Free fatty acids form as unsaturated fat in olive oil breaks down. Some free fatty acids will always be formed during the olive oil extraction process – and some free fatty acids will form over time naturally as the olive oil ages.
A high level of free fatty acids in an olive oil can mean several things:
- Poor quality of olives before crushing for oil (disease, fungus, age, etc.)
- Mishandling of olives before crushing for oil (bruising, broken skin, etc.)
- An extended period of time between harvesting and extraction
- High temperatures used during oil extraction
- Poor storage conditions after extraction
The maximum level of free fatty acid allowed in an olive oil in order to be called extra virgin is .8% or below. In order to reach this level, the olives must be harvested and crushed within 24-48 hours. The maximum level of free fatty acids allowed in an olive oil in order to be called Ultra Premium is 0.3%! In order to reach that level, olives must be crushed within 4-6 hours of harvesting.