The mystery behind polyphenol counts

Friends: I, Erin R., am going to nerd out on you today because I’m dying to talk about phenols.

Get cozy and bear with me on this one.

Phenols are those antioxidants that you find in olive oil (among other foods) that bring with them a seemingly endless list of health benefits. Achieving high phenol counts for one’s oil is the general goal. But, as we learn below, the numbers may not mean much if not analyzed or compared properly — and that’s precisely what I want to go deeper on today.

Not surprisingly, there's a lot of talk about these super-healthy phenols —  and yet it can be pretty confusing to wade through all the information out there. We really valued a write-up by Skyler at EXAU Olive Oil, which gives a great overview on phenols, including their health benefits. Her piece is also what really got us thinking about quality olive oil and how we as consumers should decide what to buy.

But even still, we get emails asking for our olive oils' phenol numbers, and since we've seen a chin-scratching range of phenol counts from different labs around the globe, I decided to dig a little deeper. Something wasn't adding up.

To get to the bottom of this, I asked my friends at UC Davis's Olive Center why there might be a big discrepancy between the data at different labs. It turns out that you cannot easily compare the data from one lab to another — oftentimes it's a complete apples-to-oranges situation! Here's why:

  • There are different ways to measure phenols in olive oil. What originally tipped me off to this were lab results I'd see for olive oils in Spain that yielded wildly different numbers than those labs I've worked with in the US — even though the oils were similar in quality and profile. What was going on? Well, it turns out, if labs are using different testing methods they can then produce completely unrelated results (and sure enough the results I had been comparing were, well, incomparable).
  • That said, even if labs use the same method, there are different reference standards for quantification. So unless each lab is doing the same kind of test *and* using the same standard, you still can’t compare the results.
  • Then, even if they are the same type of test using the same kind of standard, there is no oversight or regulation for the testing, so a fair comparison cannot be guaranteed if the testing lab is not certified.
  • And, finally, when it comes to the health potential of an oil, measuring phenols can give you an idea of the total phenol count in the oil — but it still may not reveal the actual concentrations of bioactive compounds such as hydroxytyrosol and oleocanthal, which are more useful to our body.

The thing is, these testing discrepancies aren't at all common knowledge among producers, so we can assume that phenol claims and comparisons are made in good faith. In fact, every producer I've spoken with has been flabbergasted to learn that data from one lab cannot easily be compared against another, particularly if using different methods (as is often the case).

The long and the short of it goes back to Skyler's point: extra virgin is by default high in phenols. Period. So worry less about the numbers, and pay more mind to what actually tastes good to you.

And that's why our singular goal here at PRMRY is to help you get to the bottom of what good olive oil should taste like, as well as how to use and pair it. That way, you can decide what is good yourself rather than going cross-eyed with phenol counts.

So go forth and enjoy your extra virgin olive oil — from us and from other producers who are making amazing oil. They'll all be super healthy. We promise.