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What is DOP? Understanding Italian Food Labels

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Updated July 9, 2024

Is it DOP or no?

DOP is one of the most important things to consider when learning how to cook traditional and authentic Italian food outside Italy. DOP stands for Denominazione d' Origine Protetta, in English this translates to Protected Designation of Origin.

WHAT DOES DOP MEAN?

DOP is a strict labeling of food products in Italy and other European countries to preserve and protect regionally produced foods from less superior versions. Select foods from Italy and other countries are regulated by the government and organizational bodies to ensure:

  • They meet the highest of standards of quality,

  • They are produced within certain regions that result in characteristics to ensure a consistent quality,

  • The ingredients and products come from a specific location and/or family that has been approved and 'designated' by the government to produce such foods,

  • Every element of the product is quality tested and tracked with serial numbers to confirm the exact origins, processing, and approval body of the product

WHY DID THE ITALIAN GOVERNMENT DECIDE TO USE THE DOP DESIGNATION?

Impostors. It's really that simple. The popularity of Italian food around the world created replicas and low quality knock offs that impacted Italian food producers. Go to the grocery store and you'll see a huge selection of products labeled "Italian." Chances are good most of these products never came from Italy and most of them are subpar from the authentic version of the product.


WHAT ARE SOME EXAMPLES OF DOP?

There are many examples of DOP products in Italy. San Marzano tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, olives, buffalo mozzarella, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, Asiago cheese, cured meat, breads, produce and other items can carry a DOP label.


DOP PARMIGIANO REGGIANO VS. PARMESAN CHEESE

Our favorite example of a knock off product is the green can of "Parmesan" cheese. This grated cheese product couldn't be further from the original Parmigiano Reggiano. Trickier however are wedges of parmesan found in the cheese section of the grocery store. Parmigiano Reggiano and Parmesan cheese are the same style of cheese and generally follow the same cheese making process. Parmesan however can be made in any country and doesn't follow the same stringent standards of Parmigiano Reggiano. As you can see in the above photo, Parmigiano Reggiano carries the DOP symbol and indicates the specific dairy number on the packaging for tracking purposes. The rind of cheese also is labeled with markings that indicate DOP along with the serial number. For fun learning, taste both products side by side. Grate some DOP Parmigiano Reggiano and taste it alongside the Parmesan "grated cheese product" that comes from the green canister. You can see, they taste nothing alike.


RELATED: EXPLORE ITALIAN COOKING CLASSES THAT USE PARMIGIANO REGGIANO


DOP SAN MARZANO TOMATOES VS. SAN MARZANO STYLE TOMATOES


Another great example found at most grocery stores is San Marzano Tomatoes. DOP San Marzano Tomatoes come from the south of Naples and are grown in soil that's been impacted by the eruptions of Mount Vesuvius. The consortium tracks every part of the tomato growing process and ensures the final product meets their high standards of quality. Once they do, they are packed and each approved can carries the DOP symbol and a unique serial number. Alternatively, San Marzano Style tomatoes are a strain of tomatoes grown in various places around the world. They are a type of tomato that has certain physical properties, but are likely not grown in Italy. You'll notice on the can they don't have the same tracking and therefore you can't assure quality standards or processes.


RELATED: EXPLORE ITALIAN COOKING CLASSES THAT USE DOP TOMATOES


DOP ACETO BALSAMICO TRADIZIONALE DI REGGIO EMILIA VS. BALSAMIC VINEGAR


Another example is traditional Balsamic Vinegar. A true DOP Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia, or traditional Balsamic Vinegar from Emilia-Romagna is held to rigorous standards - requiring specific aging, approved barrels, approved family lineage, specific bottles provided by the governmental body (as you can see in the picture) and other requirements. The bottle includes the DOP label and the serial number for tracking the product. The other product does not carry the same labeling, and while it's in a fancy bottle, it is not a DOP product.


The vast majority of the world population has never tasted a DOP traditional Balsamic Vinegar. The product is actually quite rare and extremely expensive, so much so it's actually called "Liquid Gold". Traditional DOP Balsamic Vinegar is thick, deep in flavour, and has oak properties due to its aging requirements. So, what you buy at the grocery store uses a similar grape variety, and may actually come from Modena, the region in Italy where DOP Balsamic Vinegar comes from, but since it doesn't follow every step of the required and tracked process, it is does not and can not carry the DOP label.


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WHY IS DOP IMPORTANT?

From an agricultural point of view, soil in different regions of the world impacts crops. Let's look at wine making as an example. Regions around the world have different soil properties which lends to different grape crops and wine tasting notes. Champagne can only be called Champagne if it's produced in a very small region of France. From a food perspective, this could be as simple as "Mela Val di Non", an apple from Trento in Northern Italy, or as complicated as Parmigiano Reggiano cheese that requires each step of the cheese making process to be tracked.


For example, a DOP Parmigiano Reggiano producer has strict guidelines for production including everything from the location where the cows live, where their feed comes from, the location and processing of the milk to become cheese, to the quality testing to ensure the product aged without imperfection. Cows raised outside a specific area of Italy, even if they are located in the approved Emilia-Romagna regions, are not necessarily considered qualified to produce DOP Parmigiano Reggiano. Why? Because even if the producers follow the exact processing to create Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, if the cows are raised outside a very specific area, and eat crops from a different part of a valley - they are now outside the Protected Designation of Origin. Ultimately, those differences in soil impact the outcome of the product and contain variations that change the product. In the simpler example given avove, an apple that grows outside Trento - that apple will have different properties because the soil doesn't have the same properties as Trento. Therefore, the taste of that apple - while still an apple, doesn't have the characteristics of a DOP labeled version.


WHAT IS IGP?

IGP is an equally important designation, although it's less strict in nature. IGP, Indicazione Geografica Protetta, translates to Protected Geographic Zone, or essentially - that the product traces back to one, by not all, of the requirements of DOP. Whereas DOP tracks every element of a labeled Traditional Balsamic Vinegar, down to numbered barrels, IGP Balsamic Vinegar only tracks portions of it. You can see the difference between DOP (PDO in Italian) and IGP (PGI in Italian) labels below.

Look for these DOP or IGP labels when buying packaged products

WHAT SHOULD YOU LOOK FOR AT THE STORE?

Easy! Any DOP product contains the symbol on the label and a serial number. It could be a label on the product, or an etching into the rind of the cheese. If you can't find this, then it's not DOP.


WHAT IF IT SAYS MADE IN ITALY?


Made In Italy products are a great second choice to DOP or IGP products. Italian products are often considered the highest of quality, and products that are wholly or in part Made In Italy can demand attention, and sometimes, more money. If your product says "Made in Italy" it could have been processed in Italy, manufactured in Italy, grown in Italy, partly made in Italy, or even the entire product is from Italy - but remember what we just said - it could just be partly Made In Italy. Ultimately, the concept of "made in Italy" isn't tracked. So all of the product might be Made In Italy, but perhaps not.


This is common when buying olives - often the olives are from the neighbouring region of Spain (which we should note produces some of the best olives in the world), but they are processed and manufactured in Italy. The jar may be labeled Made In Italy, and effectively they are - but those Made In Italy olives are actually Spanish olives processed and packaged in Italy. Make sense?

What to look out for ...when a product says it's "Italian" it effectively means nothing. There are no standards around the word Italian, and essentially it just means this is "Italian style" or "Italian inspired" but might actually be from New Jersey.

IS BUYING DOP IT WORTH IT?

This is a matter of preference and usage. DOP San Marzano Tomatoes have different tasting notes than San Marzano "style" tomatoes. DOP Traditional Balsamic Vinegar has a completely different flavour and texture than 2 year aged balsamic that you'd put on a salad. However, you would never put a Traditional Balsamic Vinegar on a salad, it would be considered a waste. DOP means you are paying for quality and quality control. A higher quality product will mean you can use less of it since it will have more robust flavour, so while DOP products might be more expensive, they will go further in your dish.


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What is DOP? Understanding Italian Food Labels

Updated: Jul 9

Updated July 9, 2024