Please excuse me for finding this somewhat fascinating, but olive oil could easily be considered a food group for me… so I’m ridiculously fascinated by these food studies coming out of the UC Davis Olive Center.
The latest news essentially reveals that people don’t seem to like “quality” olive oils, and instead prefer rancid tasting ones. In other words, consumers have no idea what quality is supposed to taste like.
The new study captured the preferences of 110 Northern California olive oil consumers and the reasons for those preferences. The study participants were asked to taste and rate 22 commercial olive oils that were labeled as extra virgin. Half of the oils in the study were imported, and half were from California.
The study found that 74 percent of the consumers did not like what the expert tasters identified as high-quality oil — those that were bitter, pungent and free of defects. Bitterness and pungency are two of the positive sensory attributes of high-quality olive oil, as identified by International Olive Council standards.
The researchers note that, in the case of other food products such as specialty beers and coffees, bitterness is an attribute that consumers initially dislike but learn to accept. They suggest that consumers might find bitterness and pungency more acceptable when using olive oil with food and in cooking and by knowing that healthy antioxidants in the oil are the cause of bitterness and pungency.
Consumers participating in the study did like those olive oils that had the third desirable attribute of extra virgin olive oil, which is fruitiness. In order for an olive oil to be considered extra virgin, it must have some fruitiness and zero defects such as rancidity.
Surprisingly, 44 percent of the consumers liked the olive oils that had rancid flavors, even though this is an undesirable quality that would disqualify an olive oil from being considered extra virgin.
The authors note that most of the defective oils in the study were European imports and suggest that this bodes well for the California olive oil industry. They predict that as consumers learn about the many nutritional benefits and sensory qualities of extra-virgin olive oil, the California industry will be poised for exponential growth.
I find this hilarious on many levels, as this argument can be repeated with so many foods and food products. Wine, cheese, beer, chocolate, etc. Often what is the “best” by the standard of the industry is extreme in tastes that we’re just not used to… and our palate prefers things with a more mellow and subtle flavor.
Here’s my favorite quote from the study:
“Given that American consumers are relatively “new” consumers of EVOO, the rejection of bitterness and pungency is a natural reaction, in that poisonous or toxic substances tend to be bitter. Since humans acquire a taste for bitterness and pungency as adults and in response to learning or cultural processes ([Drewnowski, 1997], Drewnowski and Gomez-Carneros, 2000 A. Drewnowski and C. Gomez-Carneros, Bitter taste, phytonutrients, and the consumer: A review, Am J Clin Nutr 72 (6) (2000), pp. 1424–1435. View Record in Scopus | Cited By in Scopus (182)[Drewnowski and Gomez-Carneros, 2000] and [Kim et al., 2004]), consumers in emergent markets may not have enough exposure to the product to have learned to appreciate bitterness and pungency in olive oil. Similar responses have been obtained in evaluating green vegetables and beers, among others; consumers did not like products that were heavily bitter and/or ranked them as lower in quality than products with less bitterness ([Guinard et al., 1996] and [Bech et al., 2009]).”
I always said that if I would head to Brussels, Belgium if I was granted a “eat everything in sight” pass for a week. I can’t tell you how many different cuisines I consumed there that all became “the best” things that I’d ever eaten. It was only after speaking with the restaurateurs there that they revealed the secret. With the EU headquarters there, they’ve developed a very neutral style of cooking. The Cuban restaurant I ate at was insanely good – mainly because it wasn’t very authentic but more for anyone to enjoy. I mean, how do you think Taco Bell has survived for so long?
So who wins out here? I mean, isn’t it saying something if people prefer the “bad” stuff? Are we supposed to ignore our preferences and change our tastes to enjoy the quality despite our resistance to it?
I don’t know about you… but sometimes I just want to eat a hunk of Brie from TJ’s with my $5 bottle of table white wine and watch How I Met Your Mother. Sure, I can order the $20 cheese plate on a special occasion and enjoy a glass of some local vintage, but most days my tongue just wants to keep things simple.
Oh… and I’ll never ever ever be a bitter beer person. Never. :)