Which country has the best olive oil?

Olive trees can survive drought, adapt to almost any sunny or temperate environment, thrive in most types of soil, and even endure periods of low temperatures. One of the oldest known olive trees is over 3,000 years old and it still bears fruit in Crete. Today there are about 800 million olive trees growing on Earth and around 500 varieties.

Although in the Mediterranean region, olive oil has been consumed for thousands of years, over the past few decades olive oil has gone from relative obscurity to having a well-deserved presence in many thousands of households worldwide.

To be specific, the type of olive oil we are talking about is usually Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO). It has by far the highest quality and is without a doubt the healthiest of all. It has the lowest acidity level (0.8% or less), maximum active ingredients and optimum properties which provide EVOO´s exceptional health and medical benefits.

The question often asked is: which country produces the best olive oil? There are lots of great olive oils in the world. How does one go about deciding which country produces the best?

Let´s analyze the question from different perspectives.

CONSUMER PERCEPTION

If one were to ask the average consumer in countries such as the US, UK or Australia “Which olive oil do you think is the best in the world?” the most likely answer would generally be Italian, Spanish or Greek – few would think of other countries such as Croatia, Turkey or Tunisia. Furthermore, there are a number of New World countries that have begun producing good quality olive oil like Australia, Argentina, Chile and the USA.

Italian olive oil is known in many markets. Italy knows how to sell its products very well and it has done so – with great success – with fashion, cars, pasta and olive oil. Pizzerias and Italian food restaurants have showcased “Made in Italy” food products all over the world. The idea that Italian olive oil is the best in the world has been very well marketed and promoted for decades and, clearly, the message has permeated.

There are, of course, many other cases of exceptional marketing and promotion of products around the world with other food products. Some of these include French wine, Australian wine, New Zealand´s Manuka honey and so on. These marketing campaigns are excellent examples of how to promote a product, like the classic campaigns of Coca Cola and Kellogg´s Corn Flakes for example.

Does that make them the best? Well, as the saying goes, “the devil is in the detail”. Let´s do some basic research using reputable, reliable, verifiable and impartial information sources to help shed light on the subject.

WORLD OLIVE OIL FIGURES

Let´s look at the worldwide production over the past quarter of a century or so.  We will look at the world statistics on production, imports, exports and consumption by country. The data is from the 1990/91 olive crop year, by country. The term olive crop year means the period from 1 October to 30 September. Data is from November 2019.

Production

The European Union is the largest producer in the world by far accounting for roughly 70% of the total world production. It is also the largest exporter and consumer of olive oil in the world.

Fig.1 World production of olive oil, top 10 countries (1,000 tonnes)

We can also look at the top producing countries as a percentage of the total worldwide production to have a better idea of the largest producers. Spain has steadily been increasing its production of the time period. It clearly stands out with almost 50% of the worldwide production over the past 10 years or so.

Fig.2 World production of olive oil, top 10 countries (as % of total worldwide production)

Interestingly, if we look at the top three producing countries they account for approx. 2/3 of the total world production on average each year. They are: Spain, Italy and Greece.

Imports

Fig.3 World imports of olive oil, top 10 countries (1,000 tonnes). NOTE: Figures do not include intra-EU trade.

From the above graph, we can see that the largest importer of olive oil in the world by far is the USA with approx. 300-350,000 T/year in recent years.

Let´s also look at the EU intra-trade of olive oil (Fig. 4). What the chart is telling us is that the largest producer, which is Spain exports roughly 25% of its total production in bulk to other EU countries. The figure actually varies year to year however it is typically in the 20-30% range. It exported 153,800 T to Italy, for example, in the 2019/2020 season. Greece and Portugal also exported significant amounts of olive oil to Italy during this period as well. Italy actually only produced 340,000 T of olive oil in 2019/2020. Some of the imported oil is for local consumption however, a large proportion of the imported bulk olive oil is blended with Italian olive oil, re-bottled and exported under the “Made in Italy” label. This begs the question: which country should be considered as the “producer” of this olive oil: the source country or the bottler?

Fig.4 EU intra-trade of olive oil Oct19-Mar20

Exports

Fig.5 World exports of olive oil, top 10 countries (1,000 tonnes). NOTE: Figures do not include intra-EU trade.

There are three countries that stand out as major exporters: Spain, Italy and Tunisia. Tunisia has seen variations year over year. Spain has steadily been increasing its exports for several decades now while Italy has maintained its exports of olive oil relatively consistently.

Consumption

Fig.6 World consumption of olive oil, top 10 countries (1,000 tonnes)

The top three countries as far as consumption is concerned are: Italy, Spain and the USA. Interestingly the USA is showing a tendency to increase consumption in recent years while Spain is showing a slightly downward trend and Italy has a clear downward trend in olive oil consumption.

Consumption per capita

Fig.7 Consumption of olive oil per capita of selected countries.

Greece has the largest per capita consumption of olive oil worldwide, followed by Spain and Italy and further down Portugal and Syria. This is to be expected as olive oil has been core to the Mediterranean diet for thousands of years. Countries outside of the Mediterranean region, such as the USA, Australia, Japan and China, have far lower per capita rates as olive oil has become more popular only in recent decades. However there is a clear increasing trend in many non-Mediterranean region countries while in the Mediterranean region itself most countries are either remaining the same of slightly decreasing.

INTERNATIONAL AWARDS

Let´s review the ranking of the world´s best EVOOs. To do so, it is always advisable to review the results over an extended period of time so as to provide a seasonally adjusted and balanced view. We chose a period of ten (10) years:  from 2010/2011 to 2019/2020.

Each year the ranking of the world´s best olive oils have been calculated based on the results of a number of major international extra virgin olive oil competitions. The average number of international competitions per year used to calculate each year´s average annual rankings is 13 (ranging from 5 to 18 competitions per year over the period).

We looked at the results from several perspectives over the 10 year period:

  • EVOOs by country that were in the top 10 positions each year
  • EVOOs by country that were in the top 50 positions each year

The results have been tabulated in Fig. 8. An important point is that there are many olive oil producers (estates and mills) that do not submit their olive oil to international competitions.

Fig.8 EVOO awards by country over the past 10 years.

What we see is that 97% of the top 10 EVOO awards on average over the past 10 years have been for EVOOs from Spain, Italy and Portugal. 92% of the top 50 EVOO awards on average over the past 10 years have been for EVOOs from the same countries. It´s clear that the EVOO from these three countries consistently rank very highly in international EVOO competitions.

CHANGES IN THE OLIVE OIL MARKET

There have been quite a few changes over the past few decades in the world olive oil market. One of the major changes that has significantly affected the largest producing country in the world by far with close to 50% of the world production is Spain. Given its size, obviously it has had a significant impact on the world olive oil market.

What was the change and why is it significant? Spain began to focus seriously on the world olive oil market only a few decades ago. The autarky imposed by the Franco regime meant that olive oil could only be exported by state run enterprises for many decades. “The sector disappeared from the map and when we tried to reposition ourselves we had a lot of disadvantages“, says Teresa Pérez, manager from Olive Oil from Spain (a non-profit organization representing the industry).

Since the Franco period, Spain steadily increased total production as well as its exports. Another key transition has been the slow but constant transition away from bulk exports to other countries to high quality, branded and bottled EVOO exports.

The results in the past few decades have been impressive.

The director of the Olive Oil Exporting Industry and Trade Association (Asoliva), Rafael Picó, insists that in the world of olive oil Italy has lost first place, both as a producer and as a brand. “They have no reference company left, most of them have been acquired by Spanish companies, such as Deoleo, which owns such emblematic brands as Bertolli, Carapelli and Sasso,” Picó highlights.

QUALITY

The production of extremely high quality olive oil, especially EVOO, requires a great deal of experience as well as attention to detail and strict adherence to the production process to ensure optimum properties in the final product.

We also must not forget the quality of the olive itself, which plays a crucial role in the final EVOO produced. Obviously, as with wine, many natural factors such as geography, climate, sunlight, soil and temperature influence the quality of the olives are very important in the final quality of the EVOO produced.

Human factors will also affect the final quality. Top EVOO producers (olive oil estates or mills) with extensive experience are masters at optimizing every step of the manufacturing process and at taking timely, appropriate decisions. From harvesting, screening and cleaning through grinding and decanting the olive oil. Storage is also important as is the final packaging. The decisions taken by the producer at key moments as well as the focus on all the steps of the olive oil production process will determine the quality of the resulting product.

As the largest producing region in the world by far, the European Commission has made a considerable effort on improving its quality standards and regulating the industry to ensure that olive oil maintains its highest quality and minimizes or eliminates non-compliance and fraud. Both have occurred in the past and, to a lesser degree, continue to occur. A very common complaint is failure to comply with olive oil labelling regulations and also incorrectly classifying oil in a higher grade (e.g. virgin olive oil sold as EVOO).

Physical properties and characteristics

The differences in physical properties and characteristics are related to specific olive oil varieties. Some varieties have higher content of antioxidants, polyphenols and other bioactive compounds – however this is related to the specific varieties and not a specific country. Overall, EVOOs will have excellent health and medical benefits, which are extremely beneficial both for our health and also our longevity if combined with an excellent diet such as the Mediterranean diet.

ORGANOLEPTIC PROPERTIES

Let´s look at the colour, aroma and flavour of Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

Colour

The different olive cultivars, geographies, climate and also when the olive has been harvested will influence enormously the colour of the olive oil. Other factors that are important are whether it is a monovarietal or a coupage or blend of various olive oil varieties. Colour can vary from golden yellow to dark green. This does not influence the quality.

Aroma and Flavour

Monovarietal olive oil tends to have a strong aroma and taste – if it doesn´t then one should question its quality.

Flavours vary widely as well, significantly influenced by the many variables mentioned. A typical description one can find in many articles is that Spanish olive oil has a “nutty and rich fruity” taste while Italian olive oils have a “herbal tang and a grassy” flavour. Other countries are given other stereotyped flavours.

The differences

The major producing countries will have a huge variation in colour, aroma and flavour within their borders depending on the level of mastery of the olive oil producer, the olive cultivar as well as the natural and human factors mentioned earlier.

There are significant differences in the various olive oil varieties from different countries. As, of course, there are within most large producing countries. Let’s take Spain, for example, there are 260 varieties of olive cultivars in the country of the approx. 500 varieties in the world. The olive oil from an Arbequina cultivar grown in Tarragona with Mediterranean climate is totally different from a Picual olive cultivar in hot and dry Andalucia or a Cornicabra olive oil from the Toledo mountains with a continental climate. It is the same in most other major countries such as Italy. A Frantoio olive oil from Tuscany is totally different from a Carolea olive oil from Sicily.

BOTTOM LINE

So, who is the brave subject matter expert who would venture to objectively say that a particular country has the “best” olive oil? It´s like trying to find the “best” wine producing country. It is not a simple question to answer nor is there one answer – that is if we are truly objective and not driven by commercial, marketing, patriotic or other reasons (of which there are many examples in the media).

However, regarding olive oil we can objectively draw a number of conclusions:

  • The largest producer worldwide by far is Spain with close to half the total world production annually.
  • Spain, Italy and Greece together produce approx. 2/3 of the total world production.
  • Awards say more about the quality of individual olive estates, mills and producers than they do about a specific country.
  • Three countries have received well over 90% of international awards over the past 10 years: Spain, Italy and Portugal.
  • There are some very good and also some poor quality olive oil producers in every country.
  • A very large volume of trade in bulk olive oil takes place between countries. The data shows that some countries such as Italy are exporting far more than they produce, the difference being made up with imported olive oil begging the question which country should be considered as the “producer” of this olive oil: the source country or the bottler?
  • There are differences in the physical properties and characteristics. Some olive oil varieties do have better properties however this is due to the specific olive oil variety. The health and medical benefits of EVOO are exceptional overall.
  • Regarding colour, aroma and flavour there is a huge variation even within the major producing countries themselves due to differences in natural factors (e.g. geography, climate, sunlight, soil, temperature…), human factors as well as the olive variety used to produce the olive oil.

References

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