The surprising health hazard of olive oil

Feb 5, 2016 at 12:30 p.m. ET

The latest criminal enterprise for the Italian mafia has nothing to do with guns or drugs. No, they're making mad cash selling Americans cheaper oils labeled to look like high-end Italian extra-virgin olive oil. And it's actually more dangerous — and gross — than you think.

While the so-called "Agromafia" food fraud business might not sound like that big of a deal, as 60 Minutes recently reported, it's becoming a big problem for a whole range of reasons. First, these Italian mafia-driven food crimes are big business — to the tune of $16 billion a year.

More: Olive oil: The secrets of cooking with extra virgin olive oil

Real EVOO is taken from the first pressing of the olives and tastes better and has more health benefits, like antioxidants and vitamins and minerals, than the cheaper stuff. That's why it's more expensive. But there are dangers beyond losing out on taste and health benefits.

It's common practice in these olive oil frauds for the mafia to cut actual olive oil with cheaper oils like peanut or sunflower, sending what amounts to a dangerous toxin to people who have nut and seed allergies but think they're using pure extra-virgin olive oil.

More: Get to know your extra-virgin olive oil

There are other dirty tricks to get American consumers to pony up top dollar for fake EVOO. Italian police recently seized 7,000 tons of oil labeled Italian EVOO that turned out to be oil from North Africa, sprayed with chemical deodorizers to pass it off as the real deal. Yes, chemical deodorizers in your salad dressing.

But this kind of olive oil shenanigans isn't anything new. Researchers from UC Davis released a 2010 study that found 69 percent of imported olive oils didn't meet the minimum standards to be labeled EVOO. There were calls for reforms, but they didn't do much to ensure that you're getting the good stuff out of those green bottles.

More: QUIZ: Get the facts about olive oil

So what can you do?

1. Don't trust cheap olive oil.

First, David Neuman, who is the CEO of Gaea olive oil, told Eater that consumers should look at the price of the bottle of olive oil. A real, 16-ounce bottle of EVOO should retail from $8 to $14, he says. If a bottle of olive oil seems like too good of a deal, then like most things in this world, it probably is.

Eater writer Whitney Filloon cites olive oil investigative journalist Tom Mueller's list of recommended supermarket olive oils if you're looking for good value.

2. Buy American.

California is growing and producing excellent varieties of olive oil that rival the taste of Italian, Spanish and Greek brands. A blind taste test of California olive oils conducted on popular NPR radio show The Splendid Table by host Lynne Rossetto Kasper revealed some of the best brands to look for from California, such as Bozzano, Séka Hills and ENZO. (ed: Chilean olive oils can be pretty darn good too.)

So the next time you head to the grocery store to pick up a bottle of olive oil, choose wisely. Otherwise you can end up on the wrong end of the latest wise guy food fraud enterprise. By the way, the mob also messes with wines and cheeses from Italy, but that's something to freak out about another day.