generally used for blending with virgin olive oils to make the product designated olive oil, and can only be sold directly to the consumer in a pure form if permitted in the country of retail sale.  The retention of the glyceridic structure means that the fat structure of the olive oil (often considered as a primary health benefit) is retained, however the refining process removes antioxidants and polyphenols found in virgin olive oils.


Olive Oil

Olive Oil is the grade  consisting of a blend of refined olive oil and virgin olive oils fit for consumption as they are (ie. extra virgin, virgin or ordinary virgin).  Amongst other requirements in the IOC standard, it must have a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid , of not more than 1% and should have a good odour and taste and be of a light yellow to light green colour.  As this grade is not prescriptive of the percentage or flavour of added virgin olive oils, there are many variants available in the market.  Generally, they fall under two sub-categories:

Classic/Mild/Pure Olive Oil is generally gold in colour and with slightly fruity and buttery flavours that clearly reference the addition of virgin olive oils, generally being containing 10-25% extra virgin or virgin olive oil.

Light/Extra Light/Light Taste Olive Oil is generally much paler in colour and with less prominent buttery flavours that just barely reference the addition of virgin olive oils, generally being containing 5-15% extra virgin or virgin olive oil.


Olive Pomace Oil

Olive Pomace Oil is the oil obtained by treating olive pomace (the leftover paste after the pressing of olives for virgin olive oils) with solvents or other physical treatments, to the exclusion of oils obtained by re-esterification processes and of any mixture with oils of other kinds.  At no point can this product legally be sold as olive oil, instead it can be found in the following designations:

Crude Olive Pomace Oil is the oil obtained from olive pomace and intended for refining before human consumption, or alternatively without refining for other technical uses.

Refined Olive Pomace Oil is the oil obtained by refining Crude Olive Pomace Oil using methods which do not lead to alterations in the initial glyceridic structure.  Among other requirements, it should have a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid, or not more than 0.3% and should have a acceptable odour and taste and be of a light yellow or light brownish yellow colour.  This may only be sold directly to the consumer if permitted in the country of retail sale

Olive Pomace Oil is the grade  consisting of a blend of refined olive pomace oil and virgin olive oils fit for consumption as they are (ie. extra virgin, virgin or ordinary virgin). Amongst other requirements in the IOC standard, it must have a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid, of not more than 1% and should have a good odour and taste and be of a light yellow to light green colour.  In no case should this blend be called “olive oil”.