By Gita Narrayani
Olive Oil Times Contributor | Reporting from Kolkata, India
Big Market Getting Bigger
India ranks fourth in consumption of vegetable oil in the world and is a leading importer of this produce. Edible oil import to the country are around 5.4 million tonnes making India third in total imports of edible oil in the global economy. The industry is growing at a rate of 90% and is expected to reach a growth rate of 150% in the near future. The opening of India’s economy and increasing exposure to world trends in cuisine and other areas has slowly brought olive oil to the attention of health-conscious Indians. The growing popularity is shown in the increase in imports of olive oil, which has gone up from 2300 tonnes in 2007 to around 4500 tonnes in 2008. Demand is estimated to increase to 42,000 tonnes in 2012, with the growing middle class affluence and concerns about health and fitness.
Olive Oil Promotion
A promotion and awareness campaign has been launched in India by the International Olive Council (IOC), a UNDP-promoted intergovernmental organization based in Madrid, Spain. Magdalini Rappou the head of promotions and trade fairs of the IOC has been in charge of this ongoing campaign since 2007 and road-shows, workshops and participation in food fairs and other events have been organized as part of this promotional blitz. The IOC feels that India, with its burgeoning economy and traditions of natural and vegetarian cuisine, is aptly positioned to accept olive oil as a cooking medium.
Until now, olive oil has been looked upon as a cosmetic aid, enhancing complexion and beauty and used in India primarily for this purpose. The IOC and large producers are working to publicize the health benefits of using olive oil as a cooking medium, especially its ability to mitigate cardiovascular disease, aging and diabetes. Prahlad Kakkar well-known adman and celebrity chef was roped in for demonstrations of fine Indian cooking with olive oil. These events were held in Pune, Ahmedabad and other Indian cities and were well-attended with medical and health professionals explaining the varied benefits of olive oil as a cooking medium. The objective was to impress upon the audience that it was possible to cook Indian dishes with olive oil, as the common assumption was that it was not suitable for the spicy and multi-flavored cuisine of this country.
IOC has been successful in promoting olive oil in the USA, which began in the 1980’s. This helped to increase consumption from 20,000 tonnes to 150,000 tonnes per year there. The Indian scenario, though not as stunning a success, is also encouraging and it is hoped that the campaign will generate awareness and interest and then subsequently an impact on the consumption patterns.
Olive Cultivation in India
The main hurdle in the way of mass and popular consumption of olive oil is its exorbitant price to ordinary Indians. One liter is normally in the price range of INR 400 to 1000 (around US$ 9 to 23) and this is certainly beyond the capacity of the majority of the Indian population. Though the import duty was reduced to 7.5 % from 45 % some years ago, the price of olive oil still remains much higher than other edible oils available in the market. Apart from the upper echelons of the social hierarchy who have the awareness and the money, olive oil has been beyond the reach of the average Indian. Unless this crucial aspect is addressed, olive oil consumption and the consequent health benefits would remain limited to a very miniscule segment of India’s huge population.
Local cultivation of olives is probably the only answer to this problem. In 2007, a pilot project got underway near Jaipur in Rajasthan, which has been implemented with the help of Israel. As the Negev desert was cultivated and is now blooming, it is hoped that the arid land of Rajasthan will come alive with the success of this project. It is a 3-year plan and ultimately, 25 million hectares are expected to be planted with olive trees, but it will take five more years for the production of the oil in India.
The Punjab and Himachal Pradesh governments have also initiated similar projects to cultivate olive trees in over 300 hectares. The Indian Olive Association based in the capital New Delhi, is optimistic about the growth of olive oil consumption in the country and the cultivation plans if successful, can definitely make this healthy cooking medium more affordable and within the reach of the average Indian.
Olive oil has several grades ranging from extra virgin, virgin, olive oil and olive pomace oil depending on its chemistry, flavor and method of manufacture. In India, olive oil is generally seen as highly flavored and unsuitable for cooking. The extra virgin oil is used mainly for salad dressing, flavoring and as an addition to condiments and sauces. It is also widely used for massage and facials as it is considered the best oil for the skin and hair. This oil is now priced at INR 700 a liter and is around 20% of the olive oil imports into the country. The olive oil category priced at INR 600 a liter is also not used for cooking, but used for baking cakes and pastries and accounts for 55% of imports. Olive pomace oil accounts for the rest which is around 25%, retails for INR 400 a liter and is found to be suitable for Indian cooking.
To significantly raise consumption levels, it is necessary to increase awareness of the goodness of olive oil as a cooking medium and also make it available to a wider cross-section of the Indian public. Confining use to a small minority of the culinary elite would not be advantageous in the long run and neither would the benefits of olive oil consumption reach the vast majority of people in India. Like in Spain and Italy, where olive oil is widely used for cooking and relished by most people, in India too it must be priced reasonably and available freely. Only then will olive oil really make a difference to the health problems faced by Indians today like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.