Trader Joe's Extravirgins (and Floozies)

 

Since starting my supermarket oils guide, I've received dozens of requests for an opinion on Trader Joe's olive oil offerings.  Earlier this month I finally visited a Trader Joe's store in Spokane, Washington, where I bought six oils and tasted them at home.  Results were mixed.

The Good News:  The Premium 100% Greek Kalamata was quite good at an excellent price, and two other oils – the California Estate and the Premium Extra Virgin – were authentic extra virgins and good values.  (Details on each oil below.)

The Bad News:  I was sorry to see that Trader Joe's sometimes plays the same marketing bait and switch as many other supermarkets.  One of the oils was labeled "Trader Giotto's" and "packed in Itay," yet in fine print in back, lasered onto the glass, was the message that it was a blend of "oils from Italy, Spain, Greece, Tunisia".  None of the bottles mentioned the specific place where the olives were grown, the name of the grower, or the harvest date, all of which consumers should know.  In 4 of 6 products, the olive cultivar was not identified, likewise important information.  Also, in all but 1 case the Best By Date (BBD) was much too distant:  even the good oils I tasted will go bad long before they reach these dates.

Worst of all, 3 out of the 6 oils I tasted were defective, meaning that they shouldn't be labeled "extra virgin" in the first place.

Premium 100% Greek Kalamata

1 liter for $8.99

Aroma:  spicy, complex, very fresh

Flavor:  nice mature fruit, real zing of pungency, pleasant bitterness, a gentle nutmeg-like spiciness

Label:  "Earthy flavor, delicate aroma, smooth finish."  Don't know what any of this means, and "earthy" isn't exactly what you'd want in olive oil (in fact, it's a defect).  But I really liked this oil.

Miscellaneous: Nice deep green color, very agreeable mouthfeel (pleasantly pasty)

BBD 02/10/2014 (credible)

 

California Estate Olive Oil

500 ml for $5.99

Aroma:  very full ripe fruit

Flavor:  typical of well-made arbequina: gentle, balanced, sweetish in a good way, quite spicy finish

Label:  identifies the olive cultivar (arbequina), which is important information.  "Lively olive flavor, mild peppery finish" (I agree with the latter, at least).  But no BBD visible on the bottle, which is a big demerit, especially since this oil, like most arbequinas, will probably deteriorate fast

 

Premium Extra Virgin

946 ml for $7.99

Aroma: full ripe fruit aroma, a little tired

Flavor: no appreciable bitterness, pleasant pungency (gentle and persistent burn), quite flat and bland, faintly sweet, tastes of arbequina, very fluid in the mouth

Label:  imported from Italy, packed in the USA.  Made from oils made in Italy, Spain, Argentina and Greece.  "Robust, fruity flavor.  Full bodied taste.  Fragrant and smooth."  Sadly, little of this is actually true:  I'll go along with smooth, and somewhat fragrant, but that's about it

Miscellaneous:  Intense green color

BBD June 2015:  This oil is already mature.  There is NO WAY it will be good 2 years from now.

 

Trader José's 100% Spanish Organic

500 ml for $5.99

Aroma: obvious winey-vinegary defect.  This isn't extra virgin olive oil.

Flavor: winey-vinegary defect, also slight fustiness, unpleasant and imbalanced.  No appreciable pepper, virtually no bitter, almost no fruitiness

Color: brownish, straw-colored (can see why they put in green glass bottle)

BBD 04-2015.  If this oil is defective already, it will be appalling in 20 more months.

 

Trader Giotto's Extra Virgin Olive Oil

500 ml for $3.99

Aroma:  Faint ripe olive, very flat and tired - not fresh.  There's a noticeable winey-vinegary defect, so it's not extra virgin olive oil at all.

Flavor:  winey-vinegary defect, as well as a hint of mold.  Faint but unpleasant bitterness, zero complexity.  This oil is DOA.

Label:  The familiar marketing game:  label says "Packed in Italy," though the fine print on the back of the bottle informs you that it's made "with oils from Italy, Spain, Greece, Tunisia."

BBD 10/17/14  Like before, if it's bad now, think what 14 months will do to it.

 

Trader Giotto's 100% Italian President's Reserve

1 liter for $6.99

Aroma:  strong winey-vinegary defect

Flavor:  unpleasant bitterness, very stale, little to no fruit flavors.  Strong winey-vinegary defect, so it's not extra virgin grade in the first place

Label:  "Made from select olives and is cold pressed to provide a distinctive aroma, taste and an intense fruity flavor."  All of which is pure marketing malarkey.  Says the olives were grown in Puglia, Sicily, and Calabria, so "Product of Italy" seems appropriate here

BBD 10/30/14  Once again, the oil is defective now, so what it will be like in 14 months doesn't bear thinking about.

 

 

CONCLUSIONS

It's great to find a large-scale retail chain selling good-quality oils at very competitive prices.  One of them, anyhow: I found the Premium 100% Greek Kalamata oil a standout.  Still, a company with a reputation for food expertise should do better.  Think what Trader Joe's could do to spread the good word about great olive oil, if they got serious about oil quality.  And in more commercial terms, think what a competitive advantage some drop-dead-gorgeous extra virgins could become for them - "Trader Joe's promises you the real deal in olive oil!"

Truth in Olive Oil calls on Trader Joe's to take a stand on extravirginity, for the sake of their customers.

Comments

thanks for this trader joe's

thanks for this trader joe's primer. i will pass the info on to everyone i know who shops at joe's.
i can't get a liter of oil to last beyond a few weeks and can not imagine buying one today that would be around my kitchen in 2015.

I have bought oil a couple

I have bought oil a couple times from Amphora Nueva, located in Berkley CA. I get together with a couple others and that helps reduce the shipping cost. We are all very satisfied with the oils from them. Check out their website http://amphoranueva.com/ good luck

Wow! I am so glad I found

Wow! I am so glad I found this website. I buy only olive oil for salads & some cooking. I shop a lot at TJ. I know now not to buy TJ Giotto Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
I have notice that it has a bitten taste when I put some on a salad. I thought it was the salad greens. I would like to try the one at Costco Toscano Signature is it the real deal?

Trader Joe's has one other

Trader Joe's has one other organic: "Trader Giotto's 100% Italian Organic" EVOO, 500 ml for $5.99. Labeled "Cold Pressed, Product of Italy". Has a BBD (14 months after purchase).

I personally like it a lot, although I don't have any sensory training -- just a general love of good food. I usually prefer to buy organic, for several reasons, and for EVOO I also hope that the scrutiny of organic certification might slightly reduce the likelihood of adulteration. To my mind, this product is a great value for organic. That said, I'd love for Tom to give it a proper taste test.

I just came back from TJ

I just came back from TJ where I checked out the oils, but did not buy. I came home hoping to find some info on your site, and you covered all. Thanks so much. You have no idea how much your work helps us.

Before your book I happily

Before your book I happily bought olive oil from TJ's. After your book, I was skeptical so I only bought it for cooking. I see my skepticism was warranted, it was one of the ones that scored poorly. I will be buying the Greek Kalamata next time.

Thanks Tom!

Ciao Tom,

Ciao Tom,

I'm a big fan but I have some questions.

Don't you find it a little strange that the 100% Kalamata EVOO that you liked so much had a flavor description that was completely different than as you described it? You even said it's described as earthy when this is a sign of a defect. Shouldn't a company that makes EVOO know this and not market it accordingly?

In addition, I've just read your book and remember that you said "cold-pressed" olive oil is largely a marketing ploy as the vast majority of olive oils are made with centrifuges now. Do you think it's actually likely that a mass produced oil like this would be "cold-pressed"?

Finally, if this really is cold-pressed EVOO, how do they sell it retail for $8.99 for a liter when other EVOOs run much higher per liter? I guess what I'm also wondering is what would you give this on a scale of 1-10, or in a category of good, very good, excellent oils?

Thanks

Hi Adrienne,

Hi Adrienne,

I am not a trained taster like Tom, and have not tasted any ZOE oil nor seen any chemistry on it. I will note that the favorable review in the NY Times ("Pouring It On: Extra Virgin Oil as a Staple") was not for all ZOE oil, but for one lot of one of their products, produced in 1997, and that it's not clear whether the author (who gave a one-woman review) has any training in olive oil tasting. So it's not necessarily an endorsement to which I personally would give much weight, one way or the other.

Would you please review Napa

Would you please review Napa Valley Naturals? I really like their Rich and Robust, but I believe in using organic whenever possible, so I usually buy their Organic. These are not cheap olive oils, about $15 for 750ml, so I only buy them on sale for $10 and stock up. They are readily available at New Season, which is a small supermarket chain in Oregon, but I think that other stores may carry the brand, also. Thank you very much!

To be labeled EVO doesn't the

To be labeled EVO doesn't the oil have to have no defects (as detected by a trained person) but also meet certain chemical analysis criteria as well (I thought I read that in the book last year). How can you rate and confirm/deny that an oil listed here is EVO without this chemical analysis?

John, I think you've answered

John, I think you've answered your own question. To be labeled EVOO, the oil must have BOTH no defects (as detected by a trained person) AND also meet certain chemical analysis criteria as well. If it fails on the sensory defects (as detected by a trained person like Tom), it doesn't matter what the chemistry panel says: it flunks on the defect score alone. Equally, even if a panelist detects no defects, an oil can fail on any one of the several chemical tests. Either way, it could not be properly labeled extra-virgin olive oil.

And actually, part of the problem in the olive oil industry is that the "official" chemistry markers endorsed by the Int'l Olive Commission do a fairly poor job of detecting oil that is, by taste, defective. One of the many good reasons why Australia has adopted two new chemical tests (DAGs and PPP) — and why the American and South African industries, as well as German and American oil chemists' societies are pushing for them to be adopted — is that they do a much better job of picking up oils that have taste defects. You can see this, for instance, in the first of the University of California at Davis' Olive Center's olive oil market survey:
http://olivecenter.ucdavis.edu/news-events/news/files/olive%20oil%20fina...
As you can see in Table 3 on page 10, oils that had at least one sensory defect (thus "virgin" rather than "extra virgin") almost all failed either the DAG test, the PPP test, or both — but only a very few were picked up on the other (IOC-endorsed) chemical tests alone. Numerous other studies have found the same thing. Adopting the DAG and PPP tests would bring chemistry and aesthetics closer into alignment.

Thank you so much for this

Thank you so much for this analysis. I usually only get the tj California estate or the Greek kalamata olive oils. I really like both. I have considered the others but I am glad to see a sort of confirmation on the ones to get. I like both but also wonder about the benefits of choosing the California estate oil over the kalamata one because it is more local (I'm in CA). Do you have any thoughts on that?

Hi Shane,

Hi Shane,

It may have a *best by* date, but does it have a *harvest* or *crush* date? Best-by dates are meaningless at best and intentionally misleading at worst. Standard industry practice is to date them two years after the oil was *bottled* , even if the oil was already old at bottling date. Additionally, a one-size-fits-all BBD doesn't account for variations in the oils themselves or in their packaging: levels of polyunsaturated vs. monounsaturated fat and of phenolic compounds, as well as packaging material (clear glass vs. green vs. amber, glass vs. steel tins vs. PET plastic), and several other factors determine how long the oil will stay good, so putting 2 years on ALL oils is just not justified. And in fact, really even the most chemically stable and well-packaged oil can't really be expected to be good two years after *crushing* -- let alone two years after *bottling* , if bottle date and crush date don't more or less coincide (and they often don't). the important date is therefore the *crush* or *harvest* date: BBDs are almost useless, and it's a bad sign if a BBD is all you see.

Thank you for testing the TJ

Thank you for testing the TJ's oils and sharing the results. Ever since the UC Davis study first came out a few years ago chastising the US marketing and mislabeling I've been curious to read what an expert says on the TJ oils.

The results were about what I expected. Caveat Emptor seems to be the rule of the house at Pirate Joes, Shame on them! They could and should do better, and we should demand it.

But until that happens, when I shop at TJ's I think about it as being Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde like experience, because there is a Trader Joe who sells high quality products at a reasonable sometimes bargain prices. And he has a cousin Pirate Joe who sells sub quality mislabeled out of date products as well. The misleading and mislabeled oils are just one example of the Pirate at work.

Tom, I carry a list of your

Tom, I carry a list of your supermarket recommendations with me & yesterday was the 1st time I found O-LIVE. It has the freshest flavor of any EVOO I have tasted including those at Oil & Vinegar and VF outlets! Another market chef recommends OliVaylle; do you know of that one? Many thanks for your work, passion, and the sharing of your knowledge! I wish I read Italian so I could see the press Extra Virginity is getting there; I'm sure there is a lot on both sides.

I love the President's

I love the President's Reserve! It's so good (and a great price) I don't even bother trying others now. I'll just stick with what I like!

I'm so glad I found your blog

I'm so glad I found your blog! As an Italian expat in the US I use olive oil in nearly all my preparations, and it's good to know what brands I can trust. I would really appreciate it if you could write another post like this about the oils sold by Fairway. Thanks!

RE: Halcyon's comment on Ital

RE: Halcyon's comment on Ital. President's oil. Again, the oil is NOT EVOO, even though it may have a little mixed in. People get used to the taste of rancidity and think it's normal. also, if your taste buds aren't familiar with that, or moldy, stale tastes, you might think the oil was good. If you you smoke cigarettes or have have defective tastebuds, you really should listen to an expert! You do not want to eat Olive Oil. It's ok for making non-edible products like cosmetics, but not fit for consumption. It the second pressing of the olives and pits and usually has chemicals used to coax more oil out. Then the oils get worse from there!

Next time, could you please

Next time, could you please access TJ's Sicilian 'Selezione' EVOO? Sadly, the bbd is for 1/15/15, so it's not getting any better, but it claims to be from the "current harvest," whenever that was. I'll make sure to check its bbd the next time I start to buy some to see if the date have been extended and is hopefully newer and fresher. However, there is only one pressing a year. It says that the blend is Biancolilla, Ogghiaredda and Cerasuola olives, grown, harvested and pressed in Sicily. I'm very fond of this in the past, and hope that I'm not being fooled. thanks!

I have been buying Trader Joe

I have been buying Trader Joe's 100% Italian Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil. I have looked at all sides of the bottle. The ingredients are listed as:Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Organic compliance certified by QAI. There is no other wording. Did you test this oil?

I was wondering if you'd be

I was wondering if you'd be willing to update this by tasting some of the new olive oils that tj's now carries? The one I regularly buy from them isn't on this list and I'm curious about it. Thanks!

Thank you so much! This is

Thank you so much! This is incredibly helpful and informative. After reading, I'm inspired to want to learn how to taste for purity now! I'm wondering what your thoughts are about organic oil and the susceptibility of fats to hold onto pesticides? I noticed that you reviewed one of Trader Joe's organic olive oils, but not the other one. I've been taught to prioritize organics according to how much a food holds on to pesticides and so I've leaned toward organic olive oils. I did a search and saw that in a previous post you said you would write more about this and I'm wondering if you are still planning to? I'm also wondering if you might be willing to review Trader Joe's other organic olive oil for us organic-o-phile Trader Joe's shoppers out there? Thanks again for what you do! What integrity!

Tom, please do try the other

Tom, please do try the other organic when you get the chance, "Trader Giotto's 100% Italian Organic", 500 ml for $5.99. Labeled "Cold Pressed, Product of Italy", and certified by Quality Assurance International.

I agree that the organic label is no guarantee, but I figure it improves the odds against adulteration, if only a bit. After all, at least there's *some* sort of inspection and certification going on, as opposed to none at all. I'm not so much trusting the producer, but rather that the process provides a limited but real measure of deterrence to casual opportunists (notwithstanding the hardened soybean-oil criminals).

Too bad there's no "Extra Virginity" certifying body with an army of inspectors to really keep the business honest.

Great blog, Tom. To the

Great blog, Tom. To the people asking about Costco, I've been using their "Signature Toscano" for years. Each bottle shows the harvest date and is serialized, so you can go to the consortium to find the grower, presser and bottler.

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