A brilliant sheen

Innovation and consumers’ desire for healthy eating are polishing the outlook for the olive and cooking oils set. 

L07-col-world-cup-soccer-ball-5x7The cooking oils category is in the midst of a sea of change.

Consumers are becoming better educated on the science of healthy eating. As a result, they are forgoing the ubiquitous low-margin, gallon jugs of artery clogging cooking oils, replacing them with heart-healthy alternatives. Like other categories, many of those alternatives are marketed to “foodies” with upscale, gourmet, boutique and varietal olive oils from a specific region, plantation or type of olive carving out increasing amounts of shelf space.

“We want people to be viewing extra virgin olive oil as they view fine wine,” says Meagan Cole, communications manager for Miami-based Lucini Italia Co. “It has to be worth the investment. You spend all this money on organic and gourmet foods, but if you put a bad olive oil on it then you ruin it.”

That is why Lucini has introduced Lucini Founders Reserve, a blend of two olives produced in Italy by Frantoio Franci, a favorite miller of Lucini’s co-founders. The limited production run is being sold exclusively at The Fresh Market or through Lucini’s website. Each of the 5,000 bottles is hand numbered and packaged inside a box to further add to its cachet.

“This oil is really mind blowing,” Cole says. “It is super well-balanced, robust but not over-powering. It is green and grassy with an artichoke and green banana accent and wonderful peppery finish. We are excited to bring this oil here at the reasonable price point of $39.99.”

Of course, just like fine wine, there are plenty of other excellent options for the more budget conscious.

Catania-Spagna, for example, offers retailers a private label option of high-grade olive oils sourced from around the globe, including Italy, Spain, Greece, Morocco, Turkey and Argentina.

“It is very important to offer consumers a private label olive oil as the U.S. consumer is a ‘price first’ shopper,” says Mark Coleman, vice president retail division, at Ayer, Mass.-based Catania-Spagna.

Coleman says that retailers need to do their homework when sourcing private label olive oil. “Retailers should check the credentials of any supplier before engaging into business with them,” he says. “The North American Olive Oil Association is a great place to start. Retailers should also check with any references that the supplier has listed.”

Changes are happening on the packaging front, with more brands moving from glass into PET plastic. “The big box retailers are leading in this effort as plastic will drive down cost vs. glass in regards to freight, damages and bottle cost,” Coleman says.

Colavita, for example, recently introduced a 2-liter plastic bottle.

“It is a new size that is in lieu of both glass and tins,” says Alexandra Segal, marketing manager, Colavita USA, based in Edison, N.J. “It is easy to handle because it has grooves you can grab onto.”

However, Colavita still continues to offer glass. In fact, it just introduced a commemorative bottle for the 2014 Word Cup. “It is in the shape of a soccer ball,” Segal says. “It is three-quarters of a liter and glass so it is a collectable. We have special shippers for it.”

Goya Foods has been investing in equipment at its Seville, Andalucia, Spain, facility to increase its olive oil offerings.

“We bring our oil directly from Andalucia, Spain’s premiere olive growing region,” says Joseph Perez, senior vice president, at Secaucus, N.J.-based Goya Foods. “With hot and dry summers and mild winters, it is the perfect place for growing flavorful olives. We also strictly adhere to a standard of 0.4% maximum acidity for our proprietary blend of Hojiblanca, Picual, Arbequina, Lechin and Manzanilla olives.”

To promote its oil Goya has been advertising on Spanish language television as well as by sponsoring sporting events and concerts. Perez says Goya olive oil also appeals to other shoppers.

“We recommend merchandising our oil in the Goya aisle for loyal Goya consumers, as well as in the oil section for consumers looking for a step-up in flavor at a reasonable price,” he says.

Like Goya, Iberia olive oil is also 100% from Spain and targets both Hispanics and mainstream consumers. Iberia olive oil is sold in 8.5-ounce, 17-ounce and 1-liter glass bottles and 2-liter PET plastic containers.

“One of the selling points of Iberia is that we are an affordable, quality brand,” says Rubens Taveria, director of marketing at Iberia Foods, based in Miami. “We are not the most expensive brand in the market. For the Hispanic market we are more affordable than the others, but we are still quality and premium.”

Industry observers say the makeup of the cooking oil set is rapidly evolving not only in product assortment, but also mindset.

“I look at this as the ‘Healthy Oils for America’ set and we are bringing leadership to that section,” says Bill Monroe, advisor to the board of directors and marketing spokesman for Pompeian, based in Baltimore. “I see them as oils to cook with and have a healthy life.”

Monroe says Pompeian has upgraded its Baltimore plant to make it the most modern packaging facility for quality olive oil in the world. It has introduced a slew of new products, including a line of cooking sprays that used compressed air as a propellant.

“Our latest innovation is the Olive Extra line, a sub segment that is a bridge between olive oil and cooking vegetable oils,” Monroe says. “Olive Extra combines safflower oil with extra virgin olive oil.”

Pompeian has also capitalized on the latest trend—varietal oils. It has introduced three: Koroneiki, Picholine and Arbequina. “There are more than 1,000 varieties of olives. We picked the most popular ones,” Monroe says. “We are doing well with them and they add to the cachet of the market.”

Colavita offers its version of varietals under the sub-brand World Selections. “It is a line of different oils, all produced from olives from different countries,” Segal says. The line includes 100% Argentinean, 100% Australian, 100% Italian, 100% Spanish, 100% Greek, 100% Californian and a Mediterranean Blend.

Olia is making a splash in the olive oil aisle by marketing a line of varietal oils grown exclusively in Israel.

“Olia was the first one in Israel to introduce varietal olive oil,” says Nimrod Zaltzman, joint CEO, of Olia, based in Ness Ziona, Israel. “We have more than 12 varietals and created blends. We work directly with local growers from all over the country. All of our olive oils are cold pressed, extra virgin and have very low acidity levels and peroxides.”

In North America, Olia is represented by Fruit of the Land, based in Toronto. Zaltzman says Olia’s varietals include Barnea, fruity and aromatic with a mixture of prominent bitterness and pleasant pungency; and Picholine-Languedoc, aromatic with a rich fruity-leafy taste that is ideal for cooking and frying.

One drawback of olive oil often cited by consumers is that it is not an ideal oil for frying as it has a lower smoke point than vegetable oils, say observers. However, officials at ACH Food Cos., are touting that their Mazola corn oil is perfect for grilling, sautéing, stir-frying and baking as a butter substitute—and it is healthier than olive oil too.

“Corn oil has four times more plant sterols than olive oil and is a source of healthy fatty acids (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated), both of which help lower cholesterol levels,” says Terrence O’Donnell, senior brand manager of Mazola, at Oakbrook, Ill.-based ACH.

“In fact, a new study showed corn oil lowered LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol more than extra virgin olive oil,” O’Donnell says. “The study affirmed prior research that corn oil has a role in a healthy diet.”

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