Olive oil is a staple in many households, and the packaging of the oil can make a significant difference in its quality and presentation. While modern olive oil is packaged in dark bottles, ancient Romans preferred clear glass bottles for their olive oil. This article will explain why Romans chose clear glass bottles for olive oil and the marketing heuristics that led to the popularity of dark bottles today.
The Importance of Olive Oil to Ancient Romans
In the ancient world, olive oil was much more than just a common kitchen staple. To the Romans, it was an essential status symbol, a luxurious commodity that signified wealth and sophistication. At dinner parties, serving high-quality olive oil was an opportunity to showcase one's social standing and good taste. Clear glass bottles, known as aryballoi (a word carried over from Ancient Greece), were the preferred method of displaying the oil's quality, allowing hosts to demonstrate their commitment to serving only the finest products.
Fascinatingly, the oldest known bottle of olive oil in the world was discovered in the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum, near Naples, and it was contained in a clear glass bottle. The bottle is estimated to be over 2,000 years old, and it provides a remarkable insight into the ancient Roman's love for high-quality olive oil.
These transparent containers were not only a practical choice, but also a social one. Clear bottles allowed guests to easily judge the quality of the oil based on its color and clarity, making it an essential factor in determining its value.
In addition, clear bottles were also a testament to the authenticity of the olive oil. Blended olive oil exposed to sunlight would quickly become rancid and lose its nutritional value, indicating that it was not pure.
In a society where olive oil was often as expensive as gasoline is today, the transparency of the bottle helped differentiate between high-quality and low-quality oils, indicating the host's commitment to serving only the finest, unadulterated products.
Didn't Romans Use Clay Amphorae to Store their Olive Oil?
While some people may argue that the Romans used opaque bottles for their olive oil, this is only partially true. Amphorae were often used for cellar storage and long-distance transportation on maritime trade vessels.
There are several reasons why clay amphorae were superior to glass bottles for long-distance transportation. First and foremost, clay is a more durable material than glass, and it is less likely to break during transportation. Additionally, clay amphorae have thicker walls than glass bottles, which provides more insulation against changes in temperature during transportation. This is important because temperature fluctuations can lead to oxidation and spoilage of the oil. Finally, clay containers are also less expensive than glass bottles, making them a more practical choice for trade.
The use of dark bottles in modern olive oil packaging is a marketing strategy that has been passed down through generations of producers, but the practice is not without a basis in reality.
Historically, lard and seed oils were used to adulterate olive oil, allowing producers to drive up profit margins. These additives, which are more sensitive to light and oxidation, would spoil quickly, leading to rancid oil. To prevent this from happening, olive oil was packaged in dark bottles to protect it from sunlight and extend its shelf life.
As consumers have become more educated about the health benefits of high-quality, antioxidant-rich extra virgin olive oil, the need for dark bottles has diminished. The antioxidants present in high-quality olive oil make it naturally resistant to oxidation, even when exposed to light. As a result, the practice of using dark bottles is now more of a marketing heuristic than a practical necessity.
Importance of Bottle Color Today
While dark bottles are commonly used in the packaging of olive oil today, the significance of the color of the bottle is often misunderstood. While it is true that dark bottles help protect olive oil from fluorescent light exposure on supermarket shelves, it is not a crucial factor when purchasing high-quality olive oil directly from a website. Most reputable companies store their oil in a cool, dark warehouse, making the color of the bottle less important.
With the increasing popularity of on-demand packaging and direct online sales, olive oil customers can breathe a little easier. When shipped, the oil is kept safe and protected in an opaque cardboard box, ensuring it doesn't come into contact with light until it reaches the customer's doorstep. This means they can store it in a dark and cool place without having to worry about potential exposure to harmful light, leading to a longer shelf life for their beloved oil.
It is also interesting to note that the transparency of olive oil bottles can have both positive and negative connotations for the savvy consumer. On the one hand, a clear glass bottle can indicate that the producer takes pride in showcasing the high quality and freshness of their oil. However, a clear plastic bottle can sometimes suggest that the oil has been blended with cheaper, less refined oils like canola oil that are already nearing the end of their shelf life. Why bother investing in slightly more expensive dark bottles when the majority of mid-market customers cannot distinguish between normal and rancid oil anyway?
Other Indicators of Olive Oil Quality
In ancient Rome, clear glass bottles were considered the gold standard for showcasing high-quality olive oil. The transparent packaging was an essential element of the social and cultural milieu, serving as a powerful symbol of wealth and refinement. The use of clear glass bottles allowed hosts to demonstrate their commitment to serving only the finest olive oil available, and it served as a mark of distinction in Roman society.
Today, the use of dark bottles for packaging olive oil is widespread, and this practice is primarily a result of past marketing tactics that aimed to conceal adulterated oils.
To ensure you are purchasing high-quality olive oil, consider the following indicators: single origin, harvest date, first cold press, and the family history of the producer. These factors provide more accurate indicators of the oil's freshness, taste, and aroma. At Selo, we check all those boxes, so you can be confident that you are getting the best olive oil possible. Try our olive oil today and taste the difference for yourself.