The Latest in Olive Oil: What Buyers Should Know

Growing interest in olive oil calls for more consumer education.

Olive oil has ridden a wave of increasing popularity, in part due to growing awareness around the healthfulness of the
Mediterranean Diet.

However, the product also remains broadly misunderstood because of misconceptions about its appropriate uses and recurring reports about olive oil that is “counterfeit” or improperly labeled as “extra virgin” when it’s not.

This year the category faces additional challenges because of a weak olive harvest in some parts of the world, which could drive increased prices and more unscrupulous producers to distribute adulterated olive oils or “fake” extra virgin olive oil.

“There’s been a lot of bad press about olive oil,” says Brett Greenberg, a certified olive oil sommelier and the business development manager for private label at New York-based FoodMatch, a specialty food producer and importer that focuses on Mediterranean foods. “While it was great to highlight to the public what’s going on, I think [the negative coverage] almost made consumers feel as though all imported olive oil is going to be adulterated and is not to be trusted.”

Retail sales of olive oil in the U.S. have been increasing steadily for the last several years, according to data from Nielsen. Through the 52 weeks ending Feb. 23, 2019, sales totaled about $1.21 billion, compared with $1.19 billion in the preceding 52-week span.

Dollar sales increased at a compound annual rate of 2.5 percent over the past three years, Nielsen reported. Unit volume, by contrast, increased at a slower, 0.4 percent rate in that time. Unit volume was basically flat in the most recent 52-week span, after a slight decline in the 52 weeks ending Feb. 24, 2018, compared with the preceding year.

This year sales appear poised to be more tumultuous, with some observers already reporting price increases due to olive crop shortfalls in some parts of the world.

Last fall’s olive harvest was one of the weakest on record for Italy, which saw production drop by more than 50 percent from 2017 levels, according to the Olive Oil Times. In addition to problems related to climate, and to the fact that olive trees naturally alternate between high-yield and low-yield seasons, Italy’s crop is also being hurt by an infestation of Xylella fastidiosa bacterium, which has killed millions of trees in the southern region of Puglia since it first appeared there about five years ago.

Greece, which is normally the third largest producer behind Spain and Italy, also had a weak harvest in 2018. Those decreases will be partially offset by a strong growing season in Spain, the world’s number-one producer, but the shortfall was already driving up prices for Italian olives by 30 percent or more early this year, according to reports. Those higher costs could lead some producers to dilute their Italian and Greek olive oils with oil from Tunisia or other sources, according to some reports.

Educating Consumers

Salvatore Russo-Tiesi, general manager at Italian olive oil importer Bono USA, says retailers can help consumers understand the forces behind olive oil pricing by teaching them about where olive oil comes from and how it’s made.

“That really helps to soften the impact of any ‘sticker shock’ that a customer sees when shopping for their favorite olive oil,” he says, although he notes that Bono USA was not increasing
its prices this year.

While olive oil connoisseurs understand the seasonality of the crop, the importance of freshness and the flavors produced by various specific cultivars, regions, and estates, industry experts note there’s plenty of room to further educate the many mainstream consumers who have adopted olive oil for its health properties or because they like the flavor in general.

“The general consumer is still confused,” says Greenberg of FoodMatch, especially when it comes to extra virgin olive oils.

“Similar to wine, you can be overwhelmed,” he says. “Most people go into a wine shop and end up picking a label that catches their eye and that’s in the right price range.”

Similarly, everyday olive oil shoppers must sort through an array of attributes and claims, from country of origin to monocultivars that are made from a single olive variety. Many customers simply don’t know what the most important characteristics to look for are.

Customers rely on retailers to help make sense of these attributes and claims, Greenberg says.

Russo-Tiesi says his company has a “hand-in-hand” relationship with retailers to help educate consumers.

“The buyer must understand what they are doing in order to put the right product on the shelf, but it’s equally, if not more important, that the final consumer knows what they’re purchasing,” he says.
Importance of Freshness

Among the basic qualities that retailers can help their consumers understand is the importance of freshness, says
Greenberg of FoodMatch.

Olives are a fruit, and olive oil is essentially pressed fruit juice, he explains, and it is meant to be consumed as fresh as possible—not more than 18-24 months after it has been processed. The harvest in the Northern Hemisphere begins in the fall, and in general, the earlier the olives are harvested, the better.

The highest quality, extra virgin olive oils are cold-pressed from the earliest harvest, without the use of heat, which can decrease both the flavor and the healthful properties of the oil. Olive oil that does not meet the flavor and other standards of EVOO can be refined and used to make regular or other lesser grades of olive oil, which are more suitable for use in cooking.

Although heating the olives and using olives that have ripened for a longer period of time increases the yield of oil that they generate, the oil is considered inferior to oil that is made from green, cold-pressed olives.

In addition, various factors can impact the shelf life of olive oil once it has been bottled—especially exposure to heat, air, and light, which is why olive oil is usually packaged in tins or in
dark glass bottles.

Like many specialty olive oil distributors, FoodMatch focuses on sourcing olives from a single region. Its Renieris Estate extra virgin olive oil features olives that are grown, crushed, and bottled by the Renieris family in Chania on the Greek island of Crete.

“It’s a fourth-generation, family-run business, and the mill is on-site, so it’s fully integrated,” says Greenberg.

Renieris Estate uses olives of the Koroneiki cultivar, which is known for producing olive oils and has been grown in Greece for thousands of years.

In order to highlight these attributes, the Renieris Estate oil includes labeling specifying its place of origin and its estate-bottled status.

Russo-Tiesi of Bono USA says that retailers and consumers should also be looking for olive oils that have Protected Designation of Origin or Protected Geographic Indication certification, two European seals that are verified by third parties to prove the origin claims of olive oil and other agricultural products.

“If you really want the best, highest quality, most authentic product, you need to purchase a PDO or PGI product, and they are very easy to find on the shelf because they have a very unique logo on the label,” he says.

While those designations apply to European olive oils, other regions, including California, Australia, and South America, also produce olive oils that have gained some international acclaim.

Rachel Shemirani, vice president of marketing at Barons Market, a seven-store retailer based in Poway, Calif., says the chain has seen an increased interest from its customers in California olive oils, among others.

“It really used to be all about Italian or Greek olive oils, but now we’re getting more requests for California olive oil, and we just brought in an olive oil from Australia that people are really loving,” she says. “Country of origin is still important, but now people are more open to different countries and different areas.”

Promoting Olive Oil

Sara Baer-Sinnott, president of Oldways, a nonprofit food and nutrition organization that, among other efforts, promotes the Mediterranean Diet, says consumer interest in healthful eating has opened up the door for retailers to tie olive oil into interest in that dietary regimen.

She suggests retailers conduct Mediterranean Diet store tours and merchandise Mediterranean Diet cookbooks, for example. Another idea is to promote olive oils by country of origin, showcasing foods from Spain along with Spanish olive oils, for example, she says.

Despite the rising price points for olive oils, retailers also have an opportunity to communicate the value of the product relative to other items in which consumers regularly indulge, according to Baer-Sinnott.

“People complain about the price of good olive oil, but a bottle of wine goes away in a night,” she says. “Even if you only spend $10 on a bottle of wine, then in two nights you’ve spent $20 on wine, but a $20 bottle of olive oil will give you pleasure for certainly more than two nights.”

She also suggests that retailers can stress the importance of having two varieties of olive oil, one for everyday cooking and another for finishing.

When it comes to merchandising, Russo-Tiesi of Bono USA also suggested that retailers move olive oil to high-visibility positions such as endcaps, and conduct in-store tastings to increase visibility and awareness.

“The thing that I like most is when a retailer pulls the olive oil off the middle of a shelf and out of the middle of the aisle,” he says. “I think it helps when they set up endcaps that include educational materials, or when they set up a [sampling station] and allow the customer to taste the product before they purchase it.”

While such merchandising comes at a cost, the reward can be long-term customer loyalty.

“Olive oil has a very high customer acquisition cost, but it also has a very high retention rate when the product is good,” says Russo-Tiesi. “You have that customer that keeps coming back for more.”

Flavored Oils

Barons Market has enjoyed success with its olive oil and vinegar tasting bars, which have been rolled out to all of its stores. The bars carry 12 varieties each of olive oil and vinegar, which consumers can sample using small tasting cups or on slices of fresh baguettes.

The retailer displays information about the origin and flavor qualities of each of the oils on its tasting bar, and Shemirani says customers often explore the tastes of several different oils before choosing their favorite. She cites flavored olive oils as generating excitement in the category.

“Flavored olive oils are definitely creating a niche in the market, because people want to do something a little bit different,” she says.

She notes that demand for olive oil off the shelves has also grown. “It’s an item that’s still going strong,” says Shemirani. “Our sales have definitely increased, even though the price and the cost of olive oil has increased.”

The retailer has been seeking solutions to minimize the price increases at the shelf.

“We’ve been looking at trying to find a less expensive olive oil, but we’re just not finding one that’s pure olive oil and not mixed with another kind of oil,” she says. “We’re trying to hold back our prices as much as we can, because olive oil has become a staple to our customers, and we think it’s important that staple items are very competitively priced.”

Pretty Packaging

Shemirani also says olive oil producers seem to have learned how important attractive packaging can be for the sale of the product at retail.

“Olive oil producers are now being more savvy with their labels, because they understand that they’re in such a competitive market. The look of their bottle really has to be outstanding for it to sell in kind of a sea of olive oils,” she says.

Much like makers of organic and natural products have improved their labeling to attract consumers, so to have olive oil manufacturers come around to the concept.

“That’s the trend that we’re seeing, and we’re loving it,” says Shemirani. “We’re so glad we’re seeing that for olive oil now. It’s making it cool again. It’s almost like making sure the label is Instagram-able, which is great.”


Tasting olive oil

While olive oil has gained widespread adoption among consumers, many still might not understand the flavor qualities they should be looking for in a high-quality product.

Brett Greenberg, a certified olive oil sommelier and the business development manager for private label at New York-based FoodMatch, a specialty food producer and importer that focuses on Mediterranean foods, says many consumers may only be familiar with the flavor of lower-quality olive oil.

“I think consumers have grown accustomed to the sensory profile of what is not great olive oil,” he says. “Once you become used to something, it’s hard to correct that.”

For retailers considering offering olive oil tastings to educate consumers, Greenberg offers a few pointers:

  • Tastings should be done in an area free of other aromas, and tasters should not be wearing cologne or perfume, for example, so nothing interferes with the aromas of the olive oils.
  • The color of the oil is not an indicator of quality, Greenberg says, but the aroma is important. It should smell fresh and may have notes similar to fresh-cut grass or herbs, or citrus notes.
  • The taste should have what Greenberg calls a “pleasant bitterness,” and a peppery or pungent quality that may induce a cough at the back of the throat.

“It’s not always the strength of those characteristics being an indicator of quality,” says Greenberg. “It’s the clarity and the cleanness of those characteristics.”

Qualities to watch out for include a rancid odor reminiscent of wax or wet cardboard, or a greasy residue.

Oldways, a nonprofit food and nutrition organization that, among other efforts, promotes the Mediterranean Diet, also offers comprehensive guidelines for offering olive tastings on its website at:
https://oldwayspt.org/system/files/atoms/files/Med16_MedOliveOilTasting_Guide.pdf


Mark Hamstra is a regular contributor to Specialty Food Magazine.

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