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Olive Oil's Bountiful Benefits

Olea europaea, also known as the olive tree, has been a source of food, wood, fuel and medicine for civilizations since approximately 3000 B.C and has become a symbol of peace and wisdom throughout the world. The oil produced from its olives is used extensively in Mediterranean diets and may be the cause of lower rates of heart disease, atherosclerosis, diabetes, asthma and certain types of cancer in that region's population.

Olive oil is made from crushing and pressing olives. Extra virgin is the unrefined oil made from the first pressing and has the most delicate flavor and highest phyto-nutrient and antioxidant content. Virgin is also derived from the first pressing but has a higher acidity level than extra virgin, fewer phyto-nutrients and a less delicate flavor. Pure olive oil is a bit of a misnomer as it actually means the oil is a blend of refined and virgin olive oils.

While olive oil is rich in fat, it is primarily monounsaturated fat which is better for you than saturated fat. Scientists have determined that particles of LDL ("bad") cholesterol that contain monounsaturated fats are less likely to become oxidized and stick to artery walls, eventually forming the plaques that can lead to a heart attack or stroke. A recent study, published in the Medical Science Monitor, of 28 individuals with high cholesterol showed that, when the saturated fat was removed from their diets and replaced with olive oil, their LDL cholesterol levels dropped an average of 18 percent. Scientists believe that the polyphenolic compounds found in olive oil inhibit the adhesion of cells to the blood vessel lining, thereby preventing atherosclerosis.

The polyphenols present in olive oil are responsible for its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anticoagulant benefits, and may help fight osteoporosis, colon cancer, diabetes, heart disease, asthma and arthritis. The positive affect of olive oil's polyphenols on bone health are so dramatic that France's National Institute for Agricultural Research has been licensed to use them in food, supplements and herbal medicine for the prevention of osteoporosis. Postmenopausal women used in a crossover study were found to have decreased inflammation-mediated bone loss and their DNA experienced 30 percent less damage when consuming extra virgin olive oil. This is due to the antioxidants found in olive oil, which are free radical scavengers.

A recent study found that the oleic acid found in olive oil may help fight breast cancer. Oleic acid, the primary monounsaturated fatty acid present in olive oil, has been found to reduce the expression of Her-2/neu oncogene, which has been related to the aggressive growth of breast cancer. Her-2/neu levels are high in one-fifth of breast cancer cases, particularly those that are resistant to treatment. Oleic acid promotes the suicide (apoptotic) of aggressive, treatment-resistant cells. The anticoagulant properties in olive oil have beneficial effects on the endothelium, the thin layer of cells that lines every blood vessel in the body. The endothelium facilitates blood flow and regulates blood clotting and the adhesion of cells to the vessel walls (which leads to the formation of plaque). After eating a meal, the endothelium is usually impaired for hours, but scientists at Reina Sofia University Hospital in Cordoba, Spain, found that after consuming virgin olive oil its function actually improves. In addition, the amount of nitric oxide in the blood increases, which relaxes the blood vessels.

Olive oil may also be useful as a mild pain reliever. Pennsylvania biologist Dr. Gary Beauchamp found that, when he tasted high quality olive oil, the stinging sensation it left in his throat resembled the sensation caused by ibuprofen. After studying olive oil further, he discovered a compound in the oil that suppresses the body's prostaglandin system and functions like a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agent. He found that approximately 4 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil contains roughly the same amount of anti-inflammatory compounds, or oleocanthal, as 10 percent of the ibuprofen recommended for pain relief in adults. While this amount won't cure a headache and many diets should not include this much oil, daily consumption can prevent inflammation and provide similar benefits as long-term ibuprofen use without the risk of intestinal bleeding and kidney damage. To find out how much oleocanthal is in your olive oil, scientists suggest tasting it. The greater the sting, the greater the oleocanthal content.

When buying olive oil, choose cold pressed, extra virgin oil in an opaque container. Olive oil can become rancid with exposure to light and heat. So choose darkly tinted containers and store your olive oil away from direct sources of heat and light. A study revealed that after just two months of exposure to light, oils in clear bottles had increased peroxide (free radical) levels to the point where the oil could not longer be called extra virgin. Tinted glass containers are sufficient, but dark plastic or metal containers are best for preserving your olive oil. If you buy oil in a glass container, select one that's on the back of the shelf where there is less light. And you should use your olive oil within a few months. Even under the best conditions, its nutritional content - particularly the tocopherols (vitamin E) - drops significantly after just 12 months.

Recipes

  • Puree garlic mashed potatoes with extra virgin olive oil for a scrumptious side dish.
  • Whip up some humus by pureeing virgin olive oil, garlic and chick peas. Variations on humus can be made by replacing the chick peas with other beans.
  • Instead of bread and butter or cheese as an appetizer before meals, put out a small cup of virgin olive oil for dipping bread and rolls. You can add balsamic vinegar to taste or other seasonings (a product called Dippers has great seasonings for this).
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