The Truth About Italian Olive Oil
The truth about Italian olive oil is the industry has been so shielded from the public and twisted by talented marketers (with big budgets) that the public’s perception of the industry has become dangerously construed.
Italy is the second-largest olive oil exporter in the world. In 2019 the country exported 338 thousand tonnes of olive oil. Companies of all sizes exist in a semi-functioning ecosystem that is usually not hospitable for small producers.
The Truth Is Most Italian Olive Oil Is Produced In South Italy
According to the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, a whopping 82% of Italian olive oil is made in South Italy. 68% of olive oil is made in Puglia and Calabria. The remainder of production is in the regions of Sicilia (8%), Campania (6%), Abruzzo (4%), Lazio (4%), Toscana (3%), and Umbria (2%).
Who Makes The Oil?
At the base of the olive oil industry are farmers. Without farmers there would be no olives, without olives there would be no oil. High-quality olive oil is difficult to produce and it’s even more challenging to scale production. The reason being that olive trees take a long time to grow and start producing fruit. As a company grows it must either acquire more trees, partner with more farmers or simply purchase oil from somewhere else. While there’s nothing wrong with any of these practices, the manner in which they are performed can be problematic.
Olive Oil Brand Owner
For the sake of clarity let’s use a fictitious brand called Brand A. Brand A owns an olive oil company, well they actually own a brand. They don’t produce their own oil. Instead, they purchase it from producers, mills, importers, wholesalers, or other sources. They may even exclusively work with one farm. However, Brand A does not own a farm, and they do not produce olive oil. They’re a brand owner.
Olive Oil Producer
An olive oil producer is an individual/group/company that produces olive oil. This can mean they own a mill and produce exclusively for themselves or for others. They may own olive groves or purchase olives from others for milling. This also can mean they do not own a mill but purchase olives from a farmer which are milled as they monitor everything and they later create a blend. A producer can be employed by an olive oil company or work as a freelance producer of multiple oils for other olive oil companies. They can also act as consultants.
An olive oil farmer owns property with olive trees or rents property from someone else, cares for the olive trees, harvests them when it’s harvest season. They might harvest the olives then sell them in bulk to a producer or they may take them to the mill for milling and then sell the oil.
You Can Do It All, But It’s Harder
None of the above titles are mutually exclusive. A farmer may be a producer and a producer may be a farm. Some individuals/companies are all three, however, that is more challenging and less common.
The Truth Is Tuscany Does Not Make Very Much Oil
Tuscany produces between 2% – 3% of all of Italy’s olive oil. The reason the region is so well known and glorified in the U.S. is due to marketing. It’s important to mention this because other regions of Italy, especially the south, often get overlooked or attempt to link their worth to the region of Tuscany.
The worth of a producer, olive oil, and/or brand is not linked to a well-distinguished region, but rather to the integrity and manner in which the olives are grown and the oil is produced.
Harvest Date vs Bottle Date
One of the most concerning things we see on olive oil bottles/tins is a label with a bottle date but no harvest date. This is concerning because consumers often confuse the bottle date with the harvest date, however, they are NOT the same thing.
A bottle date is when the olive oil was put in the bottle. The harvest date refers to the harvest from which the oil came. An oil bottled in 2021 could be a 2019 harvest. Ideally, you want an oil that’s harvested and bottled with only a gap of a few months or from the latest harvest. If there’s a harvest date but no bottle date doesn’t worry. The company could be a smaller producer and simply not have the correct stamp for the bottling machine. Harvest date is always most important.
The Truth About Country Of Origin
Another interesting truth about Italian olive oil is the country of origin. All imported products must state on the label. An olive oil company can purchase oil from many different countries in Europe, bottle it in Italy, then label it with ‘Product of Italy’. This is extremely misleading for consumers because they often believe they are purchasing a genuine Italian product.
There is nothing wrong with purchasing an oil that’s a blend from several different countries- However, there should be transparency. Always check the back of the label for the country of origin. If you have any suspicion check for the importer/wholesaler/producer. You can look into the company and see where they get their oils from, it should be listed on their website.
The Truth is Italian Olive Oil is Expensive
Olive oil, especially Italian extra virgin olive oil, is expensive. We are farmers, producers, and we own a brand. Please believe us when we say EVOO is expensive to produce in Italy.
For some perspective, it takes an olive tree seven years to yield a full harvest. It takes 15 years for an olive tree to truly hit its stride. This is one of the reasons the olive oil industry is so closely tied to multigenerational wealth and why it’s so difficult to break into the space. This is also how many olive oil companies are still family-owned and can be passed down from one generation to the next.
Another reason Italian olive oil is so expensive is that it requires a lot of effort from many people to make the product and it’s really easy to mess up. First, the olives must be tended to year-round, then comes the harvest which requires equipment and lots of helping hands. Then there’s the cost of the mill and then the filter, then there’s storage. Finally bottling, labeling, and transportation. Read more about how olive oil is made here.
How Much Should Italian Olive Oil Cost?
The price of an olive oil will usually be directly correlated to the quality. The price also may be higher for small brands because they’re able to manage every step of the process. The quality should come through clearly once you taste the oil.
The price for a 16.9 fl. oz. (500ml) bottle/tin of high-quality extra virgin olive oil can be anywhere from $15 – $60. There is no standard price. We recommend purchasing the highest quality olive oil you can afford.
The Truth Is All Italian Olive Oils Are Not Created Equally
There are different types/levels of Italian olive oil including but not limited to extra virgin, virgin, ordinary, and lampante. Extra virgin is the highest quality.
Everyone Will Claim Theirs Is the Best
The truth is every single olive oil company, especially Italian, will claim theirs is the best. We won Silver in the NYIOOC for producing ‘One of the World’s Best Olive Oils’ (we’ll likely cling onto that claim to fame for the rest of our days) and it still makes us laugh when we make this proclamation and hear others do the same regardless of winning or not. Brands small, big, old, new will all always claim theirs is the best.
Ignorance Is Killing This Industry
The truth is, many journalists, chefs, doctors, ‘health experts’, publications, and even some individuals/companies within the olive oil space are killing this industry. They thrive on the ignorance of the general public about olive oil and spread misinformation, then use fear-mongering to pressure consumers into purchasing their products. This is morally corrupt and wrong.
The olive oil industry needs to be better and offer more digestible resources for the general public. If you’re reading this you probably have a shiny bottle of oil sitting on your kitchen counter (which you should put in the pantry, btw) and you deserve more.
Competition Doesn’t Exist
A truth we wish to see more of, competition doesn’t exist because each olive oil is different and better for certain dishes/types of cooking. For example, our competition is not Umbrian olive oil companies because the flavor profiles are completely different. In addition, Calabrian olive oil companies are not our competition because they are so severely underrepresented within the industry. We hope more companies, especially small brands, share this sentiment.