Survey Reveals Surprising Views Toward Olive Oil

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.”

More articles on: , , , , ,

This article was last updated December 18, 2014 - 7:25 PM (GMT-5)

  • Steve Williams

    I believe the names “light” and “pure” both misrepresent the product and should replaced with a less misleading “refined”.
    Further, the smoke point of EVOO (191°C is not far off that of a seed oil (204°C); use either in cooking (but NOT in deep frying!).

    • Julie

      Of course you can deep fry your food in olive oil! Cretan poeple do it every day: just taste french fries in olive oil. The best french fries!!

    • Lisa

      couldn’t agree more Steve. Pure, Light and Extra-Light are deceptive forms of labelling designed to trick unsuspecting consumers into buying refined or old oil… All producers of EVOO around the world need to unite and push for this to happen everywhere.

    • @TheOlivarCorp

      Agree, Steve re “refined” to be used. Also, deep frying is common in Spain at just below smoking. When done properly the beautiful light yet crunchy outside texture, retention of moisture in the food, reduced absorption of oil into the food and lack of greasiness… and flavour… are incredible. I have tasted delicate pastries that have been deep fried as well that are flaky and not greasy. It’s all in the technique, quality of the extra virgin olive oil, and to some extent the varietal’s properties for deep frying.

  • Annatsi

    I found out artisanal olive oil has a more pronounced teste. So when I do enjoy the test of a certain oil I will use it on salad or add it at the end of the cooking process to bring more flavor in the dish

    • @TheOlivarCorp

      Gald to hear, Annatsi. One caveat: if by artesenal you mean small family farms versus oils commercialized by large multinationals…so producing their own.. This does not necessarily mean better quality and am wondering if you have ever tasted a very low oxidation/acidity oil where you know the chemical analysis . There are many producers that are not multi-nationals that have the resources/education/drive to spend a lot more than artesenal producers on the highest quality machinery to reduce oxidation, the best harvesting methods, the necessary people for harvesting at the best point of ripeness, and the best cellaring/storing tanks with nitrogen piped in to reduce oxidation. These oils are very fruity yet clean and very fresh tasting – sippable. The real quality test aside from a beautiful texture and taste experience is the chemical analysis of the oil – level of oxidation and broken down fats. It is not automatic that artesenal means these. Often it does not.

  • Janice H.

    It doesn’t surprise me that “grassy” did not appeal to many — but I would think most would like the “fruity” and “peppery” descriptors.

  • Galoppino

    Because for over 2000 years humans cooked baked and fried in olive oil way before uc davis or celebrity chefs were born.