Ah, olive oil. This “liquid gold” has been around for centuries and is loved by food fans all around the globe. It is a staple of the Mediterranean diet, which helps people lose weight, strengthen their hearts, and lower their blood pressure. It tastes marvelous in salad dressing but is equally delicious as a dip for bread. Olive oil is a lot like wine, in that its color depends on where the olives are grown, how rich the oil is, and what the growing region’s weather is like.
When you go shopping for olive oil you are presented with plenty of choices. One school of thought says that the greener the oil, the better the flavor. Others think that more golden color is best. The most important question to consider is this: does the olive oil’s color really matter? And if so, which one should you choose?
In this article, we clarify all you need to know about the different colors of olive oil, and how color affects taste. We’re going to bust some persistent myths out there about what these different colors mean, and whether they truly do impact the taste. Can you tell an olive oil’s quality just by looking? We’ll get to that, too!
Why does olive oil come in different colors?
Olive oil’s color is determined by two pigments. One is green, called chlorophyll, and the other is called carotenoids, which are yellow. These pigments have received a whole lot of attention because scientists are learning so much about all the health benefits they offer.
Chlorophyll plays a vital role in turning plants green and helping them become lush and healthy. It contains plenty of vitamins and antioxidants, meaning it helps inhibit cancer cells, as experts are learning. Studies have also discovered that chlorophyll specifically helps fight the development of cancer cells in the intestines, which is where problems like colon cancer arise.
Carotenoids are pigments found not just in plants, but also in algae and photosynthetic bacteria. They are what causes the orange and red shades found in certain vegetables, plants, and fruits. It’s also a kind of antioxidant, and some of the more than 600 types of carotenoids become vitamins when in the human body. All of this is to say that both carotenoids and chlorophyll are extremely beneficial!
Olive oil comes in a surprising array of colors, everything from dark green to golden yellow. When olives are harvested early, the chlorophyll is particularly intense, and that makes the oil a dark green hue. As the harvest continues, the olive oil’s color changes to a somewhat lighter, brighter green shade.
The kind of olive oil you’re buying – virgin, extra virgin, and so on — also alters the final color. Some olives make for light oil, while others produce darker oil. The color is affected, too, by pigments in the flesh and skin, which are pressed into an olive paste, a delicious ingredient in, for example, olive pomade, a marvelous dip eaten with crackers, vegetables, or bread slices.
Is green olive oil the best?
Neither golden yellow nor dark green signals the quality of the oil. Green simply reflects the content of chlorophyll. It is a myth that the greener the oil the better the taste, but some disreputable business people and companies take advantage of consumer ignorance and insist their oil is best because of its green color. That simply isn’t true! Furthermore, chlorophyll can be added during production, artificially changing the color and thereby duping unsuspecting buyers.
Getting back to our analogy of oil and wine: oil must be judged by its flavor, not its color. However, like wine, the color of olive oil does give away some clues about its taste. Generally speaking, greener oils are fruitier, and perhaps a little grassy. Yellow or golden olive oil usually has a spicier, stronger flavor, so the one you choose should be determined by your taste preference, not color.
So, let us say this again: the color of olive oil doesn’t determine its quality. Here’s a little trivia you’ll enjoy: professional judges, when tasting olive oil, use a blue-tinted glass, so they can’t tell what shade the oil they’re trying is! That way, what they see cannot unduly influence what they report about flavor.
Why does time affect the color of olive oil?
Olive oil color is determined by how long the fruit ripens before harvest. However, even once the olives are pressed and the oil is bottled, the color changes over time.
There is one simple reason for this: improper storage, which leaves the olive oil vulnerable to heat, moisture, and air.
Exposure to light, heat, and oxygen is what changes the color of olive oil
One study in Australia discovered that these environmental factors are terrible for olive oil, all of them impacting it negatively. When olive oil is “bruised” by these things, its taste changes, and so does its color – and not for the better! That’s why it’s so important you keep your olive oil in a dark pantry or cupboard, away from potentially damaging sources of light, air, and heat.
Time is olive oil’s enemy too, as it becomes rancid if left on a shelf for too long. In fact, olive oil that’s gone “off” smells a lot like kids’ crayons or even stale peanuts. Tasting it brings to mind a pumpkin, of all things, and its rich flavor and fruitiness will be long gone. Best to dispose of it quickly.
When you buy your next bottle of olive oil, store it at about 60 – 72 degrees (F). And remember – the darker the storage spot, the better!
How chlorophyll and carotenoids degrade
Keeping your olive oil in the dark is a way of protecting it, in a sense. Light, however, ruins color and flavor quite quickly.
If your oil is left out in the light – for example on a shelf without a door – it may become a kind of red-orange color. Oxidation causes chlorophyll and carotenoids to dissipate, and in time the green color fades and becomes pale.
Leave it long enough, and the wonderful smell and taste will be ruined. If this happens, dispense with the oil and consider it a lesson in gastronomy!
If you don’t use color as a buying guide, then what?
If color isn’t the way to choose olive oil, what is? According to even the most expert tasters, color is not a proper indicator of quality, so what should be your guiding principle?
First, choose an olive oil that comes in a stainless steel container, or a dark glass bottle, rather than a see-through glass bottle. That’s because the steel is opaque, meaning that light cannot penetrate the container and influence the taste of the oil. The same goes for the dark glass.
Shopping for olive oil at a market that allows you to sample it before purchasing it is the ideal way to buy your oil. Experts say that extra virgin olive oil offers the greatest range of flavors, everything from fruitiness to nuttiness, a light buttery taste to an herbal tang. Professional olive oil judges are the first to say that oil cannot be judged by the eye alone – the best tools at your disposal are your other senses, your taste buds, and your nose. Aroma and flavor are the sure-fire best ways of judging any olive oil.
If the oil tastes smooth, lively, fresh, and clean on your tongue, you’ve got yourself a winner!
Olive oil can taste bold and flavourful, or understated and mild, but no matter what, it shouldn’t be so strong that it overwhelms your palate. If it does, that’s a signal that the oil is off, and it’s time for you to toss it because it’s rancid.
Check the dates on the container of oil you’re purchasing; no matter what European country it comes from, you can likely decipher the information, even if it’s in Italian, Greek, or Spanish. That information likely tells you when the olives were harvested. The best producers put a harvest date front and center on their labels, and you should heed that date as a guide for using the oil. Admittedly you cannot always know if the dates refer to the harvest or the production of the oil, but use your best guess and that’ll tell you how fresh it is.
No matter the color, green or gold or a shade in between, most olive oils are equally good. The color of the olive oil changes solely because of the amount of pigment in it; color has nothing to do with quality. If you choose a high-quality oil and store it properly – no heat, light, or oxygen, remember? – your olive oil will taste wonderful for months to come if you have it that long! Most folks who love olive oil cook with it almost daily, and have to replenish their supply within a month or so. If you store it properly, your olive oil will taste great for weeks. Olive oil has a lot of uses and is good for you. There aren’t many foods that can make that claim, but olive oil scores a 10 on all counts!