Olive Oil Takes Over Mediterranean staple rides a rising tide with consumers

November 03, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

It's golden or bronze, silky-textured, it tastes great and it's good for you -- or at least, better for you than some alternatives. Can you guess what it is? A hint: It's positively ancient in origin. Another hint: It's No. 2 in dollar sales in its category.

If you guessed olive oil, you are most likely a savvy, health-conscious, taste-conscious consumer -- or someone who grew up in a household where olive oil is a tradition as old as the family.

"There's no question about it," says Arlene Wanderman, a dietitian who works with the International Olive Oil Council. "There's a tremendous percentage of consumers who are starting to become cognizant of how to use olive oil and what to use it in."

The idea of olive oil, which is largely a monounsaturated fat, for good health is getting some powerful backing these days. In an article in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition late last year, the authors concluded that based on research studies, monounsaturated fatty acid, "should be the major fatty acid in the diet."

And sales figures bear out olive oil's growing popularity. During the first quarter of this year, according to the industry publication Supermarket News, olive oil sales reached $59.1 million, and, with a 17 percent share of the pourable oil market, ran second only to corn oil in the category.

Many people have come to their awareness of olive oil's healthful properties through what's called "the Mediterranean diet" -- cuisine that emphasizes grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits, and is low in meat and saturated fat. People from countries where the diet is prevalent have generally been shown to have fewer of some kinds of health problems than those who live where meat and fat flavors dominate.

Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat that promotes fluidity in high-density lipoproteins, which helps eliminate cell cholesterol. Studies in many countries over the past 20 years have demonstrated the correlation between diets where the primary fat is olive oil and the lowered incidence of atherosclerosis, high blood pressure and high blood glucose.

Produce more, use more

It's no coincidence that those same countries, clustered around the Mediterranean Sea, produce the bulk of the world's olive oil -- Spain, Italy, and Greece prominent among them. Cultivation of olives for oil in this part of the world dates back at least 6,000 years.

But today, for many people, recognizing a health benefit and translating it into better eating habits may be two different things.

"There's a lot of confusion out there as regards the different types of olive oils that are available," says Michael Regina, buyer for Rockville-based Sutton Place Gourmet, whose stores routinely stock three or four dozen different olive oils. "There's an enormous proliferation of them now. There's a new one every five minutes."

Olive oils come in several varieties and every shade from pale wheat yellow to deep "olive" green. The price range is also vast: From a couple of dollars to more than $40 a bottle.

How's a poor consumer to decide?

"For practical purposes," Mr. Regina says, "there are really only two 'grades' of olive oil that matter -- pure olive oil and extra-virgin olive oil. Generally speaking, pure olive oil is a blend of mechanically produced olive oil and extra-virgin olive oil."

Extra virgin olive oil is the purest form of olive oil, made with minimal processing. Top of the line extra virgins may be "pressed" simply by the weight of the olives piled on top of each other, he says, and the resulting oil is not otherwise touched. Other extra virgins are pressed by mechanical means, and may be lightly filtered. "There are a ba-zillion variations on the theme," Mr. Regina says. "In some commercial operations, olives are pressed mechanically, sometimes under heat, down to and including pressing the pits."

The difference between pure olive oil (now called simply olive oil) and extra virgin is in the taste.

"Olive oil really is the only oil that has taste," says Luis Estupinan, vice president of marketing and sales for the Baltimore-based Pompeian, Inc., which imports a veritable lake full of olive oil and bottles it for sale in virtually every part of the United States. Forty tanks in the temperate basement of the Pulaski highway facility can store a million gallons of olive oil. "Olive oil's a natural product," Mr. Estupinan says; when groups of schoolchildren tour the plant, they're told olive oil is "a natural fruit juice."

Olive oil is very much like wine, Mr. Estupinan points out. The fruit is gathered, pressed and filtered in both cases. Unlike wine, however, olive oil is not better after years of storage; it is best used within a few months.

Consumer taste test

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