By Nancy Flagg
Olive Oil Times Contributor | Reporting from Sacramento

Despite conventional wisdom that olive oil should not be used for cooking, consumers do it anyway, according to a UC Davis Olive Center report.

The report was based on a survey designed to discover consumer attitudes and perceptions towards olive oil. Among six areas surveyed, Executive Director Dan Flynn was most surprised by consumer responses about cooking with olive oil.

Research shows that olive oil’s smoke point, the temperature at which it gives off smoke and degrades in quality, is high enough to support most cooking, but the “media, cookbooks and celebrity chefs tell people not to cook with olive oil,” said Flynn. Consumers “apparently did it anyway and found the sky didn’t fall.”

More than 2,200 consumers responded to the Olive Center’s online survey. After analyzing the results, researchers concluded that “consumers believe that they know more about olive oil than they actually do.”

As an example of the disconnect between perceived and actual knowledge, no more than 25 percent of survey respondents correctly answered questions testing their understanding of “extra virgin,” “pure,” and “light” grades, even though the majority indicated that they knew the differences between the grades.

Nearly half of the participants thought that the label “pure” designated the highest quality oil, and many consumers believed that olive oil labeled “light” pertained to its calorie count, when it actually means that the oil was refined and is more neutral in flavor than higher grades.

The survey showed that flavor was the top factor affecting consumer purchases of olive oil, but descriptive words used by the industry to describe the positive taste attributes of olive oil, do not always have a corresponding impact on consumers. Consumers agreed that that the word “fresh” describes good-tasting oil, but the words “fruity,” “peppery,” and “grassy,” did not resonate well as indicators of tastiness.

The report also revealed that consumers choose olive oil over other fats because they perceive it as healthier and tasting better, even though a large percentage of responders did not think that olive oil is good for consuming as it is. Many make their olive oil selection based on “best before date,” although a UC Davis Olive Center study showed that the date bears little correlation to quality.

Flynn believes that the report provide insight that producers or industry associations could use to improve marketing and to help consumers better understand olive oil.

Although the survey focused on U.S. customers, it “would be interesting to see how the results would compare to other countries,” said Flynn.

Flynn is particularly interested in doing more research on conventional wisdom. In one example, a standard piece of advice to prevent oxidation is, “don’t put olive oil in a clear bottle.” Flynn says the advice is good, but research could determine if clear bottles could safely be used if they were mostly covered by a label. He would like to do a research project simulating supermarket conditions with shelves, overhead lights and bottles placed on different shelf levels to “see what would happen.”

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