bottles of Greek extra virgin olive oil on supermarket shelves

Is olive oil expensive now? It depends on how you look at it. If you compare prices to a year or two ago, yes. If you consider the price per serving, the cost compared to other purchases, and extra virgin olive oil’s contributions to your food’s flavor and health benefits, no: we are not paying as much as this cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet is worth.

In the country that typically produces and consumes the most olive oil in the world, Spain, the average person consumes 12 liters of olive oil each year, or 1 liter per month. At the September shelf price of about 10 euros per liter, that comes to approximately 32 cents per day, as Juan A. Peñamil, CEO of Grupo Editorial Mercacei, pointed out. So how could it be a luxury product?

Olive oil is not a luxury product,” insists Dr. Nikos Michelakis, Scientific Advisor to the Association of Cretan Olive Municipalities (SEDIK). Rather, “it is a product with proven high health value. Its beneficial role in a series of serious diseases that are the scourge of humans (heart disease, cancer, diabetes, etc.) has been established by valid scientific research. And this of course happens when it is the main fat in the daily diet. So for those who choose it for its healthy role, it is not expensive at all! Its cost per day for continuous consumption is at most 1/5 of a cup of coffee!”

While precise, up-to-date statistics are hard to find in Greece, if we consider an average supermarket price of 13 euros per liter in mid October and 11 liters per person per year, or 0.92 liter per month, we could say the average olive oil expenditure in Greece is around 40 cents per person per day, just a bit more than in Spain. One estimate of the average price of a cup of coffee at a café in Greece is €2.99, so even with higher olive oil consumption or a more costly extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), daily olive oil expenditure can come in way below a café bill in Greece—and possibly even below the cost of a couple cups of coffee at home.

Across the ocean in the USA, the world’s major importer of olive oil, Americans use an average of approximately 1 liter of olive oil each year. Online searches in early November reveal some bottles starting around $12 per liter for EVOO, and many brands several times as expensive. So a typical American consumer might spend just $1 per month—a few cents per day—on olive oil, while others can invest in more of this healthy fat or a premium brand, when budgets allow it.

As Dr. Mary Flynn discovered over a decade ago, even some low-income families have recognized that extra virgin olive oil offers value for money. As reported in Science Daily, a study headed by Flynn “found that a plant-based, extra-virgin olive oil diet is cheaper than the most economical recommendations for healthy eating coming from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The comparison to the USDA diet showed an annual savings of nearly $750 per person, while also providing significantly more servings of vegetables, fruits and whole grains.”

Fruits, vegetables, and extra-virgin olive oil were thought to make nourishing diets expensive, Flynn reported, “but we suspected it was meat that made a diet expensive, and extra-virgin olive oil is cheaper than even small amounts of meat.” While EVOO is associated with a long list of health benefits, meat has been associated with an increased risk for “obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, breast cancer, prostate cancer, colon cancer and overall mortality.”

Flynn’s earlier work on plant-based diets rich in olive oil, according to Science Daily, had shown substantial benefits from such diets, including “better weight loss and improvement in some chronic disease risk factors compared to a lower fat diet. Participants overwhelmingly preferred it to a lower fat diet and consistently commented on how economical it was to purchase and prepare.”

While the price of olive oil has increased significantly since that study was conducted, the health benefits of replacing some meat with plant-based meals and olive oil remain clear, and reducing meat consumption frees up grocery dollars for fruit, vegetable, and olive oil purchases. Even now, if one buys a liter of extra virgin olive oil for $12, that is less than 18 cents per tablespooon, and Flynn’s recommended 4 tablespooons of olive oil daily would cost 72 cents per day. Flynn recently told Greek Liquid Gold she believes olive oil is still “definitely worth the price. Based on the health benefits, it is cheaper than medicine and tastes oh so much better.”

“Spending more to use EVOO as your primary fat today can go a long way to save money on things like drugs and bypass operations in the future,” agrees olive oil judge, consultant, and co-founder of the Extra Virgin Alliance Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne. “I have no doubt that when I spend a bit more to buy extra virgin olive oil for cooking and raw use, it is an excellent use of my food dollar. EVOO makes inexpensive things like legumes taste fantastic. It also makes healthy foods like vegetables delicious.”

As Greece’s OliveNews editor, agronomist Vassilis Zampounis, emphasizes, “we must insist on and promote the healthy properties of olive oil irrespective of its high price in absolute or relative terms.” The North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) has been working on this for some time. As NAOOA Executive Director Joseph R. Profaci told Greek Liquid Gold, “in these times of rising prices, we have to redouble efforts to educate consumers about health, as well as the fact olive oil is less processed and more sustainable than alternative cooking oils.”

“A couple of years ago,” Profaci explained, the NAOOA “tested how effective various olive oil ‘value’ messages would be, including ‘cost messaging,’” for 1000 consumers. The NAOOA discovered that approximately 70% of their respondents became more interested in using olive oil after hearing that the typical “additional cost per week” and “cost per serving” for using olive oil was minimal, while its nutritional value was substantial.

We can consider the “cost per serving” in any recipe. For example, in an easy, wholesome recipe for a traditional Greek vegetarian dish, peas in olive oil and tomato sauce (or a variation made with beans, green beans, or cauliflower), we have ¾ cup of extra virgin olive oil for about 8 servings, or 1.5 tablespoons of EVOO per serving. Pouring from a $15 liter of olive oil with 68 tablespoons in that liter, that’s just 33 cents per serving for the EVOO.

Profaci told Greek Liquid Gold, “my personal view is that when you look at the cost per serving analysis, even at today’s (hopefully temporary) higher prices, the cost of 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil a day that bring with it a host of health benefits is a lot less than the cost of a cup of Starbucks. If anything, it is way too cheap.” In fact, as Devarenne points out, “for someone who uses EVOO instead of premium bottled salad dressing and butter, it could be a money saver. And the bottom line is that per serving, even premium extra virgin is a bargain compared to a $30 bottle of wine that only lasts one meal.”

Whatever your budget, it is worth reserving space for extra virgin olive oil in it!

If you aren't sure where to find good olive oil near you, here are some possibilities (both online and brick-and-mortar).

All businesses, organizations, and competitions involved with Greek olive oil, the Mediterranean diet, and/or agrotourism or food tourism in Greece, as well as others interested in supporting Greeks working in these sectors, are invited to consider the advertising and sponsorship opportunities on the Greek Liquid Gold: Authentic Extra Virgin Olive Oil website.  The only wide-ranging English-language site focused on news and information from the Greek olive oil world, it has helped companies reach consumers in more than 220 countries around the globe.

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