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Cheap vs Expensive Olive Oil -
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Is expensive olive oil worth it? What is the difference between $10 olive oil and $40 olive oil? Is cheap olive oil harmful?  

There is no definite answer on whether olive oil should be cheap or expensive. There are both good and bad reasons for olive oil to be either cheap or expensive.

Keep reading to learn how to efficiently purchase olive oil for you and your loved ones.

"Why Is Olive Oil So Expensive?"

High quality olive oil is cold extracted. This means that producers get 1kg of olive oil per 9-11kgs of olive fruit. This olive oil has an increased polyphenol concentration, with certified health benefits. Additionally, many producers have bigger production costs due to earth-friendly practices of cultivation. Of course, there’s always the possibility you are paying extra for a low quality olive oil with good marketing campaigns. Let’s see all the details.

Olive Oil Production Cost

There are two types of factors that affect olive oil prices;

INTRINSIC FACTORS

Olive oil producers live and work in specific environments with unique social and economic circumstances. Additionally, there are intrinsic natural environment factors, such as climate, relief intensity and olive tree variety properties, that set the context of olive oil production. Olive tree cultivators, olive press owners and merchants need to adapt in circumstances that are related to their immediate environment and to the circumstances that the worldwide supply and demand set.

All these factors set the basis for the olive oil production cost. As a result, different countries have different production cost for olive oil and of course,  different olive oil qualities and features.

Let me give you an example of such factors that apply to Greek olive oil;

– Intense Geographical Relief

Olive trees are extremely resilient and can pretty much dominate the Mediterranean scenery, despite its harshness. If you take under consideration that approximately 80% of Greece is mountainous, then you can imagine a typical Greek olive orchard.

Myrolion Mountainous Olive Orchards

Myrolion’s mountainous olive orchard, October 2019
 
  • This feature generates both positive and negative effects;
  •  
  •  a)  On the one hand, this intensity makes mechanized cultivation and harvesting practically impossible for most producers. There is no way for producers to utilize heavy olive harvesting equipment in their olive orchards, as a result there is no way for them to bring down harvesting costs through automation. Each tree needs to be harvested “personally”, each olive must be invited to the ground, in the same way it used to happen in Ancient Greece;

 

Greek, black-figure amphora, depicting the harvesting of olives, 6th century BCE

Caroline harvesting olives in Myrolion's olive orchard, October 2019

 

 b)  On the other hand, it has been found that high altitude olive oil has a better fatty acid composition which results in longer shelf-life and higher nutritional value. With 80% of Greece being mountainous, Greek olive oil gets a headstart when it comes to high quality. As a result, mountainous areas may produce more expensive olive oil, but this cost seems to be balanced by the higher value it offers.

– Intense Spliting of Olive Grove Ownership

 When the average olive tree cultivator in Spain owns a few thousands olive trees, the average cultivator in Greece owns 100-200 olive trees. This is the result of Greek individualism. Again we have both positive and negative circumstances that derive from that:

a) Getting started with 100-200 olive trees makes it very difficult to turn it into a profitable, successful olive oil business. As a result, olive tree cultivators need to be very adaptive and smart about their expenses and practices in general.

b) This intense spliting gives rise to an increase diversity in terms of how cultivation is managed and how olive oil is extracted. Many different people have many different opinions on how to produce olive oil. When combined with the intense diversity of Greek olive varieties, it makes Greek olive oil one of the most diverse olive oils, with an extended pallet of flavors and aromas.

BUSINESS MODEL FACTORS

All these intrinsic environmental, social and cultural factors push olive oil producers to specific business models. Essentially there are two business models for olive oil production; quality (or expensive olive oil) oriented and quantity (or cheap olive oil) oriented. So naturally;

– Quality oriented producers can try to increase olive oil quality, and thus price, while others may try to seemingly increase quality to increase price without actually providing an increased value.

– Quantity oriented producers can try to decrease olive oil production costs through investing in efficient equipment and practices, while others can decrease olive oil production cost through bypassing Quality Control and Quality Assurance, or even worse by engaging in adulteration.

As a result, there are both good and bad reasons for expensive olive oil and cheap olive oil.
 
So the important questions are:
 
– What is olive oil quality all about?
– Should I use an expensive olive oil or a cheap olive oil?

What is Olive Oil Quality All About?

Olive oil quality is directly related to features that should be present and features that should be missing (defects) from the olive oil.

I. High quality olive oil should first and foremost be Extra Virgin Olive Oil. This means that the olive oil should be within a specific spectrum of chemical features:

 

Chemical Property Extra Virgin Limit
Acidity (Free Fatty Acids)
Peroxides
K232
K270
ΔΚ

Interested to know what those properties are? Learn more about olive oil.

 

Additionally, EVOO should have some sensory features and lack sensory defects;

 

Sensory Feature Extra Virgin Limit
Fruitiness
Mf > 0
Bitterness
Mb > 0
Pungency
Mp > 0
Defects
Md = 0

II. I cannot imagine anyone who enjoys or doesn’t mind consuming residues of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic, industrially prepared fertilizers. Just like with conventional agriculture, conventional olive oil production includes all that. The only way to keep those potentially harmful chemical compounds out of your system and away from your loved ones, is through consuming Organic Olive Oil

III. Another feature that high quality olive oils typically include is an increased concentration of polyphenols. This olive oil is called High Phenolic Olive Oil, and according to EU Regulation 432/2012, it is the olive oil that has been proven to protect blood lipids from oxidative stress, thanks to a polyphenol concentration that surpasses 250 milligrams of polyphenols per kilogram of olive oil. Such olive oils have an increased concentration of oleocanthal, oleuropein, oleacein and other phenolic compounds. It is important to note that high phenolic olive oil is extracted in low temperatures. As a result olive oil yield is limited. For example, conventional EVOO can be extracted with an output of 1 kilogram of olive oil per 4-6 kilograms of olives, while high phenolic olive oil has an output of 1 kilogram of olive oil per 9-11 kilograms of olive fruit. Naturally, high phenolic olive oil is more expensive, but its worth it. 

These are the only features of olive oil that can actually be certified and proven, and thus play an active role on fair value and price increase. Terms like premium olive oil or cold pressed olive oil do not have such a solid basis since they are not seriously regulated.

By the way, here are Myrolion’s certifications for 2020.

Bad Expensive Olive Oil and Bad Cheap Olive Oil

Wait, Athanasios, I am pretty sure I have seen Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil for 10 EUR and Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil for 50 EUR. What is going on?

Well, with up to 70% of EVOO being mislabeled and organic certification scams being on the rise, it is not that hard for someone to bring a seemingly Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil to your neighborhood’s shelf for 10 EUR or less.

Bad Cheap Olive Oil

A low olive oil price can be achieved in three ways:

a) A large company can create production verticals through large investments that over time deliver low prices per unit. A large organization like this, could offer a low price without reducing quality assurance. This is a good way to reduce olive oil production cost and thus reduce olive oil price for the consumer. However, this gives rise to another problem; if an olive oil production facility is large enough to proceed with such investments it is almost certain that this company is buying olive fruit from producers, or simply allows producers to extract olive oil in their facilities, while holding a commission. This allows olive oil from different elevations, areas, varieties and practices to be mixed into one single olive oil product. In other words, complete lack of traceability. Through this model, the consumer cannot be in touch with the cultivation, harvesting and extraction processes and cannot know whether the right practices are being followed. Finally, the consumer gets a blended olive oil that lacks any special flavor, aroma or health benefits.

b) A company can really reduce prices by not engaging in serious Quality Assurance. This doesn’t mean that the company will always deliver a bad product, but it is way more susceptible to “unfortunate” events that can severely harm quality every now and then. This is why it is possible for the same brand to have different olive oil qualities every season.

c) Adulteration. You have to keep in mind that some of the olive oil currently sold in the world’s markets is not olive oil. It is a small percentage but you should keep an eye on that since it is a possibility. Fraud companies typically provide their prospects with a high quality product at first but over time (or after the sampling) they provide a different product of lower quality, or a product that is not even olive oil. With olive oil being considered the world’s most frequently adulterated food, this is something to keep an eye on.

 Bad Expensive Olive Oil

This one is simple, “all that glitters is not gold”, neither is “liquid gold”. In his book, Tom Mueller explains how it is possible for some expensive olive oil brands to be essentially low quality olive oil. Luxury olive oil frequently does not have anything greater to demonstrate than regular olive oil. 

Some olive oil businesses prefer to invest on a visually impressive image of their brand instead of paying attention to Quality Assurance. So, if you can afford expensive olive oil and you are buying the most expensive brand that you can find out there, in hopes of it being high quality, you could have it wrong. 

It is not a rare event that some brands are practically “empty vessels” that carry a different olive oil each season. Since the brand is recognizable and since the majority of consumers is not trained enough to identify high quality olive oil, it makes sense for some to focus on brand recognition and differentiation instead of quality consistency. 

A New Factor for Olive Oil Value

Thankfully, Climate Change, which has evolved into a Climate Crisis due to humanity’s inability to take responsibility, has increased many consumers’ nutritional awareness. These people now prefer Earth friendly products over non Earth friendly ones. Food production is evaluated based on its environmental impact as well.

How does an olive farm adapts to do its part against Climate Crisis? Some old practices need to be ditched, while others need to be embraced. Naturally, Earth friendly olive oil production cost can be higher than non Earth friendly olive oil production cost. And some foodies who can afford it prefer Earth friendly olive oil. 

Which are the features of Earth friendly olive oil? 

a) The olive orchards are being cultivated according to Regenerative Agriculture practices in order to increase the soil’s ability to accumulate carbon from the atmosphere. Myrolion is a proud member of Regeneration International and our practices not only do not harm the environment, but regenerate it. For more details you can see my LinkedIn article on how Myrolion produces sustainable olive oil

b) While harvesting we do not utilize fossil fuel powered equipment. Just like our ancestors’ ancestors we either hand pick olives or use the “luros” a wooden stick made for olive harvesting. When the schedule gets strict we use electric equipment to help us accelerate the process without having a negative environmental impact.

c) The olive oil bottle needs to be plastic-free. It is impressive to see how plastic finds its way into or onto pretty much anything. 

 

Should I Use an Expensive Olive Oil or a Cheap Olive Oil?

We believe that a foodie who is trying to optimize the olive oil’s value for money should use both cheap and expensive olive oil. When it comes to olive oil itself, the only thing that can play an active role on its production cost is whether the olive oil has a high polyphenol content or not. So our advice is the following;

– Use a High Phenolic Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil, like Myrolion, for direct or raw use (salads, seasonings, vinaigrette, dips, or raw over cooked food). Besides the health benefits, it will help you enjoy the fruity taste too.

Attention: High Phenolic Organic EVOO can be an expensive olive oil. This doesn’t mean that you must give in to the most expensive olive oil in hopes of having increased health benefits. High Phenolic EVOO prices can range from 40 EUR per liter to over 100 EUR per liter. So, stay reasonable cause it can range from expensive to budget-ruining-expensive. And remember, balance is everything. After all, you can have too many antioxidants.

– Use an Organic EVOO for cooking (sauteing, frying, etc.) You are not paying for an increased amount of polyphenols that will be lost as soon as the olive oil gets heated, so it is the best way to cook.

Note: It is very easy for cheap olive oil to be cheap for all the wrong reasons. You will want to be extra careful about choosing the right olive oil for cooking. After all, even if polyphenols are mostly ruined with cooking heat, you can still receive health benefits from cooking olive oil’s polyphenols. If you can afford it, play it safe by choosing a mid-range olive oil for cooking.

Happy eating, happy cooking!

Logo of Myrolion High Phenolic Olive Oil

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