I don’t know about you, but we get through a lot of olive oil in our house. As big fans of fats, we use the good green stuff for dressings, dips, sautéing and baking, and even to clear cradle cap! Olive oil is extremely versatile, but not all olive oil is created sustainably. Here are my picks for the best eco-friendly olive oil, plus tips on choosing olive oil that’s healthy for you and the planet.
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How to buy delicious olive oil
It’s a confusing business to choose olive oil in the grocery store. There are so many bottles and tins vying for your dollars and, frankly, most of them look almost exactly the same. So, how to buy delicious olive oil that is also sustainable?
First, know that olives and olive oil are inherently more eco-friendly than a lot of other fats. They require a lot less energy and water (about half that of almonds!) to grow, and you don’t have to refrigerate them or use cold-chain transport. And, unlike animal fats, olive oil doesn’t have massive amounts of associated methane emissions or inefficient nutrient conversion. Oh, and olive oil is mechanically (naturally) extracted rather than chemically extracted using solvents that can be harmful to the environment.
See also: Why avocados aren’t eco-friendly
With all that out of the way, let’s look at the difference between olive oil and extra virgin olive oil.
Extra virgin olive oil vs. olive oil
In short, a bottle of ‘olive oil’ is a bottle of refined and treated olive oil that is likely homogenized, meaning the subtleties of flavor have been stripped away. This oil is typically lighter in color and has a much milder flavor. Genuine extra virgin olive oil, in contrast, is intensely tested to ensure quality from picking to processing and through to bottling.
Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) can also be homogenized. Bigger producers often mix together different varieties of olives (all extra-virgin) from different countries. However, like with coffee, EVOO offers an opportunity for single origin products. Producers label these with the olive varietal or the estate where the olives grew. Ideally, the pressing and bottling happens on site, to preserve freshness and minimize associated transport emissions.
Most olive oil comes from Italy, Greece, and Spain, though California also boasts some beautiful olive farms, as do Chile and Australia. As with most things, olive oil from olives grown closer to home is usually better in terms of climate footprint.
Finally, when shopping for olive oil, check for freshness. Most oil starts to spoil around 12 months after the olives are harvested. By 18 months, it’s typically rancid and only usable for non-culinary purposes. Olive oil expiration dates are confusing though. The date is typically based on when the oil was bottled, not when it was harvested. This means the oil may have been sitting around for months before bottling, giving you less time to use it after purchase. If possible, look for a harvest date instead of an expiration date.
The environmental impact of olive oil production
The nutritional make-up of olive oil doesn’t vary hugely between organic and non-organic, but nutrition isn’t my only consideration when choosing healthier olive oil. Why? Because there’s a huge environmental impact associated with the dramatic expansion in olive oil production worldwide.
In Mediterranean countries, for instance, reports suggest that non-organic olive oil production has led to large-scale soil erosion. Olive oil farming is also threatening local ecology in Italy, Spain, and other countries in the region.
Most of the world’s olive oil comes from Andalusia. Olives gobble up a whopping 30% of the agricultural land of Andalusia and 59% of the total olive grove land in Spain. This also accounts for 30% of the total olive grove land in the European Union, or 1.5 million hectares.
Traditional methods of olive oil production actually promoted biodiversity. Farmers used low-intensity practices, few (or no) agrochemicals, and had beautiful olive groves boasting old olive trees surrounded by herbaceous plants in areas with a variety of other land-uses.
This ‘ecological richness’ has been lost in recent years, due to modern, intensive, olive farming practices. Most olive oil now comes from farms that are larger, single-crop, and reliant on machinery and pesticides. The soil is largely uncovered, resulting in massive soil erosion and a loss of nutrients, biodiversity, and sustainability.
Mono-cropping also tends to require larger inputs of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to overcome issues that simply don’t arise on permaculture farms.
How to choose more eco-friendly olive oil
When you’re buying olive oil, consider more than just the immediate health benefits. Going organic helps farmers invest in sustainable practices. It helps nutrients stay in the soil and the oil is not contaminated with pesticides. It is also better for water conservation, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration (as the soil is a major carbon sink that releases carbon when eroded).
Sadly, most olive oil comes from big agriculture firms such as Unilever and Mitsubishi. These companies have demonstrated little inclination to protect the environment. Instead, they put short-term profits over long-term health and sustainability. These companies also have terrible records on animal welfare, and Unilever is notorious for complaints regarding workers’ rights. Mitsubishi, meanwhile, is allegedly involved in nuclear and armament activities.
Most grocery store shelves display olive oil from brands such as Flora and Olivia, which are subsidiaries of Unilever and Mitsubishi. Given their parent company ethics, it’s hard to consider these brands as eco-friendly. Instead, choose one of the brands above, and help support the environment and your family’s health.
Sustainable olive oil packaging
It’s best to store olive oil in an opaque container made of glass or tin. These containers won’t leach chemicals into the fats during storage, unlike plastic. You can also easily recycle glass and tin. The downside is that glass is heavy to ship and is liable to break if not properly transported and stored.
If you use a lot of olive oil, the best approach is usually to buy a big tin that you can eventually recycle. Store this tin in a cool, dark place and decant small amounts of oil into an opaque dispenser that you keep in your kitchen for immediate use. If you don’t have room to store a big can of olive oil, try to find a local zero-waste store and take your own small opaque bottle to refill instead. This will ensure fresher oil and help reduce waste and energy involved in shipping and recycling bottles.
Another option is to collectively buy a big can of olive oil and then decant some for friends and family. This way, you’re more likely to use the oil before it goes rancid. Bulk orders also helps reduce overall packaging and shipping, as well as money. If you bought a tin and aren’t sure you’ll get through it all as cooking oil, consider turning some into soap or other body care products.
At all costs, avoid buying olive oil in plastic bottles. These almost always end up in landfills. If you do have a plastic bottle, check for a PET #1 symbol and recycle this along with similar plastic containers. Avoid bottles with a #3 symbol as these are much harder to recycle. Don’t refill #1 or #3 bottles or reuse other plastic containers as these plastics degrade quickly and can leach nasty chemicals such as BPA and phthalates into your cooking oil.
Whichever package of olive oil you buy, don’t commit the culinary sin of storing the oil right by your stovetop. This is the ideal place to ruin the olive with heat and light exposure, meaning your oil will start tasting nasty and you’re more likely to waste it!
The best eco-friendly organic olive oil
Highlights: Award-winning extra virgin olive oil freshly bottled on estate within 24 hours. Made from handpicked, heritage olive varietals nurtured by a Sicilian B Corp and 1% for the Planet member.
Olive oil doesn’t get much more sustainable than Bona Furtuna. The company is a freshly minted (January 2022) B Corporation and 1% for the Planet member. Its operations are located within a biopreserve in the Sicani Mountain region of Sicily. And Bona Furtuna uses exclusively organic practices to nurture more than 12,000 olive trees, some up to 1,500 years old.
The entire farm is certified organic, with a focus on permaculture practices and the promotion of biodiversity. The company uses olive oil harvest waste to nurture the soil, polyculture with crop rotation, pollinator-friendly planting, and has free-roaming animals across the estate. The La Furtuna Estate is fed by spring waters flowing from Mt. Barraù, and the company uses solar energy to power farming operations.
Indeed, the company’s master botanist rediscovered and helped propagate an ancient olive varietal, the Biancolilla Centinara (meaning “ancient white lilac”). Through a partnership with Slow Food’s Sicilian chapter, the company helped to plant 400 rare, heirloom olive trees throughout the region and plans to plant 1,000 more in 2022. Bona Furtuna also helped develop community gardens and engages in youth education. It is clearly committed to supporting local job creation and the local economy to preserve Sicilian culture.
The company won three gold medals at the 2021 EVO IOOC (International Olive Oil Contest) along with numerous other awards. Its Heritage Blend is a fully organic, single-estate olive oil created from olives from trees up to 1,000 years old. Ideal for salad, pasta, fresh-baked bread, and more, this premium EVOO is bottled on estate within 24 hours of the olive harvest. The farmers handpick the olives, mill them mechanically, and cold-extract the oil without solvents.
Bona Furtuna offers a subscribe and save (10%) option – you need never run out of delicious sustainable olive oil again!
LeafScore is based in Jackson, WY, a city where, believe it or not, Bona Furtuna has a big presence. Several local stores in Jackson carry Bona Furtuna, and the company hosted a pizza making event at this year’s Farm to Fork Festival, put on by Slow Food in the Tetons. We were able to sample olive oil, and balsamic from Bona Furtuna, and learn more about their sustainability practices first-hand from members of the Bona Furtuna team.
Highlights: Sustainable company with a circular economy approach, producing certified organic olive oil in Italy within 24 hours of harvest.
Farchioni EVOO comes from organic olives grown and processed using cold-extraction in Italy within 24 hours of harvesting. The EVOO is fruity, bitter, light, and a touch spicy with an emerald green color. Farchioni processes the olive oil entirely in Italy and the oil carries organic certification from the Institute for Ethical and Environmental Certification (ICEA).
The Farchioni family has been making food and beverage products since 1780 and specializes in olive oil, wine, beer, and flour. The products all originate in Umbria, with a fully controlled supply chain and a focus on environmental and social sustainability.
The company practices ‘peasant sustainability’ and ‘open self-sufficiency’. This means it tries to be zero-waste and nurtures a holistic ecosystem while producing quality food for sale. Farchioni is very open about its approach including the use of animal and agricultural waste to nourish soil and the consideration of all life cycle stages when packaging products.
The company published its first substantial and audited sustainability report in 2020 in accordance with best practices through the Global Reporting Initiative. In 2020 it also began to assess where company practices line up with the United Nations Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs), creating opportunities for improvement going forward.
This reporting found no potential negative impacts on global sustainability as a result of Farchioni’s activities. Indeed, Farchioni’s approach maximizes regeneration within a circular economy, offering consumers outside the circle only the finished product in efficient packaging.
Farchioni does ship to the US, but it’s quite expensive. As such, I’d recommend buying in bulk along with neighbors, friends, and/or family.
Highlights: Organic olive oil from olives grown, milled, and bottled in California as part of a huge organic ranch.
McEvoy Ranch is a huge organic ranch in Petaluma, California. It began with olive oil and now produces wine, skincare products, and CBD too. All the oils are certified organic by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). Milling, blending, and bottling all happen on-ranch.
McEvoy Ranch offers an Organic Traditional Blend of seven Italian olive varietals as well as Olio Nuovo which is only available for a few months after each autumn’s harvest. They bottle the oil right away, without filtering. The oil is peppery, rich, and vibrant green. McEvoy also releases a Limited Edition reserve oil in late spring. This is a blend of that season’s harvest, which could include Frantoio, Leccino, Pendolino, Moraiolo, Maurino, Coratina, and Leccio del Corno varietals.
The company is a member of the Olive Oil Commission of California (OOCC) and the Extra Virgin Alliance (EVA), a worldwide olive oil producers’ group. It uses organic farming as a baseline and strives to create a self-sufficient, balanced agricultural ecosystem. This means embracing local flora and fauna, minimizing off-ranch waste, and reducing water consumption using drip irrigation from rain-fed, surface-run-off ponds instead of ground water. The farmers also turn olive oil harvest waste and water into compost and mix this with livestock manure.
McEvoy also uses a traditional Agrumato process to produce flavored oils where fruit or herbs are co-milled with the olives. The ranch offers tours and tasting room visits and for most American customers, this California olive ranch is a more sustainable choice than importing oil from Europe or elsewhere.
McEvoy Ranch has been farming organically since the 1990s. It was the first certified B Corp olive oil producer in the world (in 2014), but the company’s B Corp status seems to have lapsed. I’ve contacted them to ask for a status update.
Highlights: Artisanal organic olive oil from Sicily, grown as part of a co-op, and packaged in recyclable tin.
La Tourangelle is a small French artisan oil maker that set up a branch in California in 2002. The family-owned company sent a hydraulic press, cast iron roasting kettles, and one of its own, Matthieu Kohlmeyer, to oversee operations.
La Tourangelle Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil is a USDA Organic cold-pressed oil made from Picual olives from Spain. According to the company, the oil has “hints of freshly cut grass, almond, fresh olive leaves and a bright peppery finish.” The oil is the result of early season harvesting of olive in Andalusia, Spain.
Specifically, these olives grow in Puente de Genave, a region of the Natural Park of the Sierra de Segura in Spain. Many families own the trees as a cooperative. This ensures that profits from the olives supports the local community. It also encourages all owners to continue with their organic, traditional form of agriculture.
This oil is high in polyphenol antioxidants and oleic acid, by dint of the olives growing in a mountainous area where the trees experience some natural stress. The oil may be more stable due to this high antioxidant content.
The company’s products are all non-GMO certified and packaged in BPA-free food grade tins. These tins are recyclable and help prevent oxidation and light exposure. La Tourangelle offers a subscription service and one-time purchases.
Highlights: Traceable, organic, single-source EVOO from Tunisian olives and packed in BPA-free tin in Italy.
Madhava is a honey company that got its start in 1973 in Colorado. It now offers honeys, agave, olive oil and other products. The company has won several awards from the Clean Label Project for high purity standards and high antioxidant content. The products are third-party tested and free of pesticides and around 130 other potentially hazardous contaminants.
Madhava packs all products in BPA-free containers. Its Organic Olive Oil comes in a one-liter tin. This oil is traceable, cold-extracted, non-GMO, and Extra-Virgin. It is USDA Organic certified and made using olives from a single source in Tunisia with packing in Sicily.
Highlights: Readily available, affordable, organic extra virgin olive oil blend packed in plastic.
Kirkland Signature’s Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil is packaged in a dark plastic two-liter container for a very affordable price. While you’re not likely to use this as a fancy dipping oil, it works well for cooking and baking.
The oil is certified organic and comes from olives from Italy, Portugal, and Spain. It is the first cold-pressed oil from these olives and is a good choice if you tend to use a lot of olive oil. Given the plastic container, though, I wouldn’t buy this if it takes your household more than a few weeks to get through two liters of oil. And you’ll definitely want to store the oil in a cool, dark place.
Highlights: Readily available brand of organic EVOO now packaged in plastic instead of glass.
Filipo Berio is a widely available brand at many grocery stores and produces both organic and non-organic olive oil. The labels look very similar, so check twice before buying!
The Filipo Berio USDA Organic certified EVOO is made using the first cold pressing of olives. This EVOO has a medium fruity flavor with almond and green tomato notes.
The brand has been around for some 150 years and used to be my go-to for grocery store olive oil. Unfortunately, Filipo Berio has stopped using glass bottles for its oils. Instead, it now uses PET bottles that are BPA-free. The company explained the switch as a result of data showing that the plastic is fully recyclable and requires 60% less energy to make compared to glass. The plastic bottles also weigh less than glass, making for a reduction in transport associated energy use. These plastic bottles may also be easier and safer for some customers, and workers, to handle.
While I used to regularly buy Organic EVOO from Filipo Berio, I stopped when they switched to plastic bottles. It’s still likely much better than most other brands, but I’d avoid any oil on the top shelf of a store or that is close to expiry.