Olives, one of the oldest foods known, are thought to have originated in Crete between five and seven thousand years ago. Since ancient times, the olive tree has provided food, fuel, timber and medicine for many civilizations, and has been regarded as a symbol of peace and wisdom. The venerable oil of the olive has been consumed since as early as 3,000 B.C.
What's New and Beneficial About Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- The quality of olive oil production - especially the stage of pressing - really does make a difference when it comes to health benefits. Recent studies have compared the anti-inflammatory benefits of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) obtained from the first pressing of the oil to the anti-inflammatory benefits of virgin olive oils (non-EVOO) obtained from later pressings. What researchers found was an ability of EVOO to lower inflammatory markers in the blood when non-EVOOs were unable to do so. (Study measurements included blood levels of thromboxane A2, or TXA2, and leukotriene B2, or LBT2.) This ability of extra virgin olive oil to help protect against unwanted inflammation is not surprising, since EVOO is known to contain stronger concentrations of phytonutrients (especially polyphenols) that have well-known anti-inflammatory properties.
- Mediterranean Diet studies have long associated olive oil intake with decreased risk of heart disease. However, a recent group of studies has provided us with a fascinating explanation of olive oil's cardioprotective effect. One of the key polyphenols in olive oil - hydroxytyrosol (HT) - helps protect the cells that line our blood vessels from being damaged by overly reactive oxygen molecules. HT helps protect the blood vessel cells by triggering changes at a genetic level. The genetic changes triggered by HT help the blood vessel cells to enhance their antioxidant defense system. In other words, olive oil supports our blood vessels not only by providing antioxidants like like vitamin E and beta-carotene. Olive oil also provides our blood vessels with unique molecules like HT that actually work at a genetic level to help the cellular walls of the blood vessels remain strong.
- Olive oil has long been recognized for its unusual fat content. This plant oil is one of the few widely used culinary oils that contains about 75% of its fat in the form of oleic acid (a monounsaturated, omega-9 fatty acid). In terms of monounsaturated fat, the closest common culinary oil to olive is canola oil, with about 60% of its fat coming in monounsaturated form. By contrast, the fat in soybean oil in only 50-55% monounsaturated; in corn oil, it's about 60%; in sunflower oil, about 20%; and in safflower oil, only 15%. When diets low in monounsaturated fat are altered to increase the monounsaturated fat content (by replacing other oils with olive oil), research study participants tend to experience a significant decrease in their total blood cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and LDL:HDL ratio. Recent research studies have taken these heart-healthy effects of olive oil one step further. Olive oil's monounsaturated fat content (specifically, its high level of oleic acid) has now been determined to be a mechanism linking olive oil intake to decreased blood pressure. Researchers believe that the plentiful amount of oleic acid in olive oil gets absorbed into the body, finds its way into cell membranes, changes signaling patterns at a cell membrane level (specifically, altering G-protein associated cascades) and thereby lowers blood pressure. To our knowledge, this is the first time that the monounsaturated fat content of olive oil has been linked not only to cholesterol reduction, but also to reduction of blood pressure.
- Cancer prevention has been one of the most active areas of olive oil research, and the jury is no longer out on the health benefits of olive oil with respect to cancer. Twenty-five studies on olive oil intake and cancer risk - including most of the large-scale human studies conducted up through the year 2010 - have recently been analyzed by a team of researchers at the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research Institute in Milan, Italy. Firmly established by this research team were the risk-reducing effects of olive oil intake with respect to cancers of the breast, respiratory tract, upper digestive tract and, to a lesser extent, lower digestive tract (colorectal cancers). These anti-cancer benefits of olive oil became most evident when the diets of routine olive oil users were compared with the diets of individuals who seldom used olive oil and instead consumed diets high in saturated added fat, especially butter.
Different manufacturers list different smoke points for their olive oils, and some manufacturers list a temperature very close to smoke point as their maximum limit for safe heating of the oil. While these temperatures might be correct for avoiding large amounts of some harmful substances that can be created through heating of the oil, they are not correct limits for preserving the unique nutrients (especially polyphenols) found in high-quality extra virgin olive oil. Oxidation of nourishing substances found in extra virgin olive oil, as well as acrylamide formation, can occur at cooking temperatures very closer to the 300F/148C range. For these reasons, we don't recommend cooking with extra virgin olive oil. For more details, see Is it OK to cook with extra-virgin olive oil? and George's video "Why I Don't Cook with Extra Virgin Olive Oil."
Extra virgin olive oil provide numerous health benefits including:
- Anti-inflammatory protection
- Cardiovascular health
- Digestive health
- Bone health support
- Cognitive health
- Anti-cancer benefits
For more details on extra virgin olive oil's health benefits, see this section of our extra virgin olive oil write-up.
Extra virgin olive oil is a particularly valuable source of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients. Among these phytonutrients are many standout polyphenols. These polyphenols include tyrosols (oleuropein, tyrosol, hydroxytyrosol), flavones (apigenin, luteolin), secoiridoids (oleocanthal), anthocyanidins (cyanidins, peonidins), hydroxycinnamic acids (caffeic, cinnamic, ferulic, and coumaric acids), flavonols (quercetin, kaempferol), lignans (pinoresinol), and hydroxybenzoic acids (vanillic and syringic acids). Olive oil is a unique plant oil in terms of its fat composition, containing about three-fourths of its fat in the form of oleic acid (a monounsaturated, omega-9 fat). It also provides valuable amounts of the antioxidants beta-carotene and vitamin E, as well as squalene, a much less common antioxidant that also plays a special role in skin health.
The unique fat composition of olive oil is one of the many reasons we recommend it as a World's Healthiest Food. However, since virtually all of the calories in olive oil come from fat, its total calorie content is high in comparison with the amount consumed. (Just one tablespoon of olive oil contains 126 calories.) The high calorie content of extra virgin olive oil prevents ratings of "excellent," "very good," or "good" for the nutrients in extra virgin olive oil in our ranking system, because our ranking system compares nutrient amounts to calorie amounts in its calculations. However, even though our ranking approach prevents nutrients like beta-carotene and vitamin E from showing up as "excellent" or "very good" in olive oil, this culinary oil definitely provides valuable amounts of these two nutrients and many others.
For more on this nutrient-rich food, including references related to this Latest News, see our write-up on extra virgin olive oil.