Food

Olive Oil’s Health Benefits

Written by Kelley Storrer

Not only does olive oil supply an enjoyable flavor, but it also provides a number of health benefits when consumed. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, was the first to recognize these health and therapeutic advantages, and for centuries more and more studies have been done and discoveries been made about this Mediterranean food staple. Recent research has shown that the Mediterranean diet, which includes olive oil, is not only generally healthy, but can actually help lower ones risk for heart disease.

Some may be discouraged by olive oil, since it is a high fat product. However, not all fats are created equal. There are three major forms of dietary fat: saturated (animals), polyunsaturated (plants, seeds, nuts, vegetable oils), and monounsaturated (olive oil). All olive oils are generally made the same: 80% monounsaturated fat, 14% saturated and 9% polyunsaturated. The high percentage of monounsaturated fat is what helps lower ones risk for heart disease by improving related risk factors. For instance, monounsaturated fats help lower your total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels. They can also normalize blood clotting, benefit insulin levels and help control blood sugar levels, which can be helpful for those who suffer with type 2 diabetes. In the United States, producers of olive oil may place the following health claim on product labels:

Limited and not conclusive scientific evidence suggests that eating about 2 tablespoons (23 g) of olive oil daily may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease due to the monounsaturated fat in olive oil. To achieve this possible benefit, olive oil is to replace a similar amount of saturated fat and not increase the number of calories you eat in a day.

This labeling decision was announced on November 1, 2004 by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The monounsaturated fat content is not the only component that gives olive oil its healthy reputation; Olive oil also contains a variety of polyphenols, which are natural antioxidants that provide a cardio-protective effect. The key polyphenol present is hydroxytyrosol, which helps protect the cells that line our blood vessels from being damaged by overly reactive oxygen molecules. In other words, the genetic changes caused by hydroxytyrosol help the blood vessels maintain strong cell walls and enhance their antioxidant defense system. There can be up to 5 mg of polyphenols in 10 grams of olive oil; however this amount varies based on a number of factors. For instance, the time of picking, environmental factors, extraction conditions, storage conditions and refining all have an effect on the level of polyphenols. In particular, oil made from green, unripe olives has more polyphenols and processing techniques such as heating, adding water, or filtering can result in a loss of these beneficial components. Storage in the appropriate container and place is important in preserving the polyphenols. As oil sits in the bottle, the polyphenols will slowly be oxidized and used up. Oils stored in stainless steel containers or dark glass bottles, in a cool place, are better protected against this oxidation.

Another important antioxidant that is found in olive oil is vitamin E. In fact, just one tablespoon can provide 8% of the daily recommendation for vitamin E. Not only does it assist in the protection against heart disease by preventing oxidation of LDL cholesterol, but it also serves as a natural preservative, preventing the olive oil from going rancid.

Even though olive oil provides a variety of health benefits, it is important to remember that it is a high calorie food, providing 126 calories per tablespoon. Therefore, it should be used in moderation and to replace more unhealthful foods like butter and margarine, which contain saturated fat. Remember, just two tablespoons can provide the heart healthy effects.

 

References 

“Chemical Characteristics.” The Olive Oil Source | Everything but the Olive. Web. 10 Aug. 2011. <http://www.oliveoilsource.com/page/chemical-characteristics#Vitamins>. 

“Olive oil.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Web. 10 Aug. 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olive_oil>. 

“Olive oil: What are the health benefits.” Mayo Clinic.Web. 10 Aug. 2011. <http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/food-and-nutrition/AN01037>. 

“WHFoods: Olive oil, extra virgin.” The World’s Healthiest Foods. Web. 10 Aug. 2011. <http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=132>. 

About the author

Kelley Storrer

Kelley is a Registered Dietitian specialized in treating eating disorders. She holds a Bachelor's of Science in nutrition from California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) in San Luis Obispo, CA.