Scientists have developed a simple and cost-effective test for quality of olive oil using optical fingerprinting. However, as Datamonitor’s Lawrence Gould explains, the ever-growing range of food accreditation awards finding their way onto product labels makes finding the genuine article a daunting task.

In recent years, olive oil has become ubiquitous in kitchens. It is not by any means a new product, but the growing popularity of Mediterranean food and the Mediterranean diet has turned olive oil production and distribution into a highly lucrative business. Consumers appreciate its distinctive and varied flavours as well as its health benefits: olive oil is rich in anti-oxidants.

Consumers have also grown more knowledgeable about olive oil and are prepared to pay a significant premium for what they perceive to be a higher quality product. Factors such as the type of soil that the olive trees grow on, the oil’s bouquet, and the producer have an importance that is comparable to wine’s quality requisites.

As a result of growing demand, supermarket shelves are now heavily stocked with a myriad of expensive virgin and extra-virgin oils, which contain less than 3.3 grams of oleic acid per 100 grams in the case of the former and 2 grams per 100 grams for the latter, according to the International Olive Oil Council.

However, only approximately one tenth of the world’s olive oil production is extra virgin olive oil, obtained from the first pressing, which means that the sheer volume of it that is on display is something of a mystery. There have therefore been suspicions that not all the olive oil on display is of the quality that it claims to be. Scientists from Loughborough University in the UK and the Institute for Applied Physics in Florence have unveiled a simple technique that may lay these doubts to rest once and for all.

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The scientists have devised an optical fingerprint for different oils according to their provenance and composition. Oils are simply exposed to white light and the spectrum of light emerging from the oil serves as a fingerprint. This technique could also be applied to other liquids such as beer or wine. The use of this technique could not only help producers of genuine high quality oils but also help manufacturers and retailers regain the trust of consumers by ensuring that the bottle really contains what they have paid for.

One of the reasons for the growing popularity of high quality olive oils is a growing desire among discerning consumers to move to higher quality products overall. However, many have difficulties finding their bearings in a crowded market place, where it can be difficult to tell the difference between genuinely high quality and specialty produce and products of a lower standard presented as the genuine article. This leads to a certain level of consumer disenchantment and to a growing mistrust of retailers.

As a result, consumers are taking a greater interest in the provenance of food and drink such as olive oil, wine or meat, and the production methods involved. A number of certification bodies have attempted to help them to do this such as the Soil Association. At a European level, the French “Appellation d’Origine Controlee” system has now been extended to all EU member states and guarantees the provenance of regional specialties such as Champagne or Feta cheese. At the same time, however, France’s National Food Council is pressing the national government to rationalise the number of certification labels already used in the country as it feels that they may be confusing some consumers. The proliferation of such schemes, many implemented at the behest of supermarkets, therefore risks undermining efforts to improve information provided to consumers about the quality and provenance of their food.

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