September 8, 2023 | FEATURES | By Lorelei Smillie

If you’ve paid attention to the cooking world at all in the past couple of years, it’s likely you’ve noticed a widespread proliferation of different olive oil brands. Companies like Brightland, Graza, Branche, and Corto have taken over the marketing space, pushing themselves as luxurious, modern versions of your standard olive oil for cooking. This market has exploded, and olive oil has become not just a necessity in home cooking, but a form of luxury as well.

Olive oil was barely used in the United States until the 1990s, when a nonprofit group founded by Edward Kennedy’s former aide brought the Mediterranean diet into the consciousness of the American people. The Oldways group was created with the idea of using older culinary methods that are high in health benefits and rich with tradition. They sponsored trips to Italy for prominent chefs, dietitians, and other members of the culinary community so they could witness the nutritional value and beauty of the Mediterranean diet, and incorporate it into their own lives. After this, olive oil consumption skyrocketed, and olive oil companies grew. Now, it’s considered a kitchen staple for many, and its popularity only continues to grow.

This competition has grown larger and larger, forcing companies to develop new and creative ways to market their products. Graza, a company founded by Andrew Benin in 2021, makes affordable high quality olive oils exclusively packaged in squeeze bottles. Controversy occurred earlier this year when Benin publicly called out a competitor for imitation when they released an olive oil in a squeeze bottle. Graza is one of the only companies using these containers for oil, but they certainly didn’t invent the concept of a squeeze bottle, and Benin received significant backlash for his comments.

A monopoly on olive oil has not yet developed, which allows consumers a bounty of choice: cold pressed, Italian or Californian, blended or refined. Upon entering any grocery store you’ll typically see a variety of brands all competing for your counter space. They’ve also exploded online: featured in brand sponsored Instagram posts, recommended by celebrity chefs and food influencers, and promoted constantly on social media. Olive oil is now conquering a slightly younger market, one that cares about the food they’re buying and what it looks like. It has become cool and unique to have these bottles in your house – a sign of status, an identifier, a symbol of culinary knowledge.

This status and luxury comes from these food influencers wielding specialty olive oil as the item you need to have, advertising the versatility and health benefits. Demand grew partially due to The Pandemic, when many younger people began to experiment with home cooking and pay more attention to food media. For those in the know, these olive oil brands convey familiarity with the culinary world and trends.

When a demand for a higher end product increases, pricier olive oils have space to emerge on the market, with some bottles even selling for close to a hundred dollars. These staggering price points will only continue to soar as climate change creates extreme heat in the Mediterranean. It’s predicted that the harvest from this year will be approximately half of what it was last year, due to drier soil and unhealthy growing conditions. The industry is in trouble, and this is only the beginning of the havoc that will take place in our food systems. Olive oil was a wonderful addition to the health and home cooking practices of many Americans, but we may be forced to let it go unless large scale changes happen in our agricultural world.

1 Comment

  1. This article misses a very important point about olive oil in the context of a hotter drier world: olive oil is the most sustainable choice in cooking oils. It’s true that Spain is currently suffering weather-related crop decreases right now, but we need to keep an eye on the bigger picture. Olives are a long-lived perennial crop. They store a lot of carbon (annual world olive oil production offsets the emissions of 7 million people–a city the size of Hong Kong). They are thrifty, using a fraction of the water of other oil crops. Overall they have very low input needs–fertilizer, etc. Finally, olive oil is an absolutely wonderful asset in a plant-forward diet: it makes vegetables and legumes taste delicious (as you move away from butter and cheese!). So olives must be seen as a promising crop as we adapt and ameliorate climate change. I would also add that you don’t need to spend a fortune to get great specialty extra virgin olive oil. There are a lot of amazing extra virgins out there–many estate grown products that come directly from the farmer-producer (not via repackagers with fancy bottles)–that will fit into a normal person’s budget. A bottle of excellent extra virgin olive oil will enhance many many meals–it’s a high-value choice that is delicious and healthy for both you and the planet.

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