The Science Behind the Magic of EVOO

By Lori Zanteson
March 01, 2012

There’s no denying that health leads the way when it comes to extra virgin olive oil—and it tastes pretty good too. With all of the attention given to the Mediterranean diet, one can hardly turn a deaf ear to the decades of research generated by its star player. Long associated with a healthy heart, the emerging research continues to produce more promising attributes giving us more reason than ever to partake.

Extra virgin olive oil is made up of a unique set of phytonutrients, organic plant compounds that promote human health and protect against chronic disease. Most notable is the array of powerful polyphenols which act as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients in the body. At least nine different categories of polyphenols and more than 24 anti-inflammatory nutrients team up to give extra virgin olive oil unrivaled health benefits. Even better, it doesn’t require huge doses to reap these benefits. It is so nutrient dense that just one to two tablespoons a day can have significant anti-inflammatory effects.

Why is olive oil such a unique plant food?Made of 55 to 83 percent oleic acid, a monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acid, olive oil has one of the most unique fat compositions of any plant food. Vegetable oils are mainly polyunsaturated which makes them less resistant to oxidation. Studies have shown that when olive oil is added to diets low in monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA), the increased MUFA results in lower total cholesterol levels as well as lower LDL, or “bad” cholesterol in the body. Further, the high level of oleic acid in olive oil which has long been known to keep a cholesterol levels at a healthy balance, is now being linked to decreased blood pressure, both important for heart health.

Long associated with cancer prevention, olive oil’s risk-reducing effects are consistent. A systemic review of studies published in the July 2011 Lipids in Health and Disease which included almost 14,000 patients and 24,000 controls between 1990 and 2011, found that the highest olive oil consumption was associated with the lowest odds of having any type of cancer and lower odds of developing breast cancer and cancer of the digestive system. Though it’s unclear among researchers whether it is olive oil’s monounsaturated fatty acid content or its antioxidant components, the benefits are notable. The most recent research is uncovering olive oil’s potential to control certain cancers such as breast cancer and colon cancer.

Just as sure as you can taste olive oil quality in its flavor, you can taste its health. Those valuable polyphenols which are chemically measured to meet standards for extra virgin classification correlate with tastes of bitterness and pungency. Studies reveal that only extra virgin olive oil maintains the anti-inflammatory effects of polyphenols. Refining destroys polyphenols and flavor as well.

As with most good things, you can get too much olive oil. At about 120 calories per tablespoon, moderation is key, and not just for weight maintenance. A recent study found that when laboratory animals ate too many calories from too much food, the benefits of the polyphenols from olive oil were negated. Researchers concluded, as common sense tells us, olive oil is meant to be part of an overall healthy diet to enjoy optimal benefits. Rather than simply adding more olive oil, try using it in place of other oils and fats like butter when cooking and in dressings, marinades and as a condiment.

A healthy diet that includes olive oil is one of the best ways to control harmful oxidative stress and chronic low-level inflammation that contribute to so many health problems including chronic disease. While there are many antioxidant-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables that contribute to overall health, few can compare to the levels in olive oil. When good health is teamed with good flavor, what’s not to love?