The fake olive oil story about bertolli – have you seen it?


It’s quite a tale about a hoax in the food industry, a deception that threatens consumers, internationally, facing a lurking menace called fake olive oil. But this tale hangs by a single precarious thread – a misleading lab report that ended up promoting one segment of the olive oil industry at the expense of another. And that thread has been woven through an uncritical blogosphere and social media so many times that it’s become a tapestry of untruth.

Unfortunately, the story has been circulating for a while now, usually under the headline «14 Fake Olive Oil Companies Revealed Now» and it’s stirred up considerable interest among consumers. People everywhere began searching online for answers to their questions: What olive brands are fake? What are the olive oil brands to trust?

The phenomenon certainly caught our attention, because what the article has to say about Bertolli Olive Oil is absolutely false.

Fake news

What’s been circulating is fake news. So please allow us to clear things up.

About 12 months ago, various articles began to surface online, all with the tantalizing headline “14 Fake Olive Oil Companies are Revealed Now” or some minor variant on that, but what disturbed us most was that Bertolli was always mentioned.

Certainly, for Deoleo it was an outrage to see Bertolli included in this character assassination – a 150-year-old brand and the world’s top-selling name in olive oil, which has won more than 16 coveted industry awards for quality already just in 2018. So, we published a statement on our website, saying these stories were nothing more than a clickbait campaign. We hoped that would be the end of the matter, but then it got worse.

Over the next few months, the “olive oil fraud brands” story spread further, first through blog posts and then in Facebook ads. It became clear that we’d have to do more to counter the campaign and protect our reputation. False rumors, after all, always spread faster than good news.

The reputation of a great extra virgin olive oil brand

Bertolli history

First, some context. Bertolli was founded in 1865 in Lucca, in Italy’s Tuscany region. It was one of the first extra virgin olive oils to be exported to the United States and the many other countries where Italians migrated in the century and a half since. Bertolli was a fond reminder of their origins, and they were proud to share its benefits with their new neighbors.

This is a history of which we at Deoleo, the parent company of Bertolli and other fine and genuinely popular olive oils, are quite proud. So, it was extremely dismaying to see the continuous spread of misleading information and the ongoing denigration of our products with unchallenged claims about fake olive oil.

The origins of this false testimony lie in a 2010 study by the University of California, Davis, in which imported olive oil brands like Bertolli were tested alongside brands made in that US state to determine whether they were actually “extra virgin” as claimed.

The study set out to show the buying public which were the olive oil brands to trust and which were the olive oil brands to avoid. With its claim that most of the imported brands were “virgin” oil, not “extra virgin” oil, the resulting report triggered dozens of breathless “news” stories on food blogs and on those websites that deal only in clickbait lures. The report also said all but one of the Californian brands were deemed genuine extra virgin.

The video

The truth about Bertolli

DUnfortunately, the people spreading these stories largely ignored the limitations of the UC Davis study, gave no consideration to the context, and quite simply got the facts wrong. That is why we have prepared this guide to set the record straight, to examine the UC Davis report, and to prove that Bertolli is anything but a fake olive oil. Our intention is to present the facts clearly, honestly, and in as independent a manner as possible, so that you can make up your own mind.

In a short video, the CEO of Deoleo, Pierluigi Tosato, shares some insights into how the company, as the world market leader, took responsibility for guiding the industry towards improved practices, from the farm to the shops, and including testing standards. “We have to be certain, that nobody can cheat”, Pierluigi Tosato says.

Chapter one

Why many people believed the bertolli fake olive oil report

Let’s take a good look at the original 2010 UC Davis report that was widely misinterpreted and ended up creating a cottage industry of false and misleading claims about Bertolli olive oils. Most of the articles headlined “14 Fake Olive Companies are Revealed Now” rely only on this single study to back up their claims about Bertolli.

The UC Davis report stated that 69% of olive oils imported to the United States failed to meet IOC/USDA standards for extra virgin oil, and that 86% failed a chemical examination. It said all of the olive oils produced in California, except one, passed the tests with flying colors.

To non-experts, that certainly made it sound like the big brands were peddling adulterated olive oil under false claims about its purity. But, if we look more carefully at the study, which is what many of the people posting about fake olive oil in their blogs neglected to do, we can see that several fundamental points were ignored.

UA -not very reliable- report about “fake” olive oil

First, the way the segment of the study conducted in Australia was handled was highly questionable. Here’s the part of the report indicating that the samples were sent to Australia via a basic, conventional FedEx shipment – hardly what we would call secure or scientific.

“Australia analysis. On November 12, 2010, the UC Davis olive oil research project team shipped 134 unopened bottles (18 samples of seven brands and eight samples at one brand) to the Australian Oils Research laboratory in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales. The samples were shipped by FedEx and were five days in transit”. UC Davis Report

Secondly, we discovered that the study was largely funded by Californian olive oil producers and their own trade body, the COOC. Surely this suggests a lack of neutrality and independence in the research.

“We are grateful to Corto Olive, California Olive Ranch, and the California Olive Oil Council for their financial support of this research. We value the leadership of Dr. Richard Cantrill, technical director of the American Oil Chemists’ Society (AOCS); the advice of the AOCS Expert Panel on Olive Oil (particularly Bruce Golino, member of the board of directors of the California Olive Oil Council and Paul Miller, president of the Australian Olive Association) and the expertise of Leandro Ravetti, senior horticulturalist and olive specialist at Modern Olives in Australia”. Olive Oil Times, 2010

Despite these and other shortcomings, the UC Davis report has been cited ever since as the basis for claims that are demonstrably false or grossly misleading. This was the great hue and cry over “Bertolli olive oil fake”.

Without evidence

The lawsuit which intended to establish that the oils in question did not meet IOC/USDA standards had to be withdrawn. The Law firm acting on behalf of California restaurateurs and chefs, failed because it turned out to be impossible to prove.

Have a look at this chart showing the results of the study on the samples tested from the Californian makers of extra virgin olive oil.


Only a single California sample failed the sensory standard for “extra virgin” oil. The Californian producers didn’t just pass with flying colors – they were alleged to be nearly perfect.

Is the extra virgin olive oil study flawed?

Evidently, this study has several flaws:

    1. The study was conducted using sensory tasting – in other words, taste and smell, which are subjective.
    2. Chemical testing could not confirm the negative sensory results
    3. The study used a tiny sample size, which means that the study results are not statistically significant.

At most, this initial study suggested that further research was needed. And further research was conducted – by the IOC. Here’s their reaction to the UC Davis investigation:

“For its part, the IOC called the size of the sampling – 52 bottles and 19 brands – to be “not statistically significant”. The statement went on to say that the IOC conducts chemical tests on “some 200 samples of imported oils sold in the United States” each year and, according to IOC findings, anomalies are detected in less than 10% of the imported oils analyzed. Any irregularities are referred to the appropriate association for necessary action. International Olive Council.

In another response to the report, the North American Olive Oil Association together with the IOC, spoke on behalf of all importers regarding the UC Davis report, saying the DAG/PPP methods “are not official chemical methods cited in international olive-oil-specific food or trade standards”.

Chapter two

The second fake olive oil report you didn’t hear about

The UC Davis produced a second report the following year, entitled “Evaluation of Extra Virgin Olive Oil Sold in California”. It was a failed attempt to fix the problems of the original study.

The facts from the sequel to the study you likely didn’t hear about, are:

  • In the July 2010 study, the IOC standards for FAP, PV and ∆K tests were not useful in confirming negative sensory results.
  • Only 52 samples in total were tested. They were only sourced in California, from a few stores across the state. This was hardly representative of the whole of the extra virgin olive oil business.

The same problem regarding industry funding remains in place, as well as the other flaws in the report detailed in the previous section.

Here’s a synopsis of the second fake olive oil report:

70 percent of the samples from the five top-selling imported brands failed the German/Australian 1,2-diacylglycerol content (DAGs) test and 50 percent failed the German/Australian pyropheophytin (PPP) test. All of the 18 samples of the California brand passed the DAGs test and 89 percent of the samples passed the PPP test. The Italian premium brand failed the DAGs and PPP tests in about one-third of the samples. The Australian brand passed the DAGs test in all cases and failed the PPP test in all cases. The results are even more inconsistent than the original report

And the IOC reaction was:

“Both reports have the same evident undercurrent of aggressive, inexplicable criticism of imported olive oil quality”. The IOC Reaction on the 2nd UC Davis Oil Repor

The IOC added that, in 2005-2006, its chemists advised against the testing methods used by UC Davis because they considered them flawed.

A response to the report

The “14 fake olive oil companies” story began to spread and continues to do so today, despite the fact that the study has been thoroughly discredited. This is almost entirely the result of the rise of clickbait: websites which spread sensationalist (and untrue) content hoping to mislead social media users into thinking they were being offered a devastating expose of food-industry shenanigans and where browser visits are monetized. Using headlines that bound to raise eyebrows and even accompanying imagery implying this must be a very dire situation indeed, people share or re-tweet these stories among their friends and followers

According to the study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), fake news is 70 percent more likely to be shared than is authentic news. We knew we needed to bulk up our defense. We had to stop this from multiplying and spreading further.

Chapter three

How bertolli produces real extra virgin olive oil?

First, it’s important to understand exactly what extra virgin olive oil is and how the real judges of quality olive oil see the likes of Bertolli and other reputable names in the industry.

Few important facts about extra virgin olive oil

The difference between extra virgin olive oil and the other classifications of oil is that extra virgin is the highest quality in the business. This is the pinnacle of olive oil and it’s expensive to produce. Here’s what any good extra virgin oil must have:

Few important facts about extra virgin olive oil

    1. No defects at all.
    2. The authentic flavor of olives
    3. No solvents and no degradation.
    4. Each and every step in the production process, beginning with the selection of every olive, shall be monitored with great care.
    5. These oils can be cold-pressed only once, otherwise it would be considered virgin olive oil.

And those are as well, the characteristics of Bertolli extra virgin olive oil.

As of this writing, Deoleo olive oils have received 80 awards and honorable mentions, with Bertolli alone taking home 18 awards just in 2018. The bigger awarding bodies in this number include:

  • London IOOC, the largest European olive oil competition.
  • Japan Olive Oil Awards.
  • Los Angeles Extra Virgin Competition.
  • New York Competition.
  • What this demonstrates is that the one flawed study mentioning the Bertolli brand has had no effect whatsoever on the judgment of the real industry experts. Plus, our millions of loyal customers are testament to the continuing success and quality of Bertolli extra virgin olive oil.

    Chapter four

    Bertolli, real extra virgin olive oil

    Let’s dig into the questions of how real original extra virgin olive oil is made, how to detect its authenticity, and what makes it so special.

    To blend or not to blend? That is the eternal question among the producers of olive oil

    The art of blending is combining different elements and obtaining a result greater than the individual elements.

    There are those who are always ready to mingle the oils and there are the monocultivars, those who insist on absolute purity in the production process and the use of a single-source oil.

    Deoleo, producer of such fine olive oil brands as Bertolli, Carapelli, Carbonell and Koipe (and Figaro in India), has determined that, in fact, there is no correct answer. The choice depends on the objective and, even more so, on market needs. The monocultivars, as well as the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), are adamant about uniqueness in varietal characteristics and territory. They fret about what’s known as “typicality” – conformity to a specific type.

    But the chief drawbacks here are that there’s no consistent, balanced definition of what the senses should be experiencing – the so-called organoleptic profile – or consideration for the loss in quality that can result from sudden changes in climate and parasite attacks when a single-source oil has to be used.

    A quality product begins with the ability to select the most appropriate raw materials without geographical or varietal or even seasonal restrictions. The production of extra virgin olive oil now extends far beyond the Mediterranean basin. Oils have become available from several countries of the Southern Hemisphere, such as Argentina, Chile, Peru and Australia. This means there is still fresh oil when the Mediterranean crop has been harvested.

    But what effect does the introduction of secondary-source oil from different areas at other times of the year have on the finished product? This is where the master blender works his magic – in ensuring that there is no noticeable change in the sensorial profile, regardless of variations in the oils’ origins. It’s his job to combine different oils and yet maintain the same final profile: a balanced oil with well-defined character that’s able to satisfy the different sensory preferences.

    The master blender’s work step by step:

  • STEP 1. Translate the consumer’s needs into a distinctive masterpiece, the brand’s signature. This entails first defining the character of the blend – for example, harmonic, floral, citrus, with fresh herbaceous notes, with a full body, but not too aggressive in the mouth. Or it might have a more decisive character, with notes of artichoke, aromatic herbs, spices and strong bitter and spicy notes on the palate. The balance between the individual sensorial attributes and their respective intensities must be fully imagined at the outset.
  • STEP 2. Choose the components that can make the desired contributions.
  • STEP 3. Hypothesize a recipe.
  • STEP 4. Evaluate the result of the blending and confirm the recipe – or repeat the exercise until the desired result is achieved.
  • Blending is indeed an art that puts olive oil masters to the test, and yet, there are several myths on the subject: What does it mean to combine extra virgin olive oils? How do you ensure the best quality to create these combinations? Is quality linked to the origin of olive oils?

    Anna cane, deoleo master blender, reveals fake olive oil myths.

    The big secret about bertolli extra virgin olive oil

    The reason extra virgin olive oil is so unique is because the extraction process only happens through mechanical means. There are no chemical solvents added, and therefore zero contamination.

    Here’s how the extraction process happens from start to finish:

    How can you detect olive oil brands that are fake?

    The fake olive oil stories online aside, it’s fair for consumers to ask how they can determine if they are purchasing quality olive oil.

    Bertolli can assist by explaining the four steps we go through to make sure we produce exemplary extra virgin olive oil every time. This represents a promise and a guarantee.

  • VISUAL EXAMINATION: A visual examination, defining color and clarity. This step is not required by official panel test rules from above-mentioned guidelines.
  • OLFACTORY EXAMINATION: An olfactory examination, defining intensity and persistence, and positive and negative attributes.
  • GUSTATORY EXAMINATION: A gustatory examination, defining intensity and persistence, and positive and negative attributes.
  • TACTILE EXAMINATION: A tactile examination, defining consistency.
  • The myth of the extra virgin olive oil fridge test

    Unfortunately, another myth that has spread is that you can determine whether it’s extra virgin through the “fridge test”. It’s a falsehood that’s been prominent for years, but now it’s become damaging and misleading.

    The fridge test is quite simple. You place your bottle of olive oil in the fridge and wait for about 30 minutes. If the liquid solidifies, the oil is genuine extra virgin. If it doesn’t, it’s something else.

    In reality, this is inaccurate. Industry experts and the North American Olive Oil Association are on record as saying this is far from a reliable indicator.

    Richard Gawel, eexpert olive oil sampler, explained why the home test simply doesn’t work:. First of all, “Extra virgin olive oils are largely made of monounsaturated fats that coagulate at refrigerator temperatures, while other oils tend to be made of polyunsaturated fats that can only solidify at much lower temperatures – lower than regular refrigerators can reach”.

    That makes sense, but most people forget that extra virgin is not made of just monounsaturated fats. All oils have a combination of fats, so it’s completely false to say that extra virgin will always freeze in the fridge.

    A far better way to prove that your olive oil is extra virgin is to look at what trade bodies around the world are saying about the different olive oils. This way, you know that Bertolli is genuine because its olive oils are consistently winning awards and the medal tally is increasing year on year. No brand is under more scrutiny than Bertolli.

    So, in summary, look at the hype and look at the facts. It’s not difficult to see that something foul is indeed at play with these fake olive oil stories. On the other hand, Bertolli has always been completely transparent regarding the elaboration of our oils and it has been committed, at all times, to the quality and our consumers.