Think of a recent time when you tried a new gourmet specialty food only to be disappointed in its taste or texture. Chances are you wrote it off, decided to remove it from your growing culinary vocabulary and moved on to edibles that were, well, more edible.
Unfortunately, extra virgin olive oil is in danger of facing this fate every day. And like spinach, no amount of healthy logic can out reason everyone's taste buds.
One of the biggest challenges that the U.S. olive oil industry confronts is educating consumers on the value and everyday use of EVOO in their kitchens. It helps that TV celebrity chefs promote the prowess of olive oil. And the new IOC marketing campaign extolling the virtues of imported oil is bound to build awareness too. But, both of these efforts will miss the mark if the industry doesn’t acknowledge a fundamental challenge: many U.S. consumers just don’t like food that is bitter or pungent.
Two recent research studies, reporting on consumer preference in olive oil, demonstrate that industry pundits are not always right when it comes to pushing products based purely on nutritional and health benefits, ignoring the fact that many consumers don’t like certain flavor profiles. According to research conducted by sensory scientists at UC Davis, 74% see bitter and pungent as negative attributes of olive oil. Conversely, 44% like their olive oil rancid, musty, fusty and winey. What? Don’t they know those are signs of inferior quality? Go figure. Even many “enlightened” consumers who have embraced olive oil prefer the milder taste of nutty, buttery and fruity oils over highly spicy, pungent Tuscan-styles.
Domestic olive oil producers should take a lesson from culinary history. Remember Coca-Cola’s attempt to reformulate their flagship soft drink in 1985? It is probably the best known example of the power of consumer reaction when “taste” doesn’t meet expectation – and that was all before social media made individual opinion a viral certainty. The new formulation was, in a word, a disaster. Then there was the momentary introduction of Vegemite – a staple in the Australian kitchen – but so out of character with U.S. taste buds, its demise was swift - less than a blip on the culinary scene.
So, what to do? One, don’t ask new consumers to try your oil “out-of-context”. If they are never going to down a shot glass of olive oil on its own, tasting it this way is a false test and does the industry a disservice. Two, go after low hanging fruit. Some consumer taste preference is cultural, but some is learned. Find an adventurous audience willing to suspend disbelief until they pair it with the right foods. Three, consider rethinking your product’s flavor profile. If you want to push the envelope with a stronger, pungent style to please yourself or the “experts”, just be aware that not many consumers will follow you there. But, don’t worry, the industry will thank you for being brave in the face of certain danger.