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


How Expert Advice is Helping Catalonia’s Olive Oil Sector

Jun. 24, 2014
By Julie Butler

Recent News

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.


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.


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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