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Olive, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, EVO, Oleuropein, Oleocanthal

After having talked to you about nutraceuticals, or those foods that in addition to having nutritional value boast pharmacological properties, I believe that the best nutraceutical attributes can be found in extra virgin olive oil. Without a doubt. If the Mediterranean diet is considered by the international scientific community to be the healthiest diet in the world, the credit is largely due to extra virgin olive oil.

Olive oil is obtained by pressing the olives, and in order for it to retain all of its nutritional properties it must be carried out solely through mechanical means, without chemical treatments and at temperatures below 27 °C, also known as “cold pressing”. Pressing olives at higher temperatures leads to a lower quality oil in flavor and aroma due to the loss of volatile compounds responsible for the perfect “ripe” taste and fragrance. Above all “cold-pressing” eliminates the losses of polyphenols found in the olive, very important elements from a nutraceutical point of view.

Please, trust only extra virgin olive oil as it is extracted from the simple pressing of the olives and thus the olive maintains its full range of antioxidant polyphenols, which are responsible for the beneficial effects of olive oil. In fact, it is the polyphenols that give the oil its color, aroma and flavor and they are how the oil expresses its region of cultivation, the soil, the type and degree of ripeness of the olives from which it was pressed. An oil’s sensory evaluation must be perfect and is essential in the classification of extra virgin olive oil (in addition to the degree of acidity, which must be less than 0.8). Sometimes extra virgin olive oil is also referred to by its acronym EVO (Extra Virgin Olive).

Because of olive oil’s high concentration of vitamin E, carotenoids and polyphenols (all powerful antioxidants), olive oil is packaged in dark glass bottles as opposed to seed oils, which during processing are stripped of these nutritional elements and are richer in polyunsaturated fats. They must be packaged in metal cans to be protected from the oxidizing action of light.

The first known “nutraceutical effect of EVO is found in its fat composition. Olive oil is made up of 75% oleic acid, a type of monounsaturated fat capable of reducing total cholesterol without lowering the levels of good, HDL cholesterol. Recently, other important beneficial effects of olive oil for our bodies have been discovered, especially within those polyphenols, which despite being present in very small quantities can have an almost pharmacological effect. One of these polyphenols is oleuropein.

Oleuropein is a substance present in considerable concentrations in olive leaves, and also in smaller quantities in the olive pulp. It has been observed that, in addition to having an antioxidant action, it also has a marked effect on the cardiovascular system. In the heart oleuropein has shown anti-arrhythmic effects and vasodilatory effects on the heart’s arteries, helping to reduce blood pressure. Today, phytotherapy products based on the extracts of olive leaves containing oleuropein, are very effective antihypertensive agents.

Recent studies have recognized a hypoglycemic action of oleuropein, it improves blood sugar control, is useful in the prevention of osteoporosis, and its effects as an antitumor and neuroprotective agent are also being studied. Also found in EVOs is hydroxytyrosol, a substance similar to oleuropein that has an immunostimulant action and inhibits platelet aggregation, preventing the formation of intravascular thrombi.

Another substance present in olive oil that has an interesting and, in some ways, surprising effect is oleocanthal. It too belongs to the large family of polyphenols and is responsible for that “itch” in the back of the throat and spicy aftertaste that certain oils have. This molecule, although present in very modest quantities, has an action similar to that of anti-inflammatories, as it inhibits the action of inflammation mediators.

It seems that many of the healthful properties of olive oil, in fighting certain types of diseases such as atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s and perhaps even tumors, may be attributable to the ability of oleocanthal and other polyphenols to counteract chronic low-grade inflammation which is almost always present in these diseases. In recent years, a specific anti-tumor effect of oleocanthal has also been observed as it seems to have the ability to eliminate only degenerated cells while leaving healthy cells intact. Oleocanthal is at its most active in freshly pressed oil, its effects tending to disappear after a year or two.

In light of these new nutraceutical effects identified in olive oil over the years, I have to recommend regular use of extra virgin olive oil (25-30g per day).

Michele Pizzinini

Graduated in Medicine & Surgery, specialist in food science, diabetology and metabolic diseases.

He is the author of multiple publications of a popular nature, such as: “Health begins at the table”, “Monday I’m on a diet”, “Nutritional equilibrium between home and school” and “To live healthy”.

In collaboration with the newspaper L’Adige, he conducted the “RI-VA Project for the evaluation and reduction of cardiovascular risk in the Trentino population”, which resulted in the publication “Vivere in salute”. 30,000 copies of which were distributed throughout the region of Trentino.

For years he has written a weekly column in the newspaper L’Adige, “Food and Health” and now writes the column “Good Morning Doctor” on NBC radio.

He lives and works in Trento, at the Centro Policura.