Quality Olive Oil a Taste Not Yet Acquired by Most Consumers

A first of its kind consumer study from the Olive Center at the University of California, Davis, finds a disconnect between consumer preference and expert ratings for olive oil labeled as extra virgin. It looks like Northern Californian consumers prefer rancid olive oil to the bitter and pungent olive oil favored by expert olive oil tasters. Findings call into focus the continued need for consumer education to keep California olive oil in position for growth.

The study of 110 Northern California olive oil consumers was conducted by UC Davis sensory scientists Claudia Delgado and Jean-Xavier Guinard. Participants rated 22 commercial olive oils labeled as extra virgin based on preferences. Half of the oils were imported and half were from California. “How do consumer hedonic ratings for extra virgin olive oil relate to the quality ratings by experts and descriptive analysis ratings?” appears in the March, 2011 Food Quality and Preference journal.
See more: UC Davis Survey: Consumer Attitudes on Olive Oil
Seventy four percent of consumers disliked the oils identified as high-quality by expert tasters. High-quality oils tend to be bitter and pungent, negative drivers of liking for consumers. The authors of the study indicate this is a natural reaction for new consumers because these qualities are acquired tastes, such as in coffee or specialty beer. When used in cooking and paired with food, bitterness and pungency may be more palatable, especially with the knowledge that they are caused by healthy antioxidants in the oil.

Consumers preferred oils with fruity attributes identified as nutty, ripe fruit, green tea, butter, green fruit and grassy, which, along with bitterness and pungency, are positive sensory attributes of olive oil as identified by the International Olive Council (IOC) standards. (By IOC standards, extra virgin olive oil must have all three of these attributes and no defects.) But, 44 percent of the consumers also liked sensory defects like rancidity, fustiness, mustiness and winey flavor. The authors indicate this may be due to the large amount of defective olive oil labeled as extra virgin available to consumers.

The study results imply that quality ratings by experts are not a good predictor of consumers’ hedonic scores, an indication, says Dan Flynn, Director of the UC Davis Olive Center, “that consumers have much to learn about the various flavor profiles and that a bitter profile is not necessarily bad.” Flynn sees this as an opportunity for education, “for producers to let people know here’s what a good quality oil tastes like and there are lots of different taste profiles.”

Many different things contribute to the education of the consumer. “One is the Olive Oil Times,” says Flynn, which he credits for getting information out there. Another is the industry who is out promoting the oil, and next, from a research standpoint, UC Davis is doing its part. “All these discussions,” explains Flynn, “and the availability of quality oils are contributing to this slowly growing knowledge that the consumer has.”

This new study recognizes the importance of consumers, both in educating them and recognizing the driving role of consumer liking and preferences to the olive oil industry. The authors predict “as consumers learn about the many nutritional benefits and sensory qualities of extra-virgin olive oil, the California industry will be poised for exponential growth.”

Research Brief: UC Davis Olive Center examines consumer olive oil preferences (PDF)

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This article was last updated January 13, 2015 - 9:22 AM (GMT-5)

  • Realistic Marketer

    So what I read in this article, taking out the middle part.

    74% of consumers don’t like so-called “quality” oils (the ones produced in California).

    … The California industry will be poised for exponential growth.

    I really, honestly, can’t see how one leads to the other.

    A very wise man once taught me, “Find out what the consumer wants, and sell it to them”. A very valuable lesson that never changes.

    • BGC

      I totally agree with you!
      Undoubtedly it is necessary to inform consumers about the characteristics and flavor of olive oil, especially in Portugal where the classification of olive oil (extra virgin, virgin, refined) can lead to misinterpretation!
      But more important is knowing what the consumer likes and demand!

      BGC, Portugal.

    • Realistic Marketer

      But Luca, clearly in this case the consumers do know what they want, they were consistently able to identify the oils that they preferred. Leaving aside the “quality” argument, which is subjective at best, trying to base an industry on selling consumers something that they don’t like, is not a recipe for “exponential” success.

  • http://www.sabordeespana.net Alfonso J Fernandez

    Lovely article. It shows up a survey done by UC Davis about preferences of olive oil consumers and it sustains that some defects are most liked by them, as rancid among others.

    An extra virgin olive oil (in aroma and flavour) has to remind always to live elements of nature, no matter if they’re green (grass, leafs, green fruits, tomatoes, etc.) or ripe (ripe banana, apple, etc.). We should keep in mind that olive oil is a the juice of an olive (releasing the water of course) and olives are pungent and has a lot of bitterness. This is why professionals considers them as good attributes, they’re coming from the fruit itself, what else should we expect?

    It’s normal also that non educated consumers like defects as rancid or musty. Apart from extra virgin olive oil the rest of the fats have a refining process to make them edible so there’s no trace of flavour, all the way around. Sunflower, soya oil etc tend to get rancid quite easy, even margarines and butters also. So at the end their palates are used to this attribute and they think it is a good one.

    As it is a fact that consumers do like defects as they’re not educated in extra virgin olive oil, please consider that Mediterranean countries has 3.000 years of culture and has been only a few decades that high quality oils has been widely produced. Would like to highlight that anyone exporting olive oil knows how hard and is to find the right profile for the destiny country and how hard is to make people understand what is olive oil when the market has no culture.

    Up to now everything is OK, what I do not understand is that a university, the base of knowledge and science, the heritage of all the wise and information that human beings have during last centuries, the representative of objectivity and science based in facts, insists again and again in the simple argument that imported oils are bad and local ones are good. Let’s make it simple, there are only 2 categories of olive oils god ones and bad ones. No matter where they’re produced it depends on the quality of the olives and the extraction process. Is this telling that the 300.000 MT of olive oil imported by USA is all bad? Is this telling that the 1.400.000 MT produced in Spain last year 50% of worldwide production) is all bad quality?

    I should remind also that olive trees are very generous and gives a fruit that can give us different olive oil grades, all of them are healthy. Just used them as you like them most. I believe is better to fry with extra virgin olive oil but I do believe that frying or using other grades of olive oil is far better than frying with soya or any other vegetal or animal fat.

    UC Davis got a good idea about confirming what all market specialist know but it is a very simple and confusing idea to turn the argument into all those defects are always coming from imported oils, even more, it’s a not a very clever argument as market would not be supplied just with Californian production. Having something good does not mean others is bad. Would love to have education not miseducation. There’s a huge of lack of knowledge in this great olive oil world to invest resources in adding more confusion to it. We all should impulse the increase consumption of olive oil but other origins are not the enemy, nor the competitor. As I always say, lack of education is the larger competitor of olive (not imported one please). Without imported olive oils that created the demand wouldn’t exist an olive oil industry in California. There are plenty of reasons to highlight and defend olive oil from USA, I do not think this is a clever and ethic one in a long term, even more based on University surveys, bad for both.


    Alfonso J Fernandez

  • Paul Vossen

    Wise marketers are giving the consumers what they want, asking for, and are used to – that is – rancid and fusty (the two most common defects) olive oils. The US supermarkets are full of it. Most restaurants serve rancid olive oil to their guests mixed with a bit of vinegar and they love it. That’s why a large percentage of the oils in the market are the way they are – they sell. The main competition has been between different producers and marketers to produce it and sell it at the lowest possible price, which lowers the quality and price even more. Unfortunately giving people what they want it this case is bad for their health.

    Consumers will eventually learn what fresh, defect-free olive oil taste like and they will come to prefer it to the rancid, fermented oils on the market now. AND it does not matter where the oils come from – they can be good, bad, excellent, or horrible from almost anywhere.

  • luca mattioli

    The majority of the consumers – including olive oil producing countries – have a very poor idea of olive oil’s quality. The market sells cheap and bad oils leaving the quality producers in a very small corner.

    The IOC has passed – to favour big money interest from the main companies (especially Spain and Italy) – a panel test standard where bitter has become a quality. What a lie ! They should be ashamed to pass on such mistake : the greatest quality of e.v.o.o. is sweetness,followed by other quality but certainly not bitterness. It’s just money’s interest, nothing more.

    The big players “blend oils ” , cancel defects with all sorts of procedure, bottle it, name it, brand it, don’t specify where the olives come from, etc, etc, and put it on the market to give you the worst I can think of. No wonder they want bitterness on the positive side. How could they justify so much bad quality ?

    You know, if you sell to consumers ” what they want ” you realize that most of them don’t know what they want and just take what you give them. So it’s up to you to be honest enough not to fool them.

  • Jeff Martin

    I grew up on bad olive oil. My parents bought the biggest cheapest oil they could find. It was kept near the stove and the 5 liter tins lasted quite awhile.

    All of this oil was from some Mediterranean country, presumably Italy. 99% of all the oil we Americans STILL comes from some Mediterranean country, but since Italy consumes more olive oil than they produce it may not be so likely a product of Italy.

    I am somewhat experienced with rancidity. I have recently become acquainted with FRESH oil. I now know the difference. I thought olive oil was supposed to be rancid until now.

    110 people is not an impressive sampling. Also the variation of fresh oil can range from soft and fruity to strongly bitter and pungent. I don’t like all of the oils either. I can get a high percentage of people to not like gnarly bitter oil just as assuredly I can get a high percentage to like a more delicate fruity oil. The survey could be improved.

    It is also worth noting that the Californisa Olive Oil industry is just an infant. All of the new oil producers that I have met, use the most modern technology available. There may be something romantic about the ancient art of olive oil making, but there is no substitute for science when taking a highly perishable commodity to market. Most of this technology and equipment comes from Italy. So if Italy doesnt really send much oil this way they certainly are benefiting from the export of this equipment.

  • greek oil lady

    A very strong-flavoured oil which is deep green,pungent,slightly bitter would likely be produced from very good quality olives harvested before they are ripe ( In Greece this would be October). this type of oil is very highly regarded by those who know about olive oil because it retains the maximum benefits of olive oil. While being the oil of choice for salads and generally any uncooked dish , it is usually too strong a flavour for cooking with.

    However, after a few months from harvest the flavour is milder. Also oil from olives harvested later in the season is more yellow-coloured, softer and more buttery in flavour and is good for any cooking use.(Maybe a bit too bland for salads but excellent even in cakes).

    In general I would say do choose any oil that has a pleasant fresh flavour from a single estate and no more than 12 months old. The problem with producing olive oil is that the trees tend to bear heavily every second year so that a lot of the oil on the market is too stale or at best the new years oil is mixed with what is left over from the previous year.

  • Gmhsint

    Not claiming to be an expert, but here is what we have found in selling a high quality, healthful oil in the US market: People are used to the oils that have been sent here for generations. Many are low on flavor, quality, and health value. When people taste a fresh, clean, healthful, unadulterated, and flavorful oil, they are amazed and buy it. When they taste foods fried in our oil and learn the heart and vascular benefits, they buy it. If an oil does not taste good, no matter how high the quality, people won’t buy it. Our sales are expanding mostly because of word of mouth from our customers. People want tasty, healthful, quality foods and are willing to pay a bit more to get those features. Spend a bit more to make an oil that has these features and you will be a success.

  • Stoneground

    How are the “ignorant and inexperienced American consumers” supposed to learn the differece between defective and authentic extra virgin olive oil, when some of the largest producers in California distribute mediocre and defective olive oil damaged from the November frost with the COOC stamp and seal of approval on the container? When journalist Tom Mueller, author of “Slippery Business”, was invited to speak at UC Davis back in December of 2010 he spoke eloquently and unambigously about the pervasive, self centered, provincialism that is the bane of the olive oil industry and olive oil producers everywhere. The message and the speech was enthusiastically applauded. Evidently, everyone clapping thought Mr. Mueller was speaking about other people’s provincialism. This is not the way to build a decent reputation for fair dealing, or to establish credibility for California producers and the COOC.

  • Stavros Grammatikakis

    Dear friends, I am a very small independent oil producer and would like to write some comments on the experience gained all these years of growing olive trees and production olive oil. I will write only for extra virgin olive oil.

    – First rule: Olive oil should be consumed fresh and up to eighteen months of the production. After this period it is not completely useless but can be used for frying, even for manufacture herbal butters.

    – Second rule: Should always store it in a dry shady and cool place, at all stages from production to final consumer. Most supermarkets and many consumers do not follow this rule.

    – Rule three: The acidity is a key feature of the quality of olive oil, but not the only one a consumer must have look at when purchasing an extra virgin olive oil. It should have all of the following below the highest values.

    . Acidity (expresses as% Oleic Acid): <0.8%
    . Spectrophotometric determination K232 <2.500
    . Spectrophotometric determination K270 <0.220
    . DK in ultraviolet. <0,001
    . Peroxide number (which indicates the state of oxidation of olive oil): <20
    Note: If a producer write the acidity in the label should just mention all these features too.

    At this point I will mention a few comments related to the flavor and aroma of olive oil.

    – The area of ​​trees planted. This is in my opinion very important to have superior characteristics flavor and aroma of an extra virgin olive oil. The olive tree originated in the Mediterranean region and has been an evolution in time more than 10000 years, while there is evidence that cultivated by humans for over 5000 years. For this reason, the trees in the Mediterranean is the actual physical environment and produce excellent aroma and flavor.

    A second equally important point is the variety of tree which converts organoleptic ingredients from the earth at a very superior product, one great variety example is "Koroneiki".

    Note: If someone disagrees with me, let alone think that the best coffee produced in Brazil from Arabica varieties, the best rice produced in India by the basmati varieties, the best cigars in Cuba from the varieties Partido, the best bananas in the south and Latin America from the Cavendish variety… and I can mention many many examples.

    All these plants are grown in other parts of the world, but fail to capture the aroma and taste quality of these products.

    In the end I left a very important element, the love being a producer. To produce a product with methods and ways to elevate it to higher levels year by year. Do you learn from your mistakes and correct it continuously. Avoid the hunt for money as a reward, putting quality above all.

    For all these reasons and because I see your love for olive oil on this website, I thought to offer 10 bottles from my own olive oil in ten people will contact me to address: http://www.wix.com/luxoliveoil/test with the sole obligation to pay the shipping costs.

    Best regards.

  • Eva

    That’s what my terrible experiance is. the people are already used to terrible olive oil.

  • http://twitter.com/greeklocalfood greekcompaniesonline

    Although most consumers would have second thoughts if they knew the nutritional value of the extra virgin olive oil.

    The extra virgin Olive oil has a distinct flavor and contains large amounts of plant-derived anti-oxidants, phyto-sterols and vitamins. 
    It is high in energy; 100 g oil provides 884 calories. 
    However, its high ratio of more mono-unsaturated fatty acids to saturated fatty acids makes it healthy oil for consumption.