Olive Oil a Superfood?

September 01, 2010

Olive oil has been an endless source of fascination since the earliest days of the Mediterranean people.

Olive oil has been an endless source of fascination since the earliest days of the Mediterranean people. Greek myth attributes the creation of the olive tree to the goddess Athena, who crafted the fruit during a competition for the patronage of Athens. Used for light in religious ceremonies, cooking and even in some beauty products, olive oil is particularly noted for its health benefits ranging from asthma to cancer. The individual components in olive oil contribute to this versatile ingredient’s many health benefits.

Heart Disease: there are many studies that point to olive oil’s mono-unsaturated fats as the component involved in raising “good” HDL cholesterol and lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol levels in the body, offering protection against heart disease. Olive oil, specifically extra virgin, is also rich in polyphenols which act as antioxidants in the body, mopping up free radicals that can damage blood vessels and cardiac tissue. Phenols are also associated with helping to ward off blood clots and boost overall heart health.

Cancer: various studies have looked into olive oil’s effect in reducing risk of certain types of cancer. The main component of olive oil, oleic acid is thought to be one of the cancer fighting components. Polyphenols are also implicated in olive oils cancer protection potential. Olive oil has shown protection against breast, colon, ovarian, and prostate cancer - populations that consume regular amounts of olive oil, like those in the Mediterranean, have lower incidences of these cancers.

Diabetes: the American Diabetes Association recommends American’s replace butter, margarine or shortening with olive oil when cooking, in order to include more unsaturated fats in the diet. Olive oil is beneficial in reducing belly fat and insulin sensitivity, the later, a major factor of diabetes. Diabetics also have a propensity for high blood cholesterol, high triglycerides, and increased inflammation throughout the body- olive oil’s various compounds address these issues as well.

Blood Pressure: most commonly associated with the hardening of the arteries or plaque build up- which occurs when LDL cholesterol oxidizes and sticks to arterial walls- high blood pressure is an issue for many Americans. Olive oil contains oleuropein, a compound found to directly combat arterial build up. Unsaturated fats as well as polyphenols help keep cholesterol levels in check.

Arthritis: arthritis is loosely characterized by pain and swelling caused by inflammation of the joints. Recent research has looked into olive oils anti-inflammatory effects; dietary patterns (ie Mediterranean diet) that include healthy amounts of olive oil have proven beneficial in preventing or reducing the severity of arthritis. The responsible compounds are thought to be omega-3 fatty acids and oleocanthal.

Asthma: asthma affects over 20 million Americans, including 7 million children; the prevalence is thought to be increasing due to changes in dietary habits - towards an increased consumption of saturated fats. The antioxidants and anti-inflammatory effects of olive oil, as well as a dietary shift from saturated fats towards unsaturated fats have been linked to decreases in the severity of asthma.

Weight Control: substituting saturated fats in the diet with sources of unsaturated fats like olive oil can help you to loose fat. Do keep in mind that olive oil should only be consumed in small quantities, as each tablespoon contains approximately 120 calories.

The health benefits of olive oil are dependent on olive variety and fruit maturity at harvest, and country of origin. The amount of polyphenols in a bottle of olive oil can be influenced by how the oil was processed, stored, and by its age. Non-refined or virgin oils have higher levels of phenols than more refined varieties.

How to choose the best olive oils? Supermarket Guru shares tips on how to navigate your supermarket’s shelves.