Healthful, flavorful and environmentally green, California olive oil has a promising future if word of its many benefits is effectively shared with consumers, according to UC Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor Paul Vossen, an olive oil expert.

“It’s not just an ordinary fat,” Vossen said. “Good olive oil imparts delicious, subtle flavors to foods, its antioxidants can neutralize free radicals in the body and it is ‘greener’ than other vegetable oils because it requires no heat or chemical extraction.”

Vossen says California olive oil is well worth the premium cost. The challenge will be convincing consumers that they should spend a little extra for the high-quality, healthful and tasty oils that California’s innovative farmers produce.

“Really good olive oil is something fairly new,” Vossen said. “It may take time for consumers to discover and appreciate the difference.”

For thousands of years, olive oil has been a valued cooking oil, lamp oil and medicinal oil. Countries like Spain, Greece, Italy, Cyprus, Portugal and Syria are the world’s main olive oil producers. In many areas, the use of ancient equipment and traditional cultural practices continue to this day.

Over the years, Vossen has traveled to olive producing areas all over the world – Spain, Italy, France, Portugal, Greece, Morocco, Australia, Chile and Argentina – to observe olive oil production systems. He found that old-world olives are primarily produced on a very large scale on unirrigated, poor quality farmland. Much of the fruit is harvested from the ground and rarely stored carefully before processing.

California growers use up-to-date farming methods, harvest mechanically or by hand so the fruit never touches the ground, and have replaced the smelly mats and wooden vats used in old-world production with stainless steel spinners and decanters. The outcome is olive oil that tastes as spicy, peppery and pungent as the olives from which it was made.

However, because low-quality European and Middle Eastern oil is so common, many consumers have come to think of its off-flavor as standard fare.

“The California olive oil industry is capturing the fresh fruit flavor of the olive,” Vossen said. “In clear bottles, the oil’s color ranges from moss to forest green, unlike the straw- to beige-colored oils imported from other countries. The aroma has notes of grass, green tea and green fruit.”

Currently, California is not a big player in the world olive oil market, according to statistics from the International Olive Council. U.S. olive oil producers represent about 0.5 percent of the 23.3 million acres in olive oil production worldwide.

Meanwhile, U.S. consumers use about 8 percent of the world’s olive oil and consumption of olive oil in the United States is on the rise. Per capita olive oil consumption grew 428 percent from 1990 to 2005.

Nearly all of the olive oil used in the United States is imported from other counties. In 2004-05, imported olive oil represented 99.3 percent of the total consumed. If Americans were to choose exclusively domestic oil, the 20,000 acres of olive trees currently planted for oil would have to swell to 300,000 acres. If demand continues to rise, there would be a need for even more.

“I don’t think we’ll ever have enough olives to meet U.S. demand for olive oil, but this demonstrates the tremendous market potential for olive oil in this country,” Vossen said.

About 25 percent the California olive oil industry is comprised of artisan producers with relatively small farms. The yields are fairly low, and it’s difficult and expensive to harvest. The rest of California olive oil is produced by farmers using super-high-density plantings that can be mechanically harvested. Almost all California olive oil is fresher and better-tasting than imported olive oils commonly found on supermarket shelves, according to Vossen.

“Many of the familiar supermarket olive oils are poor quality,” Vossen said. “Most have been sitting far too long and are fermented or rancid.”

The assertion on a bottle of olive oil that it is “extra virgin” means very little, Vossen said. There is no U.S. law that enforces an “extra virgin” standard. He suggests that California standards be developed that are not based on the antiquated European standards.

Vossen believes the key to boosting sales of California olive oil is to get people to taste it. “They need to know how fantastic it is,” he said.

However, good California olive oil isn’t cheap. Super premium olive oils run from $10 to $30 for a 750 milliliter bottle. Even in today’s challenging economy, Vossen believes there is a potential market for super premium California olive oil.

“If you have to cook at home instead of eating out to save money, you can minimize the sacrifice by splurging on a really good olive oil,” he said.