Maybe Don't Package Your Olive Oil In A Plastic Squeeze Bottle?
by Chloe Gordon on 04/28/2023 | 6 Minute Read
Olive oil is the little black dress of the kitchen—always in style and versatile enough to complement any cuisine.
But this past week, a dollop of drama hit the olive oil world despite its relative consistency. In recent years, new brands have hit the market, some that shed the old-world look of years past in favor of something more contemporary and, well, hip. We've even witnessed a drastic packaging shift from the usual glass to plastic squeeze bottles.
Seemingly everyone's new favorite olive oil band, Graza, launched last year in one such squeeze bottle, offering a new, playful take on traditional olive oil packaging, and there have been a few up-and-coming brands that have been influenced by Graza's success and have also released oil in the same vessel.
But let's not kid ourselves here—using a squeeze bottle for oil or sauce isn't revolutionary. Chefs have been using plastic squeeze bottles for what feels like forever, which inspired Graza's packaging system in the first place. It was a novelty, but it was also a pretty darn good novelty, and Graza fast became the brand everyone wanted sitting next to their oven.
Still, earlier this week, Graza's CEO, Andrew Benin, took to LinkedIn to share his thoughts. "While friendly competition was always welcome, I do view this as a blatant disrespect and am choosing to voice my discontent," he wrote, calling out the olive oil company Brightland and its CEO, Aishwarya Iyer. The post openly contested Brightland's new Pizza Oil as it's packaged in a similar plastic squeeze bottle. Later, Benin issued an apology the same day, but the post prompted a mini-viral internet controversy over the use of a squeeze bottle.
While we won't wade into the LinkedIn politics of copycat controversies and CEO umbrage fests (rooster sauce, anyone?), there was a tiny detail that stuck in our collective craw—it's a lot of beef over a plastic bottle.
Obviously, plastic bottles are no stranger to the world of olive oil. Just take a gander at the olive oil aisle of any grocery store, and you'll see plenty of them. And, yes, we'll admit, the plastic squeeze bottle is certainly having a moment. But it's also different from where the olive oil industry began, and the question stands: is it even the best alternative? Not only were traditional brands focused on using glass and aluminum materials, but they featured branding that emphasized an old-world look and feel.
"Italy has always been a standard for high food quality, including olive oil," shared Carina Hultin Dahlmann, a Norway-based olive oil sommelier. "Many producers believe this is a symbol of quality, and the market is drawn towards that." Take the Bertolli brand, for example. It's been around since 1865 when Francesco Bertolli and his wife opened a grocery in Tuscany. Before the 1950s, when most olive oil was distributed in metal cans and drums, the brand became one of the first to use glass bottles.
When you ask Dahlmann about plastic squeeze bottles for olive oil, however, she's even less thrilled. "This should be banned by law and is the first sign of low-quality olive oil and is definitely not extra virgin," she said. "It may not even be olive oil and is most likely a fake product consisting of sunflower oil and green coloring."
While the brand now uses plastic bottles, the packaging design is still rooted in its legacy, highlighting old-world aesthetics through its iconography and typography. As a result, there's a sense of authenticity embedded in the brand's Italian heritage. Further, the bottle's dark color guarantees the quality of the product and protection against light.
Yet, the change we're seeing in the packaging world for olive oil moves away from this visual identity and into a space that prioritizes a more contemporary approach, which isn't entirely unexpected. When asked about the overall aesthetic changes within the olive oil packaging space, Dahlmann shares, "New generations are taking over the family businesses and understanding that you need to evolve and modernize things, including upgrading the packaging to target the newer markets."
"Also, the competition is greater, so you must stand out more. The knowledge about EVOO and food, in general, is increasing, so there is a bigger market for selling high-end food products. Therefore, you need better packaging and brand awareness," she continues.
But in addition to contemporary makeovers, brands have consistently shifted towards plastic packaging, squeeze bottles, and otherwise. It's common knowledge amongst olive oil sommeliers that plastic packaging is not only the least sustainable option, but it's also the worst when taking taste into consideration. "You need something airtight to keep the olive oil fresh and from turning rancid. Aluminum is cheaper and lighter than glass, so many choose this option," shares Dahlmann. "I would never choose aluminum over glass as I do not want any metals in contact with my food. Glass is a better and safer choice and does not affect the taste as aluminum does in some cases could. Consider the difference between a bottled glass of Coke and one in an aluminum can. I can taste the metal from the can."
Granted, the difference might be negligible unless you're an olive oil sommelier or have an incredibly refined palette. What's not insignificant, though, is just knowing that you're not acquiring the best quality product possible merely because of the packaging material.
Graza might be using plastic bottles, but the brand's website states, "We never add oils that are not olive oil, blend oils to drive down cost, add chemicals to alter flavor and smell, or say they're from Italy when they're actually from five different places." The product is produced from 100% picual olives sourced from Jaen, Spain. So while plastic bottles might not be the best choice, the product is said to be highly crafted (and, for what it's worth, the bottles aren't transparent either).
Still, we can squint and see the convenience of the squeeze bottle. It offers consumers a quick way to drizzle their food and splatter their pans. And if you've got some classic-looking ketchup or mustard plastic bottles handy, well, that's kind of an adorable kitchen staple you can consistently refill.
But it's not the best alternative. Beyond the sustainability perspective, the material of olive oil's packaging can drastically alter the quality of the product. "Another key indicator of freshness is bottle color and material; light, heat, and oxygen are all enemies of olive oil, meaning your best bet is that the liquid gold is contained in a dark glass or entirely opaque bottle, ideally not made from plastic or a non-stainless-steel type of metal, and stored away from windows or industrial lights," Nancy Harmon Jenkins, cook, and author of Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil, shared with The Strategist last March.
For some products, sustainability aside, plastic squeeze bottles offer a convenient alternative. Products like Sriracha, a brand that has been around for decades longer than Graza, employ squeeze bottle packaging beautifully. It works because the product isn't as sensitive to light or materials, drastically altering the makeup of olive oil's delicate composition.
While new packaging can feel exciting or impressive to a consumer, it's essential to remember that the products' sustainability and quality matter. Glass and aluminum are not only the more environmentally friendly packaging options, but they offer a better-tasting product too.
There's no denying that Graza's squeeze bottle is innovative in its quirky visual world and branding, but at the end of the day, when the product runs out, it's just another piece of everlasting plastic. However, as one person on our editorial staff mentioned during the height of the Graza fiasco this past week, they're still holding on to their plastic squeeze bottle, even though it's been empty for over a year. And they're not buying any more, at least not until the brand starts selling a refillable can.
After all, it is an adorable design, and if you want to buy the cheap stuff—my apologies, Carina—there's no harm in refilling that Graza bottle. And it would make for a better sustainable brand story with a pretty nifty novelty bottle.