A bright sheen is being brought to the cooking oil category from new varieties and brands.
There is a gusher in the grocery department. Fueled by new brands, varieties and health studies, shoppers are paying closer attention to the cooking oil aisle, hiking sales in the process.
According to SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago-based market research firm, sales of cooking and salad oil in food, drug and mass, excluding Walmart, club stores and convenience stores, reached $1.13 billion for the 52-week period ended Jan. 22, a 9.46% increase. During the same period, olive oil sales dipped slightly (1.13%) to $683.7 million, while unit sales basically held steady at 97.8 million.
But while production has been increasing in the “New World” countries, the ancient groves of the Mediterranean took a hit last year. “The harvest in 2011 was terrible,” says David Neuman, president of Miami-based Lucini Italia Co. “According to one Italian newspaper, it was one of the worst harvests ever recorded. Tuscany had a 40% lower yield in 2011 than in 2010 due to a very hot spring and not enough rain in the summer.”
That may cause some consumers to search out cheaper brands, which often translates into an inferior product, Neuman says. “The real story about Lucini this year is for us educating the trade and very inquisitive customers about how good Lucini is. What makes us worth the money and why we have the reputation that we do. It is because of our commitment to quality and our unfaltering passion for food excellence.”
Baltimore-based Pompeian, Inc. is setting the minds of its consumers at ease by becoming the initial olive oil to participate in the new USDA Factory Monitoring Program.
“The USDA is going to come in and randomly test all of our products chemically and analytically through taste panels to make sure that we achieve the standards that we need to achieve,” says Rich Fryling, vice president of marketing.
“We will have a seal on our label stating that we are monitored by the USDA,” Fryling says, adding that the 106-year-old Pompeian is one of the few, if only, companies that packs its oil in the U.S. Oil is shipped in tankers from Argentina, Chile, Spain, Morocco and other countries. “When you ship in bulk, it protects the oil,” Fryling says. “Because we source in different hemispheres we have a real freshness because unlike wine, olive oil does not age well.”
The olives used for DeLallo Extra Virgin Olive Oil are sourced from the southern Italian provinces of Puglia, Campania and Calabria. “The particular varieties used are Ogliarola, Ravece, Carolea and Corathina, which are specifically selected to provide an extra virgin oil that is medium in fruit intensity, well-balanced with a peppery flavor that is present, but not overpowering at the finish,” says Anthony DiPietro, a spokesman for Mt. Pleasant, Pa.-based George DeLallo Co. “We created this flavor profile because it best suits a wide range of extra virgin olive oil uses for consumers.”
DiPietro says DeLallo olive oil should be merchandised in the olive oil set, but astute retailers can spur impulse sales by cross-merchandising next to its namesake olive bars in the deli department and next to the bread racks in the bakery.
“Retailers should not confuse their consumers with an overabundance of oils that do not have a real level of differentiation,” DiPietro cautions. “Extra virgin oils that are ‘packed in …’ are made from a blend of oils from a number of countries and are produced solely to reach price points. Store brands that are meant to be price competitive as well as national brands selected based on movement and promotion should be stocked at a minimum.
While DeLallo olive oil hails from Italy, Greek olive oils also have a strong consumer following.
“Retailers should consider stocking ‘esti,’ a new brand introduced a few months ago by Greek Land Foods, a 100 year-old olive oil company,” says George Papageorgiou, general manager of the Kifissia, Athens, Greece-based firm. “Esti Kalamata PDO extra virgin olive oil is cold pressed from Koroneiki variety of olives grown on the slopes of Mount Taygetos. The olives are pressed within two hours from harvest with the ‘old fashioned’ slow process in a stone mill of the 18th Century in Kalamata, the region where the highest quality of Greek olive oil has been produced since ancient times.”
Goya Foods, the Secaucus, N.J.-based Hispanic foods manufacturer, markets a wide range of cooking oils, including domestically produced corn, vegetable and canola oil, along with extra virgin, pure and light olive oil. “Within our extra virgin we have a very premium item called Unico that is made exclusively from Manzanilla olives from Seville, Spain,” says John Hernandez, senior vice president. “It has a limited run of maybe 3,000 to 4,000 cases each season. The Manzanilla olive is a smaller olive so it is not the most conducive for large scale pressing, but it has a very, very deep, fruity, intense olive oil flavor.” Goya Unico Extra Virgin Olive Oil is packaged in 17-ounce dark green glass bottles.
Like Goya, ACH Food Companies, manufacturer of Mazola corn oil, offers a variety of oils under the Mazola brand.
“At Mazola we’ve really flushed out the Set A Healthier Table campaign because we really believe that plant sterols are going to be a big opportunity for consumers to help better manage their cholesterol,” says Bill Puentes, marketing director for the Oakbrook, Ill.-based company. Noting that plant sterols are “on trend,” Puentes says Mazola launched the www.aboutplantsterols.com website in February. “It is really about helping to inform dieticians on the benefit of plant sterols,” he says. “Today’s Dietician, a trade publication, will be running an article on plant sterols and we will be helping to better educate the scientific community.
“Corn oil has three times the plant sterols that are in olive oil,” Puentes says. “Essentially what plant sterols do is mimic the bad cholesterol and attach to the gut and prevents cholesterol from attaching.”
ACH sells olive oil under the Mazola brand in heavily Latino markets. “We have run competitive tests against the market leaders and we have a great-tasting blend that beats the market leader in blind consumer testing,” Puentes says. Olive oil has been spreading like wildfire in recent years, as has the “buy local” movement. With Star Extra Virgin California Olive Oil consumers can get the best of both worlds. “Last year when we launched Start Extra Virgin California Olive Oil it was basically a California launch only,” says Roberto Avila, director of marketing, Borges USA/Star Fine Foods, based in Fresno, Calif. “This year we are looking to expand distribution up to Colorado, and in 2013 we are looking at going all the way to the East Coast.”
New World oil
“New World” oils from South America are also quickly finding favor with consumers.
“We are one of the largest estate growers and producers of olive oil and we have complete vertical control of the product,” says Jay Rosengarten, president of Olisur, Inc., the Charlotte, N.C.-based producer of the O-Live brand from Chile. “We grow the fruit on the trees on our farm, we harvest it, we process it in our factory on our farm, we store it on our farm, bottle it there and ship it to the U.S.”
A key selling point of O-Live is that its acidity is only 0.2%. “We actually put that on the bottle,” Rosengarten says. “From the time we harvest to the time the product is actually turned into oil it is never more than two to three hours, so the fruit never gets a chance to get acidic.”
Fields of safflower
Safflower oil is also quickly gaining acceptance with consumers. “In a natural way this oil has a very high content of monounsaturated fat and a very low content of saturated fat,” says Jorge Ramos, general director of Coral International, the Navojoa, Sonora, Mexico-based manufacturer of Oleicos safflower oil. “When you cook in an oil like this you are helping your body to lower its bad cholesterol. It is higher in monounsaturated fat than olive oil. Plus, it has a one of the highest smoke points on the market so it is great for frying. It is odorless, flavorless and when you heat it up you don’t have any smell or odor. It has a neutral flavor so it is very good for cooking, frying and baking.”