In focus

Why olive oil is suddenly so expensive – and what to use instead

The price of this cooking staple has soared so high that it has been nicknamed ‘liquid gold’. Katie Rosseinsky explores why olive oil producers are struggling right now, and how this is impacting shoppers

Thursday 09 May 2024 10:11 BST
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The price of olive oil has soared in recent years as Europe has been hit by drought and high temperatures
The price of olive oil has soared in recent years as Europe has been hit by drought and high temperatures (Getty Images)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

The last time I headed down the aisles of my local supermarket to replenish supplies of olive oil, I did an almost cartoonish double-take: I could practically feel my eyes jumping out on stalks as I saw prices in double figures. What was once a relatively affordable cooking essential now has a price tag more befitting, say, a bottle of wine. I’m not talking about high-end brands here, either, the ones with vaguely European names, couched in artisan-esque glass bottles. In mid-April, The Grocer found that the average price of one litre of own-label olive oil in the UK’s major supermarkets was £7.38 – that’s 42 per cent higher than one year ago. It’s enough to make you start second-guessing yourself every time you pour a dash of it into a pan or drizzle some onto a salad, prompting furious and depressing calculations about the cost-per-pour.

The product has even acquired a new nickname to reflect its exorbitant cost: “liquid gold”. And the situation is only going to get worse. It’s estimated that UK customers will soon have to pay more than £16 for a 2l bottle of extra virgin olive oil, the healthiest, least processed and therefore priciest member of the olive oil family. Miguel Angel Guzman, the chief sales officer at leading olive oil producer Deoleo, recently told CNBC that they are “facing one of the most difficult moments in the history of the sector”.

But why is the industry in such dire straits? Unlike other supermarket price hikes, the olive oil crisis can’t simply be blamed on inflation. Producers are grappling with major supply and demand issues. This year, the International Olive Council expects that just under 2.3 million tonnes of olives will be produced – slightly down from last year’s yield of 2.5 million tonnes, and significantly lower than the 3.4 million tonnes produced in 2022. This significant decrease is largely thanks to climate change.

A few consecutive years of high temperatures and droughts in Spain, the country responsible for producing 40 per cent of the world’s olives, have drastically curtailed the quantity and the quality of the harvest. Unusually warm stretches of weather in winter are bad for olive trees: the higher temperatures can prompt them to start flowering and if the mercury subsequently drops to a more normal level, these premature blooms might die off. Spring heatwaves, like the one Spain experienced last May, can be damaging too. “If the weather doesn’t change, olive oil prices will continue to rise,” Juan Vilar, the CEO of agricultural consultancy Vilcon, told industry bible Olive Oil Times in February.

Last year, olives from Greece and Turkey were used to make up the shortfall, but now their trees need to recover from this bumper harvest: production in the former country is expected to drop by as much as 60 per cent in 2024. And as for Italy, another major player in the olive oil game? For the past decade, trees in Puglia (the heart of the country’s olive production) and beyond have been ravaged by the Xylella fastidiosa bacterium. This clogs up the vessels that transport water from the roots to the leaves and essentially chokes plants to death.

All in all, then, the outlook across the Mediterranean – where olive oil is famously a dietary mainstay – is pretty bleak. In fact, the situation has become so bad in Europe that it has sparked a super-specific crime wave. Bottles of olive oil are now one of the most popular items nicked by Spanish shoplifters. A survey by the Spanish security company STC found that this was the most stolen item in supermarkets across eight of the country’s 17 regions.

Olive oil is now one of the most shoplifted items in Spain
Olive oil is now one of the most shoplifted items in Spain (Getty Images)

Apparently, though, it’s not cash-strapped customers who are driving this thieving spree. Instead, it’s reportedly the work of organised gangs, who then try to sell diluted versions on the black market (a story that will presumably soon come to a true crime podcast or Netflix documentary near you). In Greece and Italy, robbers have reportedly been targeting olive groves too, sometimes sawing entire branches off trees. “It’s like the Wild West,” claimed Gennaro Sicolo, the president of national olive growers consortium, Italia Olivicola.

In Spain, temperatures for the coming summer are forecast to be more regular, and recent rainy weather has been encouraging too. But this won’t be enough to stop price rises any time soon. It’s yet another stark reminder that climate change isn’t some far-off, theoretical thing – it’s already impacting the way we shop and eat.

As olive oil prices rise, what are some more affordable alternatives?

Some consumers are opting for alternative cooking oils amid the price hike
Some consumers are opting for alternative cooking oils amid the price hike (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Rapeseed oil

Thanks to its simple flavour profile and a high smoke point (which means it can reach high temperatures without burning), rapeseed oil is a versatile addition to your kitchen cupboards. Plus, it’s high in unsaturated fatty acids (the healthier kind), as well as vitamin E.

Sunflower oil

Sunflower oil also has a relatively neutral taste, so it’s a good option when you’re not too fussed about imparting a specific flavour into your food – if you’re baking or frying, for example. It’s also high in linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid.

Vegetable oil

This is among the cheapest of the cooking oils you’re likely to see stocked in your local supermarket, but it is also one of the most highly processed. That’s because it is made by blending various types of plant fats, like seeds, grains, soybeans and canola (olive oil, in contrast, just comes from pressed olives).

Sesame oil

The nutty flavour profile of sesame oil lends itself well to stir-fries: the raw version is best for cooking, thanks to its high smoke point, whereas toasted sesame oil should be your go-to for dressings. It’s rich in antioxidants and is thought to have anti-inflammatory properties.

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