Extra virgin olive oil´s (EVOO) health and medical benefits

Olive oil is obtained from the fruit of the olive tree (Olea europaea, family Oleaceae), a traditional tree crop of the Mediterranean region. Whole olives are pressed to produce this distinctive oil.

Wild olives were collected by Neolithic peoples as early as the 8th millennium BC. It is not clear when and where olive trees were first domesticated: in Asia Minor, in the Levant, or somewhere in the Mesopotamian part of the Fertile Crescent. Archaeological evidence shows that olives were turned into olive oil by 6000 BC.

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Olive oil is used in cosmetics, medicines, cooking and soaps, and was also used as a fuel for traditional lamps.

50% of the total world production of virgin olive oil is produced in Spain.

Spain is by far the largest global producer of virgin olive oil producing 50% of the total, 6 times more than the second largest producer (Greece in  2016/2017, Italy in 2018/2019). Although traditionally consumed in the Mediterranean region, consumption in other areas around the world has been steadily rising as its many benefits have become known.

9 of the top 10 positions in international extra virgin olive oil competitions are held by Spanish producers

Extra virgin olive oil is the highest quality grade of virgin oil derived by cold mechanical extraction, the traditional and natural method, without use of solvents or refining methods. It contains no more than 0.8% free acidity, and is judged to have a superior and distinctive taste and smell with no sensory defects. Extra virgin olive oil is high in phenolic antioxidants, the main reason why it is so beneficial providing many of the health and medical benefits.

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Fruit of the earth

Extra virgin olive oil accounts for less than 10% of oil in many producing countries; the percentage is far higher in the Mediterranean countries, being 50% in Spain.

In the ranking of the world´s best olive oils 2018 / 2019, calculated from the results of a total of the currently 8 leading international extra virgin olive oil competitions, Spanish extra virgin olive oils hold 9 of the top 10 positions and 15 of the top 20 positions.

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It is considered to be healthier than the more refined varieties of olive oil due to its far higher content of antioxidants and bioactive compounds. Even so there is a lot of fraud on the olive oil market, as many oils that read “extra virgin” on the label have been diluted with other refined oils. Some lower quality versions can be extracted using chemicals, or even diluted with other cheaper oils. Examining labels carefully to ensure it is real extra virgin olive oil is advisable. It is always a good idea to read the ingredients lists and check for quality certification.

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Other olive oil grades  include regular, refined or “light” olive oils, which have often been extracted with solvents, treated with heat or even diluted with cheaper oils like soybean and canola oils.

Nutrient Composition of Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Extra virgin olive oil is fairly nutritious. It contains modest amounts of vitamins E and K and plenty of beneficial fatty acids.

This is the nutrient content of 100 grams of olive oil:

  • Saturated fat: 13.8%.
  • Monounsaturated fat: 73% (most of it the 18 carbon long oleic acid).
  • Omega-6: 9.7%.
  • Omega-3: 0.76%.
  • Vitamin E: 72% of the RDA.
  • Vitamin K: 75% of the RDA.

Chief active components of Extra Virgin Olive Oil

The key active components and some of their related benefits are:

  • Phenolics including hydroxytyrosol, tyrosol, and oleuropein (over 20 different types of these antioxidants)
    • they occur in highest levels in virgin olive oil and have demonstrated antioxidant activity
    • they also have demonstrated antimicrobial activity against several strains of bacteria implicated in intestinal and respiratory infections
  • Squalene, identified as having anticancer effects
  • Oleocanthal, an anti-inflamamatory antioxidant
  • Oleuropein, an antioxidant substance that protects LDL cholesterol from oxidation.
  • Oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid, has shown activity in cancer prevention
  • Other benefits include colon and breast cancer prevention, coronary heart disease (CHD), specifically for its ability to reduce blood pressure and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (see section below).

Where extra virgin olive oil really shines is in its content of antioxidants (extra virgin olive oil contains the highest levels). These substances are biologically active and some of them can help fight serious diseases.

The health benefits of olive oil are unrivaled, and research reveals more benefits nearly every day. In fact, we are only just beginning to understand the countless ways olive oil can improve our health, and our lives. Olive oil is the cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet — an essential nutritional mainstay for the world’s longest-living cultures. In fact Spain, which currently ranks amongst the top 5 countries with the longest life expectancy in the world, is projected to become number 1 in 20 years. Over the last 50 years, many studies have looked at the health benefits of olive oil. Some of the proven benefits of olive oil include:

  • Olive oil is rich in healthy monounsaturated fats
  • Olive oil contains large amounts of antioxidants
    • Olive oil is rich in antioxidants, especially vitamin E, long thought to minimize cancer risk. Among plant oils, olive oil is the highest in monounsaturated fat, which doesn’t oxidize in the body, and it’s low in polyunsaturated fat, the kind that does oxidize.
  • Olive oil has strong anti-inflammatory properties
  • Olive oil may help prevent strokes
    • Scientists in France concluded that olive oil may prevent stroke in older people.
  • Olive oil is protective against heart disease
    • Olive oil lowers the levels of total blood cholesterol, LDL-cholesterol and triglycerides. At the same time it does not alter the levels of HDL-cholesterol (and may even raise them), which plays a protective role and prevents the formation of fatty patches, thus stimulating the elimination of the low-density lipoproteins.
    • Olive oil is the main source of dietary fat in the Mediterranean diet. There appears to be a lower death rate from cardiovascular diseases in the Mediterranean area, compared with other parts of the world.
    • Furthermore, people who regularly eat foods fried in olive oil or sunflower oil do not have a higher risk of heart disease or premature death, researchers from Madrid, in Spain, reported in the BMJ.
  • Olive oil is not associated with weight gain and obesity
    • Although high in calories, olive oil has shown to help reduce levels of obesity.
  • Olive oil may fight Alzheimer´s disease
    • Oleocanthal is a type of natural phenolic compound found in extra-virgin olive oil. In laboratory experiments with mice, researchers noted that oleocanthal helped shuttle the abnormal Alzheimer’s disease proteins out of the brain.
  • Olive oil may reduce type 2 diabetes risk
    • It has been demonstrated that a diet that is rich in olive oil, low in saturated fats, moderately rich in carbohydrates and soluble fiber from fruit, vegetables, pulses and grains is the most effective approach for diabetics. It helps lower “bad” low-density lipoproteins while improving blood sugar control and enhances insulin sensitivity
  • The antioxidants in olive oil have anti-cancer properties
    • Scientists from Barcelona in Spain found a key mechanism by which virgin olive oil protects the body against breast cancer, in contrast to other vegetable oils.
    • The phytonutrient in olive oil, oleocanthal, mimics the effect of ibuprofen in reducing inflammation, which can decrease the risk of breast cancer and its recurrence. Squalene and lignans are among the other olive oil components being studied for their possible effects on cancer
  • Olive oil can help treat rheumatoid arthritis
    • Although the reasons are still not fully clear, recent studies have proved that people with diets containing high levels of olive oil are less likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Olive oil has antibacterial properties
  • Depression risk and olive oil
    • People whose diets are high in trans fats may have a higher risk of depression, compared with those whose diets are rich in mono- and polyunsaturated fats. Trans fats are widely used in fast foods and mass-produced items, such as pastries.
  • Olive oil helps maintain healthy cholesterol levels
    • A Japanese study published in the Medical Science Monitor showed that LDL-cholesterol concentrations fell in 28 outpatients who took olive oil supplements once a day for 6 weeks.
  • Extra virgin olive oil and acute pancreatitis
    • Extra virgin olive oil is rich in oleic acid and hydroxytyrosol, which affect the development of acute pancreatitis, or sudden inflammation of the pancreas.
  • Olive oil and the liver
    • Investigators from Tunisia and Saudi Arabia carried out a study demonstrating that extra virgin olive oil may protect the liver from oxidative stress.
  • Olive oil may help protect from ulcerative colitis
    • Ulcerative colitis causes inflammation of the large intestine, or colon. It is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that is similar to Crohn’s disease.
  • Blood pressure
    • Recent studies indicate that regular consumption of olive oil can help decrease both systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
  • Osteoporosis
    • A high consumption of olive oil appears to improve bone mineralization and calcification. It helps calcium absorption and so plays an important role in aiding sufferers and in preventing the onset of Osteoporosis.
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