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Monday, 27 September 2010

Olive Oil: Food Gold or Fool's Gold

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

That olive oil is "good" for you has moved from marketing message to established popular fact. As one of the pillars of the Mediterranean diet it is the reason why sprightly octogenarian Greeks are still able to star in olive oil adverts. But is olive oil the all round superfood that we all assume it is?

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), consuming about 2 tablespoons (23 grams) of olive oil a day may reduce your risk of heart disease but only if you use them to replace 23 grams of saturated fat. All that actually tells us is that olive oil is healthier than saturated animal fat. Even this fact has been called into question by a Lund University Study which found that "butter produces a significantly lower increase in blood fats after a meal compared with olive oil". I'm not claiming that butter is better for you than unsaturated vegetable oils, just pointing out that the situation is always more complex than you expect.

There is a large body of in vivo scientific evidence pointing to the benefits of consuming olive oil:

A 15 year study of diet in seven countries (abstract here) found that people who's main source of fat is olive oil had the  lowest levels of heart disease related deaths.

A Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) study found that increasing olive oil consumption in Northern Europeans reduced waste by-products of oxidative damage to cells, a precursor to cancer. Within 3 weeks of consuming 25 ml of olive oil a day by-product levels has dropped significantly.

A study published in Internal Medicine found that consuming olive oil instead of saturated fats significantly reduced the required dosage of antihypertensive medication required by hypertensive patients.

A 2010 study published in the FASEB journal found that consuming olive oil high in phenols actually reduces the expression of genes associated with atherosclerosis (the thickening of artery walls due to a a build-up of fatty materials such as cholesterol).

A University of Granada study found that consuming phenol-rich olive oil alters the expression of genes associated with inflammation. The study involved patients with metabolic syndrome: a common condition associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

A 2005 study found (citation needed) that eating phenol-rich olive oil consumption increased arterial elasticity.

 I could go on and on citing similar references that point to the health benefits of consuming olive oil and especially cold pressed extra virgin olive oil rich in phenols. A word of warning here though: a study partially funded by the California Olive Oil Council found that 69% of imported olive oils labelled as extra virgin did not meet the required legal standards.

One cup (216g) of olive oil contains:

216 grams of fat (332% RDI): 30g as saturated fat (149% RDI).

Vitamin E (155% RDI): Sunflower oil  contains 448% RDI

Iron (7% RDI).

1910 calories 

Despite being high in calories, olive oil is without doubt a healthy food if it is consumed instead of saturated fat. It has a high level of vitamin E, a proven in vivo antioxidant, and is rich in both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Olive oil is even thought to improve the ratio of Omega-3s to Omega-6s. High levels of Omega-3s  have been extensively linked to a healthier heart and lower risk of stroke.

All in all, olive oil should be part of a balanced diet and the phenol-rich extra virgin oil, with its proven positive effects on health, is a definite superfood. Olive oil should be consumed raw as heating, especially to frying temperatures, destroys many of its beneficial compounds.


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