Yale Olive Oil Conference Underway

No less than 26 speakers each had between 20 and 40 minutes today in a rapid-fire mix of mostly scientific presentations on the mechanisms behind the health benefits of olive oil.

Juan González Bueno
Oct. 3, 2018
By Curtis Cord
Juan González Bueno

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A con­fer­ence on olive oil com­menced at the Yale School of Public Health (YSPH) today with the aim of estab­lish­ing a research cen­ter on the New Haven, Connecticut cam­pus.

The mod­est atten­dance of fifty — around half of whom were speak­ers — came from as far as Greece for the two-day event.

The pro­gram was in line with olive oil health and research con­fer­ences held every so often around the world, except for the ambi­tious objec­tive of estab­lish­ing an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary cen­ter for olive oil at an American Ivy League uni­ver­sity far removed from any pro­duc­ing region.

Many of the atten­dees came to the New Haven gath­er­ing to have a hand in the for­ma­tion of a new cen­ter here.

Bolstered by the unde­ni­able pres­tige of the Yale ban­ner, the con­fer­ence orga­niz­ers, Associate Research Scientist Tassos C. Kyriakides and Professor and Chair Vasilis Vasiliou were already field­ing pro­pos­als of sup­port from the var­i­ous fac­tions of the indus­try present. By mid­day, they were voic­ing sup­port for an offer to hold next year’s meet­ing in Greece and in Spain the year after that.

One attendee said she hoped to advise the Yale offi­cials to man­age sources of fund­ing in a way that would avoid the appear­ance of bias that would under­cut the cen­ter’s impact, while she con­ceded the renowned uni­ver­sity was cer­tainly well-versed in safe­guard­ing its stel­lar rep­u­ta­tion.

No less than 26 speak­ers each had between 20 and 40 min­utes today in a rapid-fire mix of health and nutri­tion; mar­ket­ing and edu­ca­tion; qual­ity assess­ment, test­ing and biol­ogy.

It was sci­ence-heavy, befit­ting its set­ting within the inner-city cam­pus of Yale’s Public Health com­plex of tech­ni­cal research and health cen­ters.

Kyriakides, who con­ceived the ini­tia­tive with Vasiliou said this morn­ing the new Yale Center would break down the silos and open the groves,” in an appar­ent ref­er­ence to the frag­mented, ter­ri­to­r­ial nature of olive oil research and pro­mo­tion.

Apart from most of the pre­sen­ta­tions that were thick with tech­ni­cal data and sci­en­tific find­ings, a few of the speak­ers set out to tackle the dis­mal level of under­stand­ing about olive oil among Americans and the ris­ing lev­els of mis­trust and con­fu­sion that they said had led to slug­gish growth in con­sump­tion.

One such speaker was the first to address the room: North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) Executive Director Joseph R. Profaci who, at a con­fer­ence that seemed ori­ented toward the future, could­n’t resist air­ing his group’s ongo­ing bat­tle with neg­a­tive pub­lic­ity spurred by a 2010 report by the University of California at Davis that was crit­i­cal of the qual­ity of super­mar­ket oils — par­tic­u­larly imported brands rep­re­sented by the NAOOA.

While the Davis report has been far from the only such exposé in the nearly nine years since its pub­li­ca­tion, Profaci said his team actively tracks neg­a­tive sto­ries about olive oil,” and found the Davis study cited by nearly two-thirds of the neg­a­tive cov­er­age.” (The UC Davis report was financed by California’s indus­try stake­hold­ers. It was lim­ited in scope and found more than two-thirds of imported brands to be sub­stan­dard — not fake” nor adul­ter­ated as many news out­lets have cited as its find­ings.)

Profaci out­lined what he called the NAOOA’s Immediate Action Items” — to stop false attacks, erad­i­cate con­sumer con­fu­sion and edu­cate con­sumers about olive oil health ben­e­fits,” — but there was no men­tion, at least today, of mea­sures his group is tak­ing to improve qual­ity.

A unique per­spec­tive was offered by Joan González-Bueno, the pro­pri­etor of Tierra Callada, an award-win­ning Picual from Spain.

González-Bueno, who sin­gle-hand­edly mar­kets and ships his oils in the U.S. mar­ket, shared boots-on-the-ground obser­va­tions of his inter­ac­tions with the pub­lic at his in-store tast­ings and direct sales.

He illus­trated the chal­lenges he sees in a mar­ket char­ac­ter­ized by a lack of real knowl­edge about one of the world’s most nutri­tious foods.

It breaks my heart when, for exam­ple, some­one would come to me and con­fi­dently ask: Is your oil cold-pressed?’ ” González-Bueno said, cit­ing the com­mon mar­ket­ing term that many con­sumers falsely believe is a mean­ing­ful indi­ca­tion on a bot­tle label.

Well, it’s not pressed, and it’s not very cold,” he said of his stan­dard reply that elicited chuck­les in the room of experts. (Most oils are extracted in a cen­trifuge and there is no def­i­n­i­tion of cold” in inter­na­tional stan­dards. Any intro­duc­tion of high heat can­not be tol­er­ated to pro­duce an oil that is extra vir­gin, which in a per­fect world would have far more mean­ing to a knowl­edge­able con­sumer.)

Many of the atten­dees today have their sights on day 2 of the event when work­ing groups will con­vene to kick ideas around the var­i­ous areas of activ­ity the pro­posed Yale Center would occupy.

Late in the after­noon as the con­fer­ence wound down, Nicholas Coleman, an ole­ol­o­gist and pur­veyor of a bespoke olive oil sub­scrip­tion club, punc­tu­ated the long tech and health sci­ence-heavy day with an indis­putable truth: One of the eas­i­est ways to improve the qual­ity of your life on a daily basis is to intro­duce olive oil to your life.”

It was a truly amaz­ing day,” Vasiliou pro­claimed in his final remarks. We just put the base here for a cen­ter.”

Ideas come at moments when you least expect it,” Kyriakides added, explain­ing to a reporter how the idea for the ini­tia­tive came over a cof­fee in his depart­ment chair’s office. I was won­der­ing how you blend peo­ple of so many dif­fer­ent back­grounds and I just have to remind them to bring it back to olive oil and to stay focused.”


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