WHO, WHAT, WHY?
The Magazine answers...
Sales of olive oil have gone up 39% in the last five years and for the first time outstrip all other oils. Why?
Enemy of cancer, heart disease, old age and cholesterol
The Mediterranean diet has long been hailed as cutting the risk of a heart attack, with olive oil hailed as the key ingredient.
Scientists believe they have pinpointed the micronutrients in the oil that make it a good heart protector and say introducing it to a diet can have a significant impact.
New research suggests that Britons are taking the advice on board. Annual sales have hit £104m - up 39% since 2000, according to market analysts Mintel.
More money is spent on olive oil than standard oils, such as vegetable and sunflower oil, according to the Edible Oils report.
"The popularity of olive oil has not only been helped by its aspirational value, but also by its association with Mediterranean cooking and the health claims linked with this way of life," says Claire Birks, senior market analyst at Mintel.
Olive trees were cultivated in the Mediterranean as long ago as 3000 BC. It is the unadulterated juice of crushed olives and contains no additives or preservatives.
It is an oil high in monounsaturates, which means it can help to control cholesterol levels as part of a healthy balanced diet. And its high vitamin E content helps to stave off heart disease.
The prevention of skin, breast and colon cancer has been linked to properties such as oleic acid and phenols, found in olive oil.
Italy, Spain and Greece are the largest producers. Within each country there is huge diversity of regional flavour and styles, and more than 80 varieties of olives are used in the production of olive oil.
Geoff Davies, director of the Italian Olive Oil Company, based in Sussex, sells top-of-the-range olive oil. It is Italian, single estate, first cold stone pressed, extra-virgin olive oil. He says people thought he was a fool when he started his business four years ago.
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"I was selling premier olive oil at £35 for half a litre. Now I consistently sell out of that oil every year and even sell better oil at £65 for half a litre. Olive oil is like wine, when it's gone, it's gone. You can't make it up like engine oil.
"Most people in the UK now have olive in their kitchen. It might be bad quality, but they have it. They are aware of the health benefits and I think it's also because most people now go abroad. They taste it in Mediterranean countries, like it, and so buy it when they are back home."
The research suggests the most likely consumer is in social class AB, lives in London or the South East and is aged 45 to 54. A separate study says Waitrose and Sainsbury's sell the most.
Dietician Azmina Govindji, of the British Dietetic Association, says publicity about olive oil's link with longevity, plus the influence of celebrity chefs, are key factors in its popularity. And this is one health message that has got through.
"When we encourage people to eat foods, it's always much better received than when we suggest they don't eat it. So actually being allowed to enjoy a food that you would consider to be an indulgence or even banned, is very attractive.
"This is also propelled by the consensus of opinion amongst scientists about the value of olive oil as part of a balanced eating plan."
Given the premium pricing, it's no surprise consumers tend to be wealthier, she says, so she advises her patients that rapeseed oil has similar properties and is much cheaper.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
I can't speak for anyone else, but I buy more olive oil these days for four simple reasons: Firstly it imparts a better flavour to the food cooked in it than vegetable oil, secondly, I have young children and therefore tend not to use ground-nut oil any more, thirdly, unlike corn oil, it is highly unlikely to have GM produce in it, and finally the price of it has come down in recent years because more people want it. For roasting and deep frying however, you absolutely cannot beat LARD and DRIPPING!
Malk Williams, Leighton Buzzard, UK
I think this article misses another reason why people buy olive oil: it tastes nice. You can make a simple salad dressing just with olive oil and salt and pepper: it enhances the flavour. Run out of pasta sauces? Throw on some olive oil, seasoning and parmesan (or cheddar for that matter).
Al, St Albans, UK
As a British expat for a US NGO, I have been working in the Republic of Montenegro since 2003 and more recently one aspect of our work has been on the development/ regeneration of the olive oil industry in the (Mediterranean) coastal regions of this Republic. Part of our work is also to attempt to increase the production and quality of the oil to enable it to get into the export market. I would therefore be very interested to hear from anybody that is interested in hearing more about the presently untapped olive oil industry potential here to see if there would be any areas of collaboration in the near future.
Robert Harris, Budva, Montenegro.
I am Greek and I have olive tree fields that produce about 500 litres of PURE ORGANIC olive oil per year. In addition, my fields are in Peloponnese, which together with the olive oil produced in Crete are accredited as the best olive oils in the whole world! One thing is for sure though, my olive oil, which is of the best quality you could find anywhere, costs maximum £4 per litre! After reading the BBC article above, I am thinking now of marketing my olive oil in UK at £70 per litre and make a profit of £66 (per litre)! Thank you Geoff Davies for the advice!
Roula, Bradford, UK
As far as I'm concerned, the reason I use olive oil is that it tastes good. I've given up buying anything based on the so-called health benefits, because the 'experts' change their minds on what constitutes good and bad every five minutes.
Kate Gilderdale, Stouffville, Ontario, Canada
£65 per half litre! I can't imagine many people in the Mediterranean would be so deluded as to pay that much for oil. No doubt next year they'll be paying hundreds for double fermented vintage soy sauce - if they don't already.
Simon, Works UK
Like most of the foodstuffs available in our supermarkets, there is a massive range of quality in olive oil. Price is usually an indication of quality but not always. Look for and spend a little extra on at least extra-virgin oil but preferably first cold pressed. The cheap stuff may have some taste of olive but it contains about as much of the good stuff as the vegetable oil next to it.
Simon, Essaouira, Morocco
I can't understand the fuss - Olive oil tastes, well, *oily* to me, and I don't care for it. I'd rather have my salad with no dressing at all...and I'm pretty sure that's even healthier.
Olive oil should be treated with respect as one would treat a good wine. Care should be taken to not overheat olive oil if cooking with it. Here in France we add some water to the oil if it is to be used to 'seal' meat before braising, to prevent the oil from becoming 'harmful' instead of healthy. It should not be used to replace 'cooking oil'.
Jackie May, FRANCE
The production of rapeseed oil (comment by Azmina Govindji in this article) is causing the destruction of forest and animal habitats across South East Asia, the production of olive oil, isn't.
Kenneth Jessett, Houston, USA
It's only in the UK, not surprisingly that olive oil is seen as almost glamorous. Elsewhere, all over the world, it is a staple product, and therefore cheap. And what does the premium oil have to offer over the less refined/blended ones?
Andrew Plumb, Bollington, Cheshire/ Los Angeles, USA
The health properties of olive oil are only found in Virgin or Extra Virgin olive oil (less than 1º acidity). Beware of buying other olive oil, as it is only recycled and has gone through industrial cycles that destroy these great properties.
Seb Sheppard, Zufre, Huelva, Spain
My love of Olive Oil started with the first episode of Popeye.
Sean Brown, Dundee, UK
I am 28 and for the last 5 years have used Olive oil. I think the man running in the Olivo advert does it for me. We all have to take healthy living on board and although I have no heart or health problems I believe prevention is better than cure and wish the government would clamp down on unhealthy foods and make it less expensive for the healthy foods. That way people from deprived areas have the option also.
There is probably not that much wrong with consuming olive oil, but in terms of fighting heart disease the correlation is weak at best. Far better advice would be to avoid using vegetable oils and margarine (containing hydrogenated fat).
My girlfriend is highly allergic to olives, and by extension olive oil. What used to be a minor inconvenience has now effectively seen us barred from most restaurants. Even should be safe-havens like Indian and Mexican foods are becoming no-go.
Alan J. Brown, Glasgow, Scotland
3,000 years ago Greece & Southern Italy were lush green lands. Now they're barren. The culprit isn't global warming- its the olive tree. Olive tree's have a single big root that doesn't bind the soil properly. Olive groves lead to massive soil loss. The rise in olive oil consumption isn't all good news.
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