Consumers in the United States are enthusiastic about the flavor and potential health benefits of olive oil but still a bit hazy on how to select, evaluate and describe this ancient but increasingly popular food product, according to a new survey released this week by the Olive Center at the University of California, Davis.

A survey report, which also suggests opportunities for olive oil producers to better package and market their products, is available from the Olive Center.

“The survey revealed that consumers clearly need more information that will help them understand the choices in olive oil that are available to them,” said Dan Flynn, executive director of the UC Davis Olive Center and a co-author of the study.

“With the olive oil industry in the United States now experiencing a renaissance, this is the perfect time for producers to help consumers better appreciate the flavor contrasts between fresh extra virgin olive oil and substandard oils,” Flynn said.

The survey, which probed the perceptions and attitudes of more than 2,200 individuals during spring 2012, was conducted online in two phases.

The survey revealed that more than 70 percent of the respondents were using olive oil for a variety of culinary purposes, including making salad dressings and dips, grilling, finishing or drizzling, and also baking. A surprisingly large number — 86 percent — of the respondents indicated that they also were using olive oil to sauté and deep fry foods. 

 

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“This was particularly interesting, because conventional wisdom has long held that olive oil has a low smoke point,” Flynn said. “Olive oil, in truth, has a high-enough smoke point for most cooking applications, and it’s gratifying to see that consumers have discovered that on their own.”

Olive oil is usually marketed in the United States as three different grades: extra virgin, pure, and light or extra light. No more than one out of four survey participants demonstrated an accurate understanding of these grades. For example, many respondents thought the term “pure” indicated the highest quality oil, when in reality it is applied to lower-grade olive oil blends. Extra virgin is the term for the highest quality olive oil.

Similarly, most respondents incorrectly thought that refining was done to make good olive oil even better; the process is actually used to make inferior olive oils edible. And most respondents incorrectly assumed that olive oil color is an accurate indicator of quality.