Bitter, salty, robust and tangy. Not the usual words to describe a fruit. Yet, olive oil is an exceptionally healthy and delicious cooking tool made of fruit, that can enhance virtually any dish.
However, unlike a filet of Kobe Beef or caviar, it can be hard to swallow the cost of an item that is primarily used just to prepare the food. Why is olive oil so expensive?
Olives are a coveted food source that continue to be handpicked across the world. This requires time and patience, as well as a lot of hands!
The process of creating good olive oil is also quite extensive. The certification procedures to achieve ‘Extra Virgin’ status further raise the price.
Additionally, weather conditions, the spectacular health benefits and the high demand for this kitchen favorite all drive up the price. Thus, expect to spend between $15 to $30 for a bottle of high quality cold pressed extra virgin olive oil!
Farm To Table
Harvesting Issues — More Than Just A Monetary Cost
Olive harvests were originally done by hand. However, in more recent years, modern technology has helped to expedite this process, when the machinery can get to the trees. “Mechanical harvesters taller than the trees themselves rumble through the olive groves, each equipped with floodlights and rows of vibrating teeth.
Like a slow-moving beast, the harvesters straddle the trees and throttle them, shaking loose their olives and directing the fruits to powerful vacuums for collection.” This is a much more cost effective method. Nevertheless, many olive farmers continue to go with the tride and true method of conducting the process manually.
Why? “Birds like the redwing seem to be ‘dazzled by the strong lights of the machines’ at night [and] they become disoriented and can wind up getting sucked into the harvesters, with fatal consequences.”
In fact, Portugal reports that almost 100,000 birds die each year due to this process. Although, this statistic is a far cry from the “2.6 million birds [that] disappear annually during nocturnal harvesting in Southern Spain.”
This is important to note because this information has driven many olive growers back to more basic methods of retrieval. Therefore, the price of olive oil tends to become more expensive to cover these additional costs.
Olive Oil Extraction — The Lengthy Cold Pressing Process
Cold pressing begins with sorting the harvested olives by quality and grade. Next the olives are turned into a paste in a mechanical press.
A slow mixing process follows. In this procedure, small amounts of water is added to the olive paste at a specific temperature of 81 degrees Fahrenheit or less. This helps the oil to separate out.
Finally, extraction is completed in vertical centrifuges. These machines spin around, allowing the paste to suction to the sides. This separates the oil at the bottom of the device.
Extra Virgin Varieties
This is the end of the road for Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO). By avoiding chemicals and heat, the olive oil maintains its amazing health benefits. It also lessens its shelf life by approximately six months.
It also leads to the oil having a few impurities. However, these imperfections are what bring those earthy, fruity and distinct flavor notes that we come to expect with an authentic Italian or Mediterranean dish.
However, the extra virgin olive oil must go through a rigorous certification process in order to be qualified under this title, which can be quite expensive and time consuming. This includes both a sensory and chemical analysis conducted by one of three official organizations.
Refining The Oil
For the olive oils that don’t meet the standards of the ‘Extra Virgin’, there are two solutions. The first is to bottle them as is under the name “Virgin Olive Oil”.
These tend to have greater free fatty acid levels and flawed flavor notes. However, they will cook and store similarly to EVOO — at a lower smoke point and with shorter shelf life. They also come at a much cheaper price (under $10).
Conversely, the alternative solution is to refine the olive oil to remove those impurities using heat and chemicals. This leads to a lighter color and a more subdued flavor.
It also extends the shelf life to 18 to 24 months (versus the EVOO that usually is best for 12-18 months).
The entire process from farm to table takes anywhere from 24 to 72 hours. Moreover, this is unsurprisingly a very tedious and lengthy process that requires a lot of man power and moving parts.
Thus, the cost of olive oil is much more expensive than its vegetable counterparts.
Imports And Exports
According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, “California produces more than 95 percent of the olives grown in the nation.”
However, in spite of this statistic, “the United States is [also] a net importer of olive products. During 2015, the United States purchased more than 313,000 [metric tons] of olive oil valued at nearly $1.2 billion.”
Olive imports are necessary because we use this product in its original form as well as for olive oil production. The high demand for this commodity leads to an increase in the overall price. Additionally, depending on where you live, import duties will increase the price even more, like in India.
In order for olive trees to thrive, there are specific growing conditions and climate requirements that need to be in place. Just like pomegranates, olives need relatively dry weather in place.
Long and hot Summers are ideal, but what is most important is the Winters. Mild temperatures are necessary during this time frame. Otherwise, the trees will freeze and die. This is especially true for young saplings.
According to the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, “young trees may be killed when the temperature drops below 25°F. The leaves and small stems on mature trees can be damaged at 17°F, [but once] the temperature drops below 12°F”, they will be killed by the cold.
Moreover, olive trees have an impressive lifespan of 500 years. Nevertheless, for the first three years of their life, they will not produce any fruit.
Thus, for the trees that perish due to extremely cold temperatures, bacteria and too much or too little rain, it can take a while for their replacements to become established.
Another crucial detail is that one mature olive tree will produce an average of 30-45 pounds of olives in a calendar year. This equates to a maximum of 9 liters of olive oil, which is a lot of manpower for a minimal amount of product.
Furthermore, when our nation’s crop have a bad year as a result of these conditions, this increases the cost of those products in the grocery store. Thus, olive oil will be more expensive in the years where the crop yield is lower than expected. This helps farmers to recoup their losses.
Health Benefits of Olive Oil
Research shows that olive oil has “a broad spectrum of health-promoting properties [from the] plant polyphenols, [which] comprises antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic, anti-atherogenic, anti-thrombotic, and anti-mutagenic effects.
[…] Extra virgin olive oil by its low yield is more expensive than other types of olive oil, but it contains the highest level of polyphenols.” Conversely, “refined olive oil is devoid of vitamins, polyphenols, phytosterols, and other low molecular natural ingredients.”
What does this all mean? The American Heart Association notes that by consuming just two or three tablespoons of olive oil per day can improve your heart health, lower your blood pressure and improve your cholesterol levels.
Moreover, it will boost your metabolism and improve your hair, skin and nails! Even better, it has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties.
These benefits are hard to beat, and the manufacturers know it. That is why you will find a more expensive price tag on the extra virgin varieties of olive oil. Thankfully, there are ways to save on this magical elixir!
Extend Your Olive Oil’s Shelf Life
Researchers at the Michigan State University Extension note that “when olive oil is exposed to oxygen, light, and heat, it may become rancid. [Thankfully] proper storage can prevent this. Industry experts recommend storing the oil at between 55 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit for best results.
Storing it at the usual room temperature of about 70 degrees Fahrenheit is ok, but if your kitchen is routinely warmer than that, refrigerate the oil for best quality.”
Conversely, extra virgin products will solidify in the cold. Therefore, store it in a dark place away from heat and use opened olive oil within 30 to 60 days.
For those who want long-term storage options after opening a large bottle, freezing is an easy way to extend the shelf life. Freeze the oil in individual serving sizes using an ice tray.
This can allow for use for up to a year. Keep in mind that extra virgin usually last 18 months when sealed. The other varieties remain fresh for up to two years.
Other Important Guides
Olive oil is a cooking tool that is more expensive than alternatives like butter or vegetable oil. However, the health benefits far outweigh the cost of expensive olive oil.
Remember that the cost of labor, the crop yields as well as the overall process to make this delicious ingredient do factor into the higher price tag. When buying in bulk, proper storage can help you to save some money.
Lastly, olive oil is also quite universal is the cooking world. Due to the low smoke point, it is ideal for cooking on low to medium heats. For higher temperature settings, refined olive oil is a good choice. Therefore, choose the variety that is best for your cooking needs.
Heidi is a wife, mother, Newfie owner, writer and Meteorologist. She was born and raised in Texas and has worked in the broadcast industry for going on a decade.