Olive & Oil 02/01/2012

Extra virgin olive oil & taste. What to do if people don’t like it?

If it is good, fine; but what if people don’t like it? Here is a detailed analysis on how the taste for oil changed over the years. Moreover, what about the taste of warmed up oil? It is not necessary perceived as something bad. The predilection for the different sensorial attributes of oil is not unchangeable.

How did the taste of extra virgin olive oils change over the years? Answering this question is not easy. Let’s start saying what we consider as “taste”: we use this world as a synonym for flavor, as defined by the International Olive Council, i.e. “the complex of the perceptions, the olfactory/taste/tactile and kinesthetic stimuli” elicited by oil tasting. Hence, answering the question is not easy since a plot of the oil taste vs. time doesn’t exist. However it is possible to have an answer by some indirect considerations.

First of all it is possible to analyze what the tasting school taught over the years, e.g. considering the taste of warmed up oil as a defect.

Everybody that attended or taught a tasting course knows that more then half (and probably more in the future) of the tasters in training are told to consider the taste of warmed up oil as a positive feature. The warmed up flavor is not perceived as something bad. For many of them the warmed up taste is part of our enogastronomic traditions. And this is exactly what normally happens for sensorial attributes. As Antony Hopkins/Hannibal says to Jodie Foster in “The silence of the Lamb” (1991) referring to the preferences of serial killers, “We want what we know, Clarice…”.

The attribute acceptability is not innate, nor unchangeable. It is possible to educate a population to consider as a positive attribute something that was traditionally considered as bad just by habituation. This could be considered as an improvement or a finalization of the sensorial skill.

In this case this is what happens: science demonstrated the etiology of the attribute warmed up/ residues (i.e. the anaerobic fermentation due to the bad quality of the raw materials or the oil) and labeled it as a bad attribute. Tasting schools then taught it and the oil specialist and the (skilled) consumers learnt to use this attribute to distinguish between the extra virgin and the virgin olive oil. Now they should use it as a tool for assessing quality.

This is a positive tool.

On the other hand, the South African scientists Dweba and Means recently shown in the paper “Indigenous knowledge erodes rapidly” about the use of traditional vegetables, that the indigenous culture can be forgotten very quickly. And this holds for the positive attributes, the variety and the olfactory aspects of taste, as well. It is possible to remove the fruity, the bitter or the spicy. And this is despite a law that supports the natives in preserving their habits.

This is not positive, at all.

Time can remove bad habits (and bad hygienic conditions during the processing of food) but also interesting varieties of taste and sophisticate attributes that, in the hurry to comply with the average customer taste.

In this case, time, liking and globalization of taste can sadly lead to simplification.

The authenticity of taste

Now we know that the extra virgin olive oil in order to be considered as authentic cannot undergo any refinement process. Then, the extra virgin oil quality depends on the quality of the raw material, on the extraction technologies and on the preservation modalities. It is a product that has an authentic, unchangeable taste. If it is good, fine; but what if it is not? Then, from the product perspective, back to the Hannibal analogy, even flawed virgin oils should be considered as authentic. Why do we keep forgetting this?

It was shown that consumers like what is familiar to them or what they have a clear expectation about (Caporale et al., 2006, Costell et al., 2010). Moreover the average consumer doesn’t know oils and fats and choose them on the basis of believes (Diekman and Malcom, 2009).

The sensorial dictates for extra virgin olive oils are simple, by law. The sensorial profile has to include the fruity, bitter and spicy attributes, universally recognized as positive attributes (CODEX STAN 33-1981), as “healthy substances related attributes”.

However it has been demonstrated that the average consumer doesn’t really know what the fruity attribute is and is not able to distinguish among virgin, extra virgin or refined oils.

According to a Turkish study (Pehlivan and Yilmaz, 2010) that compares oils obtained through different processes – continuous, traditional press, refined – for the 28% of consumers the acceptability level of a refined oil is the same as the one for extra virgin oil. Similar results were shown in an Italian research (Caporale et al., 2006) where it was shown that consumers were able to distinguish the main sensorial attributes but at the shelf, in a blind test, i.e. just tasting the oils without labels, they choose in equal percentages extra virgin or refined olive oils.

The same study (Caporale et al., 2006) demonstrated that providing information about the origin of the oil produces positive expectations about some attributes, such as bitterness and spiciness. For instance, for customers used to consider bitterness and spiciness as familiar attributes, such as Coratina monocultivar consumers, providing the information: “This oil is Coratina”, induces a strong expectation for bitterness and spiciness.

According to Peyrot des Gachons and colleagues (2011), a reason for perceiving spiciness as something positive exists. They show that the sensation of spiciness on the tongue and in the throat is linked to the presence of some phenols that have a strong anti-inflammatory activity, such as oleocanthal (present in extra virgin olive oils) and ibuprofen, a widely used non-steroidal anti-inflammatory.

Hence, it could be that the general role of spiciness perception receptors in our mouth, mainly TRPA1 channels, involved in the perception of spiciness in oils but also in other widespread molecules such as capsaicin and menthol, is linked to some positive biological function. This theory needs, of course, of further proofs; however if undoubtedly true that many of the substances able to elicit such a response can in some way be helpful against some forms of cancer and degenerative or cardiovascular diseases (Boyd et al., 2006; Peng and Li, 2010).

As for extra virgin olive oil, authors suggest that it would be possible to induce people to consider this spiciness sensation as something positive, exactly how happens in populations that already do it, since this seems to be an indicator of some beneficial functional effect. If this theory is correct, this attribute should be taught also to consumers that do not appreciate it at the moment, as a quality/functionality-related attribute.

As a matter of fact according to a recent study by Delgado and Guinard (2011), in US, one of the main emerging markets for oil, studying 22 samples in groups of five, the great majority of consumers consider bitterness and spiciness as negative attributes.

The oil on market can be divided in two categories: a high quality/care/price one and a “legal” one that mainly sells the denomination. Also in the customers choice at the shelf it can be demonstrated (Santosa & Guinard, 2011) that extra virgin olive oil represents for consumers both a high involvement (a sensorial experience, expensive, in small bottles) and a low involvement product (cheap, family size, neutral taste).

Then, what we can do if people don’t like it? There are two main ideas around. The first one is to build customer-designed oils that perfectly mirror the customer expectations while to other one is to diversify the taste (that actually can already be declared by law intense or delicate) and to educate customers to the healthy-related attributes, such as fruity, bitter or spicy.

di Tullia Gallina Toschi