` How Expert Advice is Helping Catalonia’s Olive Oil Sector

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How Expert Advice is Helping Catalonia’s Olive Oil Sector

Jun. 24, 2014
By Julie Butler

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Agustí Romero

From olive oil that’s too yel­low, to the per­ils of exces­sive pun­gency and the unfil­tered is best’ fal­lacy – these are among the issues the Cata­lan agri­cul­ture, food and aqua­cul­ture research insti­tute (IRTA) has recently dealt with as part of its work with the olive oil sec­tor. Agustí Romero, from IRTA’s olive oil research team, shares more:

Q. What are some recent exam­ples of your work with pro­duc­ers?

A. I recently spoke to one whose oil is quite yel­low. That makes no dif­fer­ence to qual­ity or health­ful­ness but his cus­tomers pre­fer green extra vir­gin olive oil.

In this case the likely rea­son is that the small (less than 300kg/hr of olives) cen­trifuge he uses – one used by a lot of small pro­duc­ers – tends to remove plant-derived chloro­phyll from the oil. Our advice was to invest in a new machine that doesn’t do this, if this is a crit­i­cal point for sales.

In another case, a pro­ducer of oils from Argudell olives was shocked by the very dif­fer­ent sen­sory results for two of his oils – one fil­tered and the other not. The fil­tered one was fresh, green, intense, com­plex and rich in polyphe­nols, but the unfil­tered one was cloudy and lacked com­plex­ity and fla­vor and that’s because it con­tained some water in sus­pen­sion.

The grower was sur­prised to hear this because many Cata­lan pro­duc­ers think peo­ple pre­fer unfil­tered oil, that it’s eas­ier to sell, and that because seed oils are fil­tered, vir­gin olive oil must be set apart by not fil­ter­ing it. But many exper­i­ments show unfil­tered oil loses a lot of its inten­sity, even in the first five hours. After a short time in the bot­tle, fil­tered oil is organolep­ti­cally bet­ter.

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Q. What are some exam­ples of how IRTA helps pro­duc­ers find the right mar­ket?

A. Many grow­ers pro­duce only small vol­umes so it’s eas­ier if they focus on one mar­ket. We advise on how to choose it and sell there. For instance, the bal­ance of antiox­i­dants, polyphe­nols, pig­ments and fla­vors affects shelf life and whether you should sell to near or far mar­kets.

The U.S. is a very long rota­tion mar­ket so you need vir­gin oils with a shelf life of at least two years, rul­ing out vari­eties that are very low in polyphe­nols. It also implies early har­vest­ing. Buy­ers there are more demand­ing and spe­cific about what they want, for exam­ple ask­ing for green, sharp or com­plex oils. China seems to be a faster mar­ket but requires more mar­ket­ing inspir­ing con­fi­dence in a product’s qual­ity, so label­ing and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion are cru­cial.

Q. How does polyphe­nol con­tent affect mar­ket­ing?

A. Cur­rent chem­i­cal tests mea­sure total polyphe­nol con­tent but sen­sory analy­sis tells us about bit­ter­ness, pun­gency and astrin­gency and allows us to split this up a lit­tle.

For instance oleo­can­thal is the polyphe­nol most asso­ci­ated with pun­gency in the throat and it’s very sta­ble, it lasts well in vir­gin olive oil so when you have a lot of pun­gency you have a prob­lem because con­sumers accept a cer­tain level of pun­gency but not too much, and if you have this prob­lem it per­sists for the oil’s entire shelf life.

The polyphe­nols that cause astrin­gency (mainly tyrosol) are very good antiox­i­dants and the first to decay, then those that pro­duce bit­ter­ness (mainly the deriv­a­tives of oleu­ropein), and then those respon­si­ble for com­plex­ity of fla­vor (volatile com­pounds from the lipoxy­ge­nase (LOX) path­way).

Pro­duc­ers feel proud if their oil has a high over­all level of polyphe­nols, and for the US mar­ket we rec­om­mend they aim for the max­i­mum level at point of ori­gin – because the oil then has to get there – but what is needed is a medium inten­sity of pun­gency and bit­ter­ness because peo­ple gen­er­ally don’t like too much. It depends on the vari­ety but that usu­ally means lev­els of 300 – 500 ppm of polyphe­nols as caf­feic acid.

Q. How are grow­ers cap­i­tal­iz­ing on Catalonia’s ancient olive trees?

A. In the south of Cat­alo­nia there are some 4,400 trees aged 700‑1000 years old. This allows the pro­duc­tion of a spe­cial line of oil cer­ti­fied as from these ancient trees and we’ve been work­ing along two lines to help get a good price for it.

One is look­ing at the dif­fer­ences between vir­gin olive oil from these trees and from younger trees. It’s very hard to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between trees of the same vari­ety if the olives are of equal qual­ity and the cul­ti­va­tion meth­ods the same. But the old trees’ larger roots go deeper and that may be why the iso­topic com­po­si­tion of the oil dif­fers. Iso­topes don’t smell so have no impact on the sen­sory prop­er­ties of the oil but we can say that these trees work in a dif­fer­ent way to young trees.

We also asked chefs to cre­ate recipes for meals related to this area and using this olive oil and now have a ded­i­cated cook­book.

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Q. Why did you work with chefs on olive oil nomen­cla­ture?

A. We’re work­ing with chefs through the Alí­cia Foun­da­tion (a food sci­ence research cen­ter near Barcelona) to trans­late the lan­guage tasters use to dis­cuss an olive oil’s char­ac­ter­is­tics, such as fruiti­ness and bit­ter­ness, into what chefs use, for instance they might use the terms aro­matic and sharp to describe a com­plex olive oil with green fruiti­ness.

This helps when they do tests on fry­ing with dif­fer­ent oils such as canola, sun­flower oil and vir­gin olive oil to see if one improves the final meal. As vir­gin olive oil isn’t just one prod­uct – there are hun­dreds of dif­fer­ent aro­matic pro­files – it helps select the best vir­gin olive oil for a par­tic­u­lar cook­ing process.

Q. What is the main chal­lenge for the global olive oil sec­tor?

A. Deodor­iza­tion is the biggest prob­lem now because there are lots of lam­pante oils and, unlike in the past, they’re not so bad, they’re often near the level of vir­gin oils. It’s quite easy to find a lam­pante oil that’s chem­i­cally per­fect but has a sen­sory defect, such as tast­ing vine­gary or of frost­bit­ten olives. Refiner­ies buy these oils and sim­ply remove the odor defects. It’s quite easy and the oil doesn’t change at mol­e­c­u­lar level so it’s hard to iden­tify when a vir­gin oil con­tains a cer­tain amount of soft-deodor­ized oil.


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