The Tasting Team from OliveOil.com took on the massive olive oil department at Whole Foods Market. In blind tastings by 5 expert olive oil tasters we rank the extra virgin options. Part 1 starts with the lower-priced segment, olive oils costing 22¢ to 38¢/oz.
The selection of olive oils at Whole Foods Market is…. dizzying. The choices vary by region, so we tried to focus on the most widely available brands. The products fell naturally into three price categories so that is how we are presenting the results, in three price-determined categories. We kick off with the lower priced options. You can find Part 2 (mid-price) here, and the high end Part 3 here.
Our tasting process
Before we get into the results, some background about the tastings. All the oils were purchased in late February from a Whole Foods Market in Northern California. We chose products that were also available in other stores in the Midwest and Northeast but we undoubtedly missed some of your favorites. (Let us know in the Comments (below) which olive oil brands you would like the tasting team to review and we’ll add them to the list!) The oils were tasted blind. Coded samples in amber bottles were sent to the team who tasted from warmed regulation blue glasses. Sensory analysis—aka taste testing—by a trained, calibrated taste panel is part of the legal grading process of olive oil. Official olive oil taste panels comprise multiple tasters (a minimum of 8). This allows them to accurately grade olive oil according to its sensory characteristics with much more precision and reliability than a single taster or sommelier. We used five trained olive oil tasters who connected via Zoom due to pandemic restrictions. Each oil was evaluated based on a single bottle purchased off the shelf at Whole Foods. Because EVOO is a natural product, variation between—and even within—lots is always possible. In some cases an oil that gets a low rating may not be representative of the quality of other bottles and lots.
What did the tasting team look for?
In short, the question the tasters asked is “Where would this oil fit in the kitchen?” Tasters focused on numerous characteristics related to usability in the kitchen. Salad? Sautéing? Finishing/drizzling? In some cases, the consensus was that the oil could be used for all purposes. In other cases, the oils got more limited ratings due to sharp aromas of overripe fruit or other faults, and the tasters agreed they were better for cooking rather than raw applications because subtle faults disappear when the oil is heated. Don't panic if your usual olive oil shows up with a mediocre score: as folks who taste olive oil professionally, the tasting team has much more stringent standards than most of us. They are also sipping the oils straight from a glass with no other flavors or ingredients. Although tasting olive oil “neat” is essential for accurately assessing its subtle flavors and especially its faults, it’s not the way most people consume olive oil! So an oil that didn’t impress our team might be fine in a mixture with other ingredients like garlic, herbs and lemon juice. And it would certainly be good for cooking.
Intensity and fruitiness.
To help you figure out whether an oil is the right one for your taste or a particular dish, the team provides an intensity rating and notes on the character of the olive fruit. More intensity indicates a higher level of bitter and peppery flavors. Bitterness is a positive flavor in olive oil—it is not a sign of rancidity—and is a great flavor enhancer. Pepperiness (or pungency as it is known in olive oil tasting circles) is a throat-catching or mouth-warming spiciness. Bitterness and pepperiness are a sign of the presence of healthful polyphenols so give them a chance! The type of fruitiness present is indicated on our ripe-green slider, and in the tasting notes. Note that in olive oil, fruitiness is a broad category that includes vegetative notes like fresh-cut grass and tomato leaf on the green side, and buttery on the ripe side—it's not just bananas and green apples.
How fresh does the oil taste?
Olive oil freshness seems like it should be easy: young = fresh, older = not so fresh. It ends up that it’s not always that simple. Although virtually all newly-made oils will taste fresh, how well they age varies widely. Almost all the oils for this tasting came from the 2019 harvest and they ranged from really fresh tasting to pretty tired. "Tired" is how tasters refer to a general flattening of the flavors due to natural oxidation, and when advanced, it may leave a slightly greasy after-effect in the mouth. This is an oil that is beginning to show its age, but that’s not yet rancid. And an oil that is “tired” may not be as bright or intense as it once was, but it will still have plenty of use in the kitchen.
The Tasting Team
All current or former members of an official olive oil taste panel and international and/or domestic olive oil competition judges, our tasting team brings a variety of skills and experience in olive oil and the culinary world. The olive oil tasting team for this evaluation included: Nancy Lilly,Deborah Rogers, Glenn Weddell, Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne and Sandy Sonnenfelt.
What did we find?
The lower-priced segment of the Whole Foods olive oil assortment is dominated by private label. Only one branded product fell into this price range. There are two private label lines, the ubiquitous 365, and the Whole Foods Market (WFM) line. The WFM brand is generally more expensive—all are priced at 38¢/oz—while the 365 brand ranges from 22¢ to 51¢/oz. That 51¢/oz outlier actually fell into the next price category so it isn’t covered in this tasting; you'll find it in Part 2.
The WFM label provides more information about the olive oils than the 365 label. In all cases, they are from a single country of origin, and sometimes from a particular region. They also call out the variety of olive(s) used in several cases, something we like a lot. The 365 line also cites country of origin on the front label in most cases, with two products featuring a “Mediterranean Blend” designated on the back label as coming from Greece, Tunisia and Italy. Only the 365 100% California Unfiltered included a Harvest Date on the bottle. Since this information is missing on the other products, we cannot know for sure when the oil was actually produced. Commonly the Best Before date is 18 to 24 months from bottling which is usually within the year after production. The Mediterranean olive oil harvest takes place in fall and winter (usually from late September to January).
The one branded product that landed in our lower-priced category—Terra Delyssa Organic from Tunisia—features a QR code on the label that allows the purchaser to trace the bottle to the region where the olives originated. There is also a record of bottling and testing dates, but unfortunately, not the harvest date. This is a good trend, and as more consumers demand traceability, this will probably continue. We would have liked to see the cultivar(s) of olives included in the available information. Olive varieties are an important part of understanding olive oil and we’d like to see it become a standard part of the conversation.
Whole Foods Market Extra Virgin Olive Oil of Morocco (1L)
Morocco, Packed in Italy
Ripe olive, floral, herbaceous, green banana and hay notes with nutty, tropical and stone fruit undertones. Moderate bitterness and pungency
365 California Unfiltered Extra Virgin Olive Oil (1L)
Ripe olive, floral and nutty ripe notes, with hay, green banana and herbaceous green notes. Good balance and some complexity.
365 Italian Unfiltered Extra Virgin Olive Oil (1L)
Mild with mix of ripe and green notes: herbaceous, ripe olive, nutty, floral, buttery, grassy, hay.
Whole Foods Market Extra Virgin Olive Oil of Seville (1L)
Lots of varietal character–if you like it, you'll love it. Ripe and green fruit: ripe olive, grassy, tomato leaf, mint, floral, nutty. Good structure.
Whole Foods Market Extra Virgin Olive Oil of Portugal (1L)
Lots of ripe fruit flavors: ripe olive, buttery, nutty, banana. Green herbaceous/leafy notes. Getting tired.
Terra Delyssa Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil (1L)
Mostly ripe flavors: buttery, ripe olive, nutty. Some leafy green undertones. Getting tired.
365 Organic Mediterranean Extra Virgin Olive Oil (1L)
Greece, Italy, Tunisia, Packed in Italy
Mostly ripe: ripe olive, nutty, floral, buttery. Hay/straw and leafy green undertones. Some overripe aromas. Balanced bitter and peppery character. Getting tired.
Whole Foods Market Extra Virgin Olive Oil of Italy (1L)
Ripe flavors dominate: ripe olive, nutty, buttery, with some green hay and herbaceous notes. Some overripe character.
365 Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil (1L)
Mostly ripe flavors: ripe olive, nutty, buttery. Some herbaceous and grassy green notes. Some overripe character. Getting tired.
Whole Foods Market Extra Virgin Olive Oil of Greece (1L)
Ripe olive and nutty dominate, some tropical and floral. Also leafy and hay/straw notes. Some overripe character.
365 Extra Virgin Olive Oil Mediterranean Blend (1L)
Italy, Tunisia, Greece
Lots of overripe character. Ripe olive, nutty, leafy notes. Some bitterness and pepper. Tired.
365 Greek Extra Virgin Olive Oil (1L)
Ripe and overripe fruit dominates. Ripe olive, floral, buttery. Tired.
365 Spanish Extra Virgin Olive Oil (1L)
Some ripe olive, floral and leafy notes. Overripe character dominates. Moderate bitterness and pepper.