Starbucks raised eyebrows recently with the introduction in select locations in Italy of Oleato, coffee with cold pressed extra-virgin olive oil added to it.
“The result is velvety smooth, delicately sweet and lush coffee that uplifts each cup with an extraordinary new flavor and texture.”
An early taster from CNN was not convinced, calling it “too much” and saying that after a few sips she just felt weighed down, and didn’t care for the feel of oil on her lips.
But people have been adding oil to coffee for a while now, particularly practitioners of ketogenic and paleo diets, who have been putting MCT oil and/or clarified butter, ideally from grass-fed cattle, in their coffee and spinning it all in a blender for a decade or longer. The result is supposed to provide added energy and satiety, helping in appetite control and weight loss (WebMD hastens to point out that “more research is needed to discover if MCT oil can help with any of these conditions”).
MCT stands for medium-chain triglycerides, words that most consumers probably don’t understand well. Olive oil, by contrast, is well known, popular, widely used, part of the Mediterranean diet acclaimed by many health advocades, and is comprised mostly of monounsaturated fats that are established as being heart-healthy. The extra-virgin variety that Starbucks is using, which in short means that it’s minimally processed, also is rich in antioxidants.
As for the flavor, well, the grassy notes of extra-virgin olive oil can be polarizing, but probably less so than green tea, which is now a mainstream beverage in the United States, although often augmented by sweeteners and creamers, such as with Starbucks’ own Matcha Crème Frappuccino, or turmeric, which is bitter, and more “interesting” than tasty. Americans are nonetheless drinking turmeric juice shots and adding it to the foam of their espresso drinks to create “golden lattes,” thanks to the spice’s purported health benefits.
Indeed, many American consumers seem to be willing to adjust their palates for drinks that they think are good for them, much more so than they are for food, the persistent popularity of kale notwithstanding.
Hence the bright pungency of energy drinks, and kombucha, that are popular among younger consumers but unpalatable to many older ones, and the acceptance of assorted bitter mushrooms and other functional ingredients that are now in many drinks lining supermarket shelves.
And Starbucks does have a history of transforming the coffee industry. Indeed, that’s what it does. It started the so-called “second wave” of coffeehouses that convinced their customers to pay triple the price or more for their drinks compared to the commodity coffee they were accustomed to.
There was a time when adding cinnamon, nutmeg, and other baking spices to coffee was a relative rarity until Starbucks introduced the Pumpkin Spice Latte in 2003.
More recently, and with less fanfare, Starbucks introduced Cold Foam, or aerated skim milk, at its Reserve Roastery in Seattle in 2014, followed by a systemwide rollout in 2018.
Since then most major coffee chains have followed suit with similar foamy toppings.
It could be argued that Starbucks is no longer at the cutting edge of coffee drink development. Recent innovations by the chain such as espresso drinks flavored apple, juniper, and other enhancements seemed to be greeted with a sniff and a shrug by their customers, or at least not the adulation of the PSL, and third-wave coffee companies such as Stumptown and Blue Bottle, and countless local and regional operators, have moved forward with pour-over coffee offerings, single-origin blends, and other innovations.
But with the announcement of olive oil in coffee just a day old, it’s premature to dismiss the idea.
Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]