While the domestic industry strives to become a bigger part of total olive oil sales in the U.S., they are battling many factors, including lower-priced imports, adulterated products, and consumer perception of what defines high quality extra virgin olive oil.
Key findings from a recent research study conducted by University of California, Davis, reveal a large disparity between consumer preference and expert assessment of extra virgin olive oil. Results showed that two of the most distinctive, positive properties, bitterness and pungency, were negative drivers of liking. While fruity, nutty, buttery and tea-like qualities fared better, defective characteristics like rancidity, mustiness, fustiness and winey-flavor also drove consumer appeal.
Published in the March 2011 edition of Food Quality and Preference, the study “How do consumer hedonic ratings for extra virgin olive oil relate to quality ratings by expert and descriptive analysis ratings?” was authored by Claudia Delgado and Jean-Xavier Guinard, sensory scientists at UC Davis. Twenty-two oils, evenly split between imported and domestic, were sampled by a base of 110 California consumers.
The results of the study point to the industry’s need to provide greater consumer awareness and appreciation for the sensory attributes that exemplify the healthiest and highest quality product. Not surprisingly, the research confirmed that price, packaging, and brand reputation were also key factors in brand selection and purchase.
Olive oil’s popularity continues to grow at exponential rates in the United States based on two main reasons: health benefits and flavor. But, the research presents a real industry quandary: the healthiest extra virgin olive oils are often the most bitter and pungent due to their high levels of phenolic compounds. The appeal of negative sensory properties is likely a result of consumers becoming accustomed to defective oils, whether the result of purchasing cheap, imported, low-quality oils, or quality deterioration from improper storage in home kitchens or restaurants. Adoption and appreciation for the best oils will grow as consumers learn to appreciate these same sensory attributes, but it will clearly take re-education and time to convert consumers to an acquired taste for these qualities.