The harmony parameter - the big misunderstanding

It is due to a conceptual error that the sensory characteristics of an olive oil are notoriously confused by panels and, above all, by olive oil competitions with sensory performance or capability. Olive oil is in fact a condiment whose sensory role should not be assessed outside its natural purpose, namely in combination with a dish.

When we speak about condiments, we have to admit that the purpose of such is the positive change in the taste of a dish.

All those olive oil contests and competitions that determine the quality of olive oils through pure tasting, are subject to a big misunderstanding. In fact, the olive oils that are awarded in such competitions and awards are those that are judged by the jury members to be the most harmonious, forgetting that the sensory attributes of an olive oil change as soon as it is paired with a dish or another foodstuff of any kind. The fact that olive oil is not drunk pure, but drizzled over a dish, requires, so to speak, that the olive oil has distinct attributes and is not harmonious. At least this applies for many oils.

When we speak about condiments, we have to admit that the purpose of such is the positive change in the taste of a dish. We use salt, pepper or sugar to make a dish better and more tasty as a whole. But it would never come to our mind to say that the salt is too salty, the sugar is too sweet or the pepper is too hot. On the other hand, however, we can say that a dish is too salty, which is mainly the case when we have seasoned it with too much salt.

Of course, we may argue and claim that there are different sugars or different salts, such as those we find saltier or less salty, but none of them per se is better or worse. At least not if we base our assessment solely on the sensory parameter "harmony". Consequently, it is also wrong to say that a harmonious olive oil is better than a distinctly bitter or pungent olive oil. Likewise, it would be wrong to say that an olive oil with a colourful bouquet of aromas that are balanced with each other is better - because it is more harmonious - than an olive oil with a monotonous but clear flavour profile.

Harmony in olive oil has become an important factor for success

"In Germany it's all about harmony" was the recent headline in the industry journal Olive Oil Times reporting on the "harmony" parameter introduced by the Germans Annette Bongartz and Dieter Oberg into the olive oil sensory analysis in 2011. Since 2015, the "harmony parameter" has been officially approved by the authorities in Germany. The higher the harmony value, the better the olive oil. The world's largest olive oil competition, the New York International Olive Oil Competition, use this parameter as well. In the New York competition, "harmony" means "a pleasant combination of fruitiness, bitterness and pungency" - and has a significant influence on the scoring. As a result, harmonious olive oils are the most popular in New York. Following the example of the American wine journalist Robert Parker, who has a preference for wines aged in wood, there is now talk of a "parkerisation of the olive oil". All oils should be as harmonious as possible.

The purpose of the harmony parameter introduced by Bongartz and Oberg was at that time to distinguish between the quality grades "poor, average, good, very good and premium" within the legally protected category "extra virgin", since in their opinion "extra virgin" included both defect-free, simple virgin olive oils and olive oils with excellent sensory qualities, but lacked a simple descriptor to distinguish between them. Before the introduction of the controversial but in Germany as well as in Switzerland important parameter, according to Oberg, 50% of the olive oil samples submitted by discounters to the German Olive Oil Panel for sensory analysis were found to be defective. The quality of the 2700 olive oil samples tested by the German Olive Oil Panel between 2013 and 2017 is said to have improved significantly. Large German retail chains are now reported to be asking German olive oil experts, especially the German Olive Oil Panel DOP, for support in creating benchmark olive oils that will serve as a template for bottlers and producers of olive oil. As a result, olive oils will ultimately be no better but more harmonious. Oberg is now suggesting to the other countries of Europe that the harmony parameter should also be established as an official evaluation criterion.

More harmonious, but not better at all

Despite the harmony parameter, which had been used in the past in Germany and Switzerland, the olive oils available in the retail trade did not improve in terms of sensory quality. In May 2016, for example, nine out of sixteen olive oils scored "unsatisfactory" in the sensory olive oil test conducted by the Swiss consumer programme Kassensturz. Or, to put it in other words: the oils were clearly too bad to be called extra virgin. The sensory evaluation was then carried out by the Swiss Olive Oil Panel (SOP), headed by Annette Bongartz. In spring 2018, a panel in Germany gave me the opportunity to get a personal impression of the quality of the olive oils intended for the German market. I neither saw brands nor heard names, but I sniffed and sipped at different oil samples even more intensively. And what I experienced was anything but satisfying. Most samples were olive oils which I considered to be clearly defective. This is in line with what we find in the retail trade today. Most of the olive oils offered as extra virgin are of insufficient quality. In other words, in 98 % of cases (if we consider the total volume of trade) it is a matter of fraudulent labelling. Despite harmony parameters. Most recently, the Swiss-based non-profit foundation IOF - International Olive Foundation proved that of 183 olive oils declared as extra virgin marketed in Switzerland, only 21 percent meet the quality requirements for this category. What has the harmony parameter done to this market?

Correct approach of the German panel leaders

In principle, Bongartz' and Oberg's idea is basically correct. A simple, reasonably priced extra virgin olive oil is not as good as a very good, usually high-priced extra virgin olive oil, if you consider the quality of the product alone. On the product label, however, one cannot see any difference. And even the tasting guidelines of the EU and the International Olive Council do not, in the opinion of Bongartz and Oberg, allow for a significant distinction between the two oils. It is precisely here that the harmony parameter they have introduced should make the difference clearly visible and also quantifiable.

Extra virgin olive oils can be classified or grouped into the following seven harmony categories according to Bongartz et al. 2016:

A detailed examination of the valuation scheme shown above reveals that it differs significantly from the one used at the New York International Olive Oil Competition. While the overseas competition led by Curtis Cord with its "harmony parameter", according to its own information (see above and graph below), only evaluates the balance or the relationship of the positive attributes "fruitiness, bitterness and pungency" to one another, the harmony scheme of Bongartz et al. goes much further. It serves to quantify perceptible positive sensory attributes. For example, a virgin olive oil which achieves a harmony value of 5.5 to 6.4 and is accordingly classified as "good" is described as "Overall characteristics are well balanced and harmonious - Many pleasant aspects last a bit longer respectively are a bit more persistent". In the next higher level, "very good", which ranges from 6.5 to 7.5 points, a virgin olive oil is described as "Overall characteristics are very well balanced and harmonious - Many pleasant aspects last longer respectively are more persistent". In the next higher level, "excellent", which ranges from 7.6 to 10.0 points of harmony, the olive oils are described as "Characteristic of oil is perfectly balanced and harmonious - Many pleasant characteristics last very long respectively are very persistent". On the other hand, an oil which only achieves 3.1 to 4.4 points of harmony and is therefore classified as "not sufficient" is accused of "presenting unbalanced and inharmonious aroma aspects".

The great importance of precise descriptors

Despite a detailed explanation of what the head of the Swiss Olive Oil Panel and the former head of the German Olive Oil Panel understand by the "harmony value", it is not exactly conclusive to me why for the quantification of scents, aromas and stimuli of the taste buds which can be detected in olive oil a new parameter was created which is supposed to numerically represent the overall value? The more perceptible positive attributes, the more harmonious? This would only make sense if one wanted to use the word "harmony", derived from an Indo-European language, as the descriptive term. Then harmony could mean, for example, "union of opposites into a whole" and would explain and justify the use of the harmony scheme of Bongartz and Oberg. However, if we refer to the ancient Greek word "ἁρμονία" as the origin and explanation of the term "harmony", which we use relatively frequently nowadays, we find that the same word means "equal", whereby Bongartz and Oberg's "harmony parameter" would describe the oils according to the harmony of the perceptible sensory characteristics. The higher the harmony of the characteristics, the better the oil. Descriptors should therefore be chosen with the utmost care and accuracy, as failure to respect this principle can lead to misunderstandings, whose continuation often has unfavourable consequences for the consumer.

Harmony parameter in olive oil by olive oil times - evoo ag
Screenshot Ollie -

In my opinion, which I share with Professor Claudio Peri and food technologist and olive sensory expert Sophia Amariotaki Streich, a perceptible more complex spectrum of aromas in olive oil does not automatically mean that the olive oil is more harmonious overall. It is much more complex. One could also speak of a much more multi-layered aroma spectrum. "Harmonious" is, as already mentioned above in the explanation of the word "harmony", something when the descriptive characteristics of the product are balanced. From none too much, from none too little. The meaning of the word "harmony" according to Duden is the following: (music) pleasant sounding harmony of several tones or chords; balanced, equal ratio of parts to each other; equilibrium, regularity; internal and external correspondence; unity, concord.

Definition according to Duden (Picture: Screenshot
Definition according to Duden (Picture: Screenshot

The PAR system evaluates the balance in wines

A good friend and wine expert, René Blanco Müller (wine expert, wine consultant and former chief sommelier of the Grand Resort Bad Ragaz) recently asked me in the context of the "harmony discussion" on olive oil about the PAR system of the oenologist, winemaker and wine taster Martin Darting from Germany. Darting uses the "balance" as the last test parameter in sensory wine analysis. Although I am not a wine expert at all, I can well imagine that it is justified to evaluate the balance of wine and consequently to let higher balance evaluations result in a better overall result. Because, wine is drunk. From the glass into the mouth. Whereas olive oil is not. Only when tasting it is done this way. Olive oil is enjoyed - with the exception of a few crazy people, including myself - always in combination with a food. For many people, the use of olive oil is limited only to salads. But some others put a drizzle of olive oil almost without exception over every dish and feel that the same oil does not taste equally good over every dish. Or better, that the oil is always the same, but it does not fit equally well with every dish, to draw the bow again to wine and the PAR system of Darting, which incidentally also offers wine food pairing courses for this purpose.

The scent of tomato, which we can detect, for example, in olive oils obtained from Sicilian olive varieties, is due, among other substances and factors, to the ketone 1-penten-3-one. It is not possible to qualitatively assess this chemical compound by means of sensory analysis. But only quantitatively.

Darting quantifies the relevant attributes - such as fruity or spicy - in a first evaluation table on a scale from 1 to 10: the fruitier the wine, the higher the score. In a second evaluation table, he uses the same score system from 1 to 10 to assess the quality of the wine for the same attributes. In the example below, the wine analysed by Darting has a perceptible fruitiness of seven points, while the quality of this perceptible fruitiness is given with eight out of ten points. With regard to the test parameter "balance", it is necessary to note that the quantitative assessment of the perceptible attributes can vary considerably and that the "balance" of the same wine is nevertheless given with nine out of ten points. Too many phenols and tannins could (conjunctive, since in the present case only three out of ten possible points are given) lead to the wine being less enjoyable to drink (which is only a guess). To put it simply, balance in wine could mean for Darting: From all components just enough in order to get a harmonious overall impression.

Although I don't know the PAR system in detail and maybe even don't fully understand it, I find it a very interesting and complex rating system. Nevertheless, it cannot be used in its present form for olive oil evaluations. To quantify a certain positive aroma is possible in any case, but to qualify it will be very difficult. The aroma of tomato, for example, which we can detect in olive oils obtained from Sicilian olive varieties, is due, among other substances and factors, to the ketone 1-penten-3-one. It is simply not possible to classify or grade the quality of this chemical compound, this molecule with the olfactory and retronasal sensory analysis. However, it is possible to determine how strong the smell or taste of tomatoes can be (and consequently how often the chemical compound responsible for this occurs in olive oil), so only a quantification of the same attribute is possible. 1 for weakly perceptible; 10 for extremely distinctly perceptible. Nothing more is needed.

What does the law say about the attribute "balanced"

Of course there are olive oils whose positive attributes are in a balanced relationship with each other, making us perceive the oil as a whole as harmonious. And, of course, there are many areas of application in which balanced oils, which have a certain combination of different positive attributes, are particularly good. The EU has regulated the use of the descriptor "well balanced" as follows in its implementing regulation (EU) No 2016/1227 of 27 July 2016: «well balanced is an oil which does not display a lack of balance, by which is meant the olfactory- gustatory and tactile sensation where the median of the bitter attribute and the median of the pungent attribute are not more than 2 points above the median of the fruitiness.»

An olive oil with fruitiness 5.2, bitterness 4.2 and pungency 5.9 is therefore well balanced. Similarly, olive oils with the following attributes may be considered balanced by law:

  • Fruitiness 6.9; Bitterness 6.8; Pungency 6.9

  • Fruitiness 6.8; Bitterness 1.7; Pungency 6.4

  • Fruitiness 1.5; Bitterness 2.5; Pungency 3.0

  • Fruitiness 1.0; Bitterness 1.0; Pungency 1.0

The latter two olive oils, due to their very low level of fruitiness and low phenolic content (bitterness and pungency), might hypothetically be extremely bad and probably also faulty - even though they would in themselves be considered harmonious according to current EU legislation. However, we now assume that these are oils free of defects. In contrast, an olive oil with 6.0 fruitiness, 8.1 bitterness and 8.5 pungency would be unbalanced, although probably of extremely high quality. With this highly potent, because extremely bitter and pungent stuff, however, it needs guidance on how to use it best, on which dish it will be most valuable. Because, without doubt, its field of application is reduced, a delicate freshwater fish or a peach carpaccio would be clearly drowned out, even if used in small quantities. However, this strong oil would make an excellent addition to a hot stew with beans and smoked pepper powder, on a lamb rack or on a scoop of vanilla ice cream. An amazing olive oil, provided you find the right dish for it.

It is remarkable that the tasting guidelines and tasting forms of many competitions are very similar or even completely the same, which means that the significance of some competitions should be questioned.

A flood of harmony in competitions

A harmonious balance is sometimes also found in olive oils which, despite obvious sensory defects, win prizes at international competitions. There are many examples, but I prefer not to mention them here. It has become "fashion" to give harmony a grotesquely higher importance at numerous well-known competitions than it is done, for example, for the fruitiness, bitterness, pungency, complexity or clarity of an olive oil, as the pictures shown below prove. Hence, in the olfactory evaluation for "olive fruitiness", according to which an olive oil should normally smell of - by the way, the stronger, the better - there are only seven points, while there are a whole 20 points to be awarded for harmony. For the sample shown first in the picture course, the corresponding juror and taster determined a total of 28 points in the olfactory evaluation, 18 of which were contributed by harmony alone. According to this, the oil sample scored 64 % of the points achieved in this category solely by an supposed very high harmony. If you add up the points obtained across all the sensory categories, the result is quite astonishing: this oil received 86 of 100 possible points and was awarded a gold medal (from 84 points). This is questionable because in the top part of the test sheet, the taster performed the calibration not included in the final score, rated the oil with a fruitiness of 5, a bitterness of 3 and a pungency of 4, indicating a rather below average product with few phenolic compounds.

The harmony parameter actually makes the fruitiness and the other positive attributes that can be detected through the nose a minor issue. And it is noticeable that the tasting guidelines and tasting forms of many competitions are very similar or even completely the same, which means that the significance of some competitions should be questioned. This is aggravated by the fact that the same tasters and jury members are always involved in many different competitions and it is therefore hardly surprising that the same oils always make it into the ranks - no matter where. Last but not least, it must be said that such competitions are always a matter of commerce. You earn a lot of money from 300 samples worth 200 euros each. This is also "fashion", but serves the actual purpose of improving the quality of olive oil very little.

When olive oil meets a dish (protein, salt, starch, fat), a bio-chemical change happens, something we should be aware of.

It remains to be seen that both the harmony values as applied by the New York International Olive Oil Competition and other international competitions as well as the International Olive Oil Award in Zurich under the direction of Annette Bongartz in their respective peculiarities, and the optional terminology "balanced" established by the EU succumb to misunderstanding. None of these descriptors allows usable and meaningful conclusions to be drawn about the effective quality of an olive oil. No harmony value says what kind of dish an olive oil could go with. In the end, that's what counts, the pairing of olive oils of different types and different performances with the respective dish. When olive oil meets a dish (protein, salt, starch, fat), a bio-chemical change occurs, something we should be aware of.

«[..] it makes you realise that there is chemistry in pairing that is not clear to us and which can be discovered only through experiment.»

- Johnny Madge, Panel Judge

Johnny Madge - a good friend and olive oil expert
Johnny Madge - a good friend and olive oil expert

This is what a good friend from England, Johnny Madge, who lives in Italy, runs olive oil tours and is also an excellent taster, said about the harmony discussion: «One would hope (just as with very tannic wines) that the judges can imagine just how spectacular a massive coratina would be with a hot steak or a hot Pugliese fava bean and potato soup but it may be true (if unlikely) that not all competition judges are enthusiastic eaters and experimenters with food. I came home with an avocado the other day which I cut into 7 pieces and tried 7 different oils on. I had a hunch which oils would be good and which mediocre and although most of the time I was right I was not always right which makes you realise that there is chemistry in pairing that is not clear to us and which can be discovered only through experiment. Some of us feel that competitions are giving prizes only to the big oils which are highly aromatic, bitter and pungent and I personally feel that the part in the tasting sheets about bitterness needs to be changed. I have (of the 220 oils sent to me last autumn) about 85% bitter and pungent oils and sometimes, when I want to make a mayonnaise, pesto or when I want to dress something which is very bitter (and COLD - this is a VERY important distinction) I would prefer to have more choice of less bitter oils.»


Maria Paola Gabusi, the organiser and panel leader of the prestigious Leone d'Oro Award, raised her finger and warned: «Silvan, the world is not perfect. The organoleptic analysis is not perfect and the tasters are not perfect either. Whether a harmony parameter plays a role in a competition is decided by the director of the competition. You can't say per se that the use of the harmony parameter is bad.»

An olive oil with 72 out of 100 points may be the best

I myself also like the harmonious olive oils. For particular purposes. But I also like the other ones, the inharmonic and really crashing magnificent ones. In general, we at evoo are looking for green tones in olive oil, because we believe that the health aspect plays a decisive role. It is a scientifically proven fact that perfectly produced green oils contain more secondary plant substances or derivatives that are beneficial to our health. For example, Oleuropein Aglycon, Oleacin, Ligstrosid, Oleocanthal, Tyrosol, Hydroxytyrosol and whatever else they are called. These substances are far less present in mature oils. So the mature oil does not have the same health value. Mature oils are not our preference, although they can be harmonious and sometimes even free of defects. And last but not least they go very well with some dishes. For example to carpaccio from the Tonda di Chioggia. However, the storage of such oils is also much more difficult and they are accordingly more susceptible to deterioration. For the basic oils of the gastronomy, where prices naturally play an important, if not the most important role, we work with a moderately bitter olive oil from Arbequina and Picual olives. Picual gives the structure and the backbone. Arbequina fills the body. In this way we manage to provide a relatively light, base giving olive oil to the restaurateurs, which they can use for all dishes, without the olive oil being able to disturb dishes, which would unavoidably happen with Johnny's Coratina. This olive oil would only score 72 points on our tasting sheet, so from a sensory-competitive point of view it would be far from being among the best. And yet, for the intended use, there is no oil that could be better. So scores are actually secondary. Unfortunately, this fact is too little taken into account by panels and competitions.

The harmony and balance parameter, by contrast, is not found in our evaluation sheet for the reasons mentioned above. We are also aware that the result of the tasting, which is shown on the sheet, is only an indication of which dishes the oil could best be paired with. Often these premonitions are correct, but sometimes they are also totally wrong. Johnny Madge should feel honoured.

Not everything is in need of harmony. Indeed, I read the other day that "balance" is also desired in caviar, although I think that one misunderstands the meaning of this condiment, which caviar undoubtedly is. From time to time we get tired of harmony and love extreme interpretations or expressions. Nature is the best known supplier of the latter. So for some, a cupcake that is completely sweet can be just as satisfying as for others a curry with the Carolina Reaper chili pepper. However, neither of the two is harmonious, and the ingredients used for such dishes are certainly not. They are very sweet in the case of sugar (inharmonious, because too sweet??) or very hot in the case of the chilli pepper. They are classic condiments which, when taken in their pure form, are always extreme.

In any case, the diversity of olive oil would benefit from a little less harmony and it would possibly help to get the olive oil out of the fat corner and to understand it as a condiment, as Conrad Bölicke likes saying. Finally, it would also mean that consumers would be prepared to pay more for olive oil, because good condiments can be used very sparingly. My goodness, what great prospects.

Wonderful range of olive oils at G. Coldebella AG in Stans
Wonderful range of olive oils at G. Coldebella AG in Stans

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