Food Freedom Friday Edition 49

That Other Awesome Oil

Olive oil is how we refer to the oil obtained from the fruit of olive trees. It has been consumed for thousands of years and is now even more popular due to its many proven health benefits and culinary usefulness.

The health benefits of olive oil are unrivaled, and research is constantly revealing more benefits. We are only just starting to understand the many ways olive oil can improve health, and ultimately the quality of our lives.

Olive oil has long been recognized for its unusual fat content. This plant oil is one of the few widely used culinary oils that contain a large percentage of its fat (75%) in the form of oleic acid (a monounsaturated, omega-9 fatty acid). This monounsaturated fat content (specifically the high level of oleic acid) has now been shown to be the mechanism linking olive oil intake to decreased blood pressure. Researchers believe that the high concentration of oleic acid in olive oil gets absorbed into the body, finds its way into cell membranes and has the ability to alter signaling patterns at a cell membrane level (via G-protein associated cascades). This is specifically how blood pressure is lowered.

Olive oil is considered a functional food. It has extensive benefits and components that contribute to its overall therapeutic qualities including a reduction of risk factors of coronary heart disease, the prevention of cancers, and alterations of immune and inflammatory responses.

A few of the benefits of incorporating olive oil as a part of a whole foods eating plan include:

1.       Good for the heart

Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL) commonly referred to as “bad cholesterol” transports and deposits cholesterol in the tissues and arteries. This can eventually cause plaque build-up (atherogenesis) which in turn can block an artery. Monounsaturated fats can lower LDL thus protecting against atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Furthermore, the fatty acids found in olive oil do not affect the levels of High Density Lipoproteins (HDL, the “good cholesterol,” which transports all cholesterol away from the arteries. High levels of HDL are associated with a decreased risk of heart disease.

Olive oil is one of the best sources of monounsaturated fats and has the advantage of being less susceptible to oxidation. Furthermore, oleic acid, a fatty acid abundant in olive oil, appears to protect from oxidation of LDL.

2.       Protects against oxidative damage

Apart from being rich monounsaturated fats, specifically oleic acid, pure olive oil has further components not present on other sources. Polyphenols are a phytochemical having antioxidant properties. Olive oil contains certain polyphenols that, along with oleic acid, appear to protect the oxidation of LDL cholesterol in the body.

It appears that oxidized LDL is an important contributor to atherogenesis; the process of plaque buildup in the arteries that eventually can lead to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).

Daily olive oil consumption is directly related to an improvement in the fatty acid profile in LDL and associated with a reduction of the oxidative damage to all lipids. 

It is important to note that only polyphenol rich extra virgin olive oils may have this effect, not refined olive oil, which does not contain these substances

3.       Boosts iron intake

Organic and natural olive oils tend to have high levels of iron. Iron helps formulate hemoglobin, which is a protein in the body that helps carry oxygen through the bloodstream. Iron also plays an important role in building enzymes that regulate immune functions. It is also essential in the overall cognitive development of a person. Iron levels are a great determinant of health and consuming natural olive oil serves to boost these levels.

4.        Protects against cancer

It is difficult to find anyone who has not been touched in some way by the ravages of cancer. Whether colon, breast or skin cancer, almost everyone knows of someone who has died from the disease. Pure, cold-pressed olive oil contains phenolic antioxidants, terpenoid and squalene, all of which serve as defenses against the development of cancer. This will be discussed in greater detail with regards to digestive health benefits.

5.       Benefits digestive health

The benefits of olive oil for the digestive tract were first uncovered in research on diet and cancers of the digestive tract. Numerous studies found lower rates of digestive tract cancers, especially those occurring in the upper digestive tract, including the stomach and small intestines, in populations that regularly consumed olive oil. Protection of the lower digestive tract (for example, protection of the colon from colon cancer) is less well-documented in the olive oil research, even though there is some strongly supportive evidence from select laboratory animal studies. Many of these anti-cancer effects in the digestive tract have been attributed to the polyphenols in olive oil and their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. One particular category of polyphenols, called secoiridoids, continues to be a focus in research on prevention of digestive tract cancers.

Recent research has provided even more information regarding the polyphenols found in olive oil and their protection of the digestive tract. An important area of this research has involved the polyphenols in olive oil and the balance of bacteria in the digestive tract. Numerous polyphenols in olive oil have been shown to slow the growth of unwanted bacteria, including the bacteria commonly responsible for digestive tract infections. These polyphenols include oleuropein, hydroxytyrosol, and tyrosol. These, along with other olive oil polyphenols like ligstroside, are specifically able to inhibit the growth of the Helicobacter pylori bacterium (H. Pylori). This effect of the olive oil polyphenols is especially relevant since overpopulation of Helicobacter bacteria along with over-attachment of Helicobacter to the stomach lining can lead to the development of stomach ulcers and other unwanted digestive issues.

6.       Reduces pain

Pure olive oil contains high levels of oleocanthal which has strong anti-inflammatory properties. This allows it to meaning it to mimic some of the traits found in ibuprofen. This makes olive oil a natural pain reliever. This makes olive oil a natural pain reliever. Many have testified to the pain relieving effects of pure olive oil with the pain and discomfort associated with many conditions such as headaches and arthritis.

7.        Improves cognitive function

Although olive oil is better known for its protection against heart disease and cancer, new research suggests the positive impact of olive oil consumptions on cognitive function, specifically on the cognitive decline associated with aging.

The type of fat consumed affects cognitive function. A recent study found that women who consumed the highest amount of monounsaturated fats, which can be found in olive oil, had better patterns of cognitive scores over time.

There are protective effects derived from olive oil specifically. A further study concluded that individuals with moderate to high intakes of olive oil had lower incidences of cognitive deficit for verbal fluency and visual memory compared to individuals who had never used olive oil.

8.       Benefits bone health

Support of bone health is another promising area of olive oil research. Although a majority of initial studies in this area have been conducted on laboratory animals, better blood levels of calcium have been repeatedly associated with olive oil intake. A minimum of two of the polyphenols in olive oil (tyrosol and hydroxytyrosol) have been shown to increase bone formation in rats. A recent group of researchers has also suggested that olive oil may eventually prove to have special bone benefits for post-menopausal women, since they found improved blood markers of overall bone health in female rats that had been fed olive oil after having their ovaries removed. These studies, although preliminary, suggest that bone health benefits may eventually be viewed as an important aspect of olive oil intake.

The culture of olive oil is rich and vital throughout the world despite the fact that olives can only grow in certain regions and climates.

Extra virgin olive oil is made simply by crushing olives and extracting the juice. It is the only cooking oil that is made without the use of chemicals and industrial refining.

Extra virgin olive oil must comply with very high standards, having no discernable taste “defects.” It needs to have a nice flavor of fresh olives and achieve higher scores in lab tests for its chemical composition than other grades.

Since extra virgin olive oil is simply fruit juice without any additives, its quality and taste are influenced by the varieties of olives, where they were grown, and the countless decisions and production practices of an experienced, dedicated producer.

The best olive oils are not easy to find, and if like the majority of people, it is quite possible you have never had a truly excellent extra virgin olive oil. The good news is that once you have tasted a high quality olive oil, you will easily be able to differentiate oils of quality.

Every year in the spring, the results of the New York International Olive Oil Competition (a stage to recognize the difficulty and skill required to produce an exemplary olive oil) reveal the best olive oils of that year. These results are trusted by chefs, discerning cooks and food industry professionals around the world who seek extra virgin olive oils of the very highest quality.

When buying a natural olive oil, dark glass packages are superior. The dark colour of the glass protects the oil from degrading due to heat and light. Additionally, the bottle should be labelled as certified by the IOC which ensures that the oil itself really is natural.

Unfortunately, a large majority of the so-called olive oil sold in stores today is not pure olive oil. Instead the oil comprises a rather deceptive blend of inferior oils that may or may not include traces of actual olive oil.

Michal Ofer