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The science behind extra-virgin olive oil: taste attributes, nutritional value and health benefits

Foto olio

On 29 February 2024 the Italian Embassy in London hosted an event on the science behind extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). It explored taste attributes, nutritional benefits and some of the challenges facing supply, labelling and fraud as demand increases and pressures on production remain featuring experts from Italy and the UK.

Italy’s strong agricultural sector, coupled with its reputation for producing superior EVOO, positions the country as a key player in both domestic and international markets. There are 22,218 producers across 167,000 hectares, which accounts for 15% of the world production of olive oil. In terms of trade with the UK, Italy holds a significant position as the second supplier of EVOO. The demand for Italian EVOO in the UK market reflects consumer preference for premium quality and authentic Mediterranean flavours.

The discussion opened by Italian Ambassador to the UK Inigo Lambertini, delved into the positive and negative sensory attributes of EVOO. In 2022, the UK imported 85,000 tonnes of olive oil worth €58 million, 55% of which was EVOO, said Giovanni Sacchi, Director of the Italian Trade Agency. Meanwhile, production volumes are in decline with 2023 likely to be one of the lowest in the last decade, according to panellist Dr Stefania Carpino, Director of Italian Ministry of Agriculture laboratories. While there are mandatory requirements for labelling, the market is also wide open to fraud including the inclusion of seed oils and the addition of chlorophylls.

In this environment, understanding the nutritional benefits and taste profile of quality olive oil are even more important. Prof. Agnese Taticchi from the University of Perugia’s Food Science and Technology department talked about olives and virgin olive oils being the only sources of these species of polyphenols, a compound linked with many scientifically verified health benefit claims including for diabetes, cholesterol and weight management. Polyphenols are responsible for the bitter and spicy/pungent flavour of the oil. However, the content of polyphenols in extra virgin olive oils is extremely variable. There are also challenges with spoilage from light exposure and poor storage, which renders EVOO rancid.

Maurizio Bocchi, an Italian Agri chef with a multi award-winning restaurant in the Lancashire, shared his cooking experience in the United Kingdom, centring the taste of EVOO alongside local ingredients, with a low environmental footprint. A taste test was conducted with 100 attending guests, in accordance with the official methodology, by Francesca Baroccio, a senior chemist from the Italian Ministry of agriculture. It was designed to enable participants to discern the most important organoleptic or sensory differences in EVOO varieties.

By providing comprehensive insights into its taste attributes, nutritional composition, and health benefits, the event sought to equip participants with the knowledge necessary to make informed decisions regarding the selection and utilization of EVOO. Moderated by Mallika Basu, food writer and commentator, the event engaged food business operators, traders, retailers, food media and UK institutions. It was as a platform for knowledge exchange and collaboration within the industry through a lively and interactive discussion with the audience.