Having lived in Italy I'm used to seeing the beautiful Italian hilltops draped in olive tree vineyards. Some would have orange nets underneath them to catch the stray olives that may have escaped earlier than its time of harvesting.
It is said that the olive originated from Asia Minor and spread from Iran, Syria and Palestine to the rest of the Mediterranean basin 6,000 years ago. It is among the oldest known cultivated trees in the world - being grown before the written language was even invented. Dynastic Egyptian imported olive oil from Crete, Syria and Canaan and its oil was an important item of commerce and wealth. The first recorded oil extraction took place during the Exodus from Egypt, during the 13th century BC. During this time, the oil was derived through hand-squeezing the berries and storing in special containers under guard of the priests. The olive culture was spread to the early Greeks then Romans. As the Romans extended their domain they brought the olive with them.
The craft of turning olives into oil has been refined in the Mediterranean region over thousands of years, and techniques have been passed down from generation to generation. The method used in Greece is different to that used in Italy or Spain. A meticulous hand is necessary because it takes at least 4.5 kg of olives to produce one litre of olive oil! The time at which olives are harvested is important to get the best flavour and nutrient content. Olives are at their prime for only about two or three weeks before the beneficial nutrients diminish. Picking the olives is a delicate process as any bruising on this soft fruit can cause it to oxidise and ferment producing an "off" flavour. Many large-scale growers use a tree-shaking device and set up nets beneath the trees that catch the olives before they hit the ground.
After olives are picked, any leaves, twigs, and stems are removed, and the olives are washed. Then it's time for pressing. Back in the old days, processors used stone or granite wheels to crush the olives. Today, stainless steel rollers crush the olives and pits and grind them into paste. Today, stainless steel rollers crush the olives and pits and grind them into paste. The paste then undergoes a series of processes where water and solvents are added to extract the oil from this olive paste. On the contrary, for it to be classed as "extra virgin" no chemicals and solvents are allowed and the pit is removed so that the oil is derived from only the fruit. The olive fruit is then pressed by mechanical means without the use of heat to retain the nutrients and flavour in the oil. This whole process is meticulously monitored as production standards for extra virgin olive oil are more rigid, hence the mark up in its price per bottle.
Olive oil that is truly extra virgin has a distinctive aromatic fruity, perhaps peppery taste and is high in phenolic antioxidants, the main reason why (real) olive oil is so beneficial. It also contains a good amount of monounsaturated fats, omega 6 fatty acids, vitamin E and vitamin K. Its high antioxidant content protects against the ever rising epidemic of cardiovascular diseases, atherosclerosis and cancer.
Mediterranean Diet studies have long associated olive oil intake with decreased risk of heart disease. However, a recent group of studies has provided us with a fascinating explanation of olive oil's cardioprotective effect. One of the key polyphenols in olive oil, hydroxytyrosol (HT), helps protect the cells that line our blood vessels from being damaged by overly reactive oxygen molecules. Many different cardiovascular problems are due to oxidative stress (damage to cell structure and function by overly reactive oxygen-containing molecules). HT helps protect the blood vessel cells by triggering changes at a genetic level. The genetic changes triggered by HT help the blood vessel cells to enhance their antioxidant defence system. In other words, olive oil supports our blood vessels not only by providing antioxidants like vitamin E and beta-carotene. Olive oil also provides our blood vessels with unique molecules like HT that actually work at a genetic level to help the cellular walls of the blood vessels.
Olive oil also contains antioxidants oleocanthal, as well as oleuropein which have been shown to lower risk of lipid peroxidation (oxygen damage to fat) in our blood vessels. Many of the fat-containing molecules in our blood, including molecules like LDL, need to be protected from oxygen damage. Oxygen damage to molecules like LDL significantly increases our risk of numerous cardiovascular diseases, including atherosclerosis. Protection of the LDL molecules in our blood from oxygen damage is a major benefit provided by olive oil and its polyphenols. Equally important is protection against oxygen damage to the cells that line our blood vessels. Once again, it's the polyphenols in olive oil that have been shown to provide us with that protection.
Olive oil is one of the few widely used culinary oils that contains about 75% of its fat in the form of oleic acid (a monounsaturated, omega-9 fatty acid). Research has long been clear about the benefits of oleic acid for proper balance of total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and HDL cholesterol in the body. In addition to these cholesterol-balancing effects of olive oil and its high oleic acid content, however, comes a new twist: recent research studies have shown that olive oil and its oleic acid may be important factors for lowering blood pressure. The oleic acid in the olive oil also helps prevent or slow down the cognitive decline associated with diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Several of the polyphenols found in olive oil, including hydroxytyrosol, oleuropein and luteolin, appear to be especially helpful in keeping our blood platelets in check and avoiding problems of too much clumping (called platelet aggregation). There are also two messaging molecules (called plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 and factor VII) that are capable of triggering too much clumping together of the platelets, and the polyphenols in olive oil can help stop overproduction of these molecules.
Benefits of olive oil for the digestive tract were first uncovered in research on diet and cancers of the digestive tract. Numerous studies found lower rates of digestive tract cancers, especially cancers of the upper digestive tract, including the stomach and small intestine, in populations that regularly consumed olive oil. Studies on the Mediterranean Diet were an important part of this initial research on olive oil and the digestive tract. Many of these anti-cancer effects in the digestive tract were believed to depend on the polyphenols in olive oil and their antioxidant plus anti-inflammatory properties. One particular category of polyphenols, called secoiridoids, continues to be a focus in research on prevention of digestive tract cancers.
Another fascinating area of recent research has involved the polyphenols in olive oil and the balance of bacteria in our digestive tract. Numerous polyphenols in olive oil have been shown to slow the growth of unwanted bacteria, including bacteria commonly responsible for digestive tract infections. These polyphenols include oleuropein, hydroxytyrosol, and tyrosol. Some of these same polyphenols, along with other olive oil polyphenols like ligstroside, are specifically able to inhibit the growth of the Helicobacter pylori bacterium. This effect of the olive oil polyphenols may be especially important, since overpopulation of Helicobacter bacteria coupled with over-attachment of Helicobacter to the stomach lining can lead to stomach ulcer and other unwanted digestive problems.
Improved cognitive function, especially among older adults, is a well-known feature of the Mediterranean Diet. As the staple oil in that diet, olive oil has been of special interest for researchers interested in diet and cognitive function. In France, a recent study large-scale study on older adults has shown that visual memory and verbal fluency can be improved with what the researchers called "intensive use" of olive oil. In this case, "intensive use" meant regular use of olive oil not just for cooking, or as an ingredient in sauces and dressings, but in all of these circumstances.
When olive oil is topically applied can help against skin conditions. It contains three major antioxidants that aid the skin healing process: vitamin E, polyphenols, and phytosterols. The antioxidants may help protect the skin from premature skin aging. Vitamin E partly accounts for the anti-aging benefits of olive oil because it helps restore skin smoothness and protects against ultraviolet light. Hydroxytyrosol, a rather rare compound found in olive oil, also prevents free radical damage to the skin. Unlike commercial moisturizers that can clog pores and exacerbate current skin conditions, olive oil penetrates deeply into the skin while providing a cleansing effect. Try using organic olive oil at night as a substitute for your regular moisturizer. Apply a teaspoon of the oil to the face and neck. Gently pat the skin with a paper towel to wipe away any excess oil.
Another one of olive oil’s benefits for skin is its usefulness in exfoliating applications. A common exfoliating method using olive oil is to mix 1 tablespoon of the oil with natural sea salt, rubbing this mixture over the skin. The mild abrasive qualities of the sea salt, combined with the deep, penetrating action of the oil, will remove dead skin cells and leave the epidermis looking renewed and glowing.
Olive oil is also used for nail and cuticle care, and many women use it as an eye makeup remover. Further applications include using it as an ingredient in homemade facial masks. One other interesting application for both men and women is the substitution of olive oil for shaving cream. Many men have abandoned shaving cream once they discovered how close a shave they can get with olive oil. Men and women alike have also found its refreshing qualities make it an excellent aftershave.
Olive Oil is also great for dry brittle hair. It not only moisturises it and prevents split ends, but provides the same protection as it does to the skin. It can be used as a hair and scalp mask before shampoo use but is also great as a leave in conditioner after shampoo use. Just smooth a very small amount over wet hair starting at the tips and running your fingers through the roots with the remaining oil on your hands.
The anti-inflammatory strength of olive oil rests on its polyphenols. These anti-inflammatory compounds include at least nine different categories of polyphenols and more than two dozen well-researched anti-inflammatory nutrients. Research has documented a wide variety of anti-inflammatory mechanisms used by olive oil polyphenols to lower our risk of inflammatory problems. In heart patients, olive oil and its polyphenols have also been determined to lower blood levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a widely used blood measurement for assessing the likelihood of unwanted inflammation. They have also been found to reduce activity in a metabolic pathway called the arachidonic acid pathway, which is central for mobilizing inflammatory processes.
These anti-inflammatory benefits of extra virgin olive oil do not depend on large levels of intake. As little as 1-2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil per day have been shown to be associated with significant anti-inflammatory benefits.
Many types of cancers only get initiated when cells are overwhelmed by oxidative stress and by chronic excessive inflammation. Since the polyphenols in olive oil act both as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory molecules, they are perfectly suited for lowering our cells' risk of oxidative stress and chronic unwanted inflammation. There is also encouraging research on the potential for olive oil to help with control of certain cancers once they have already developed. For example, improvement of breast cancer status has been an area of particular interest in olive oil research. Here some of the research has focused on the secoiridoids in olive oil (especially oleocanthal), and its ability to help keep breast cancer cells from reproducing.
Many foods contain valuable amounts of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, but few foods are as rich in these compounds as extra virgin olive oil, and this fact alone accounts for many of the research-based benefits of this culinary oil for health. Since olive oil can become rancid from exposure to light and heat, there are some important purchasing criteria you should follow to ensure buying a better quality product. Look for olive oils that are sold in dark tinted bottles since the packaging will help protect the oil from oxidation caused by exposure to light. In addition, make sure the oil is displayed in a cool area, away from any direct or indirect contact with heat.
Recipes for Health
To gain the full benefits from extra virgin olive oil, use it in dressing salads and a variety of cooked foods. Avoid cooking with it as it causes the oil to oxidise diminishing its antioxidant content.
3-5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 clove garlic chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Great on salads and cooked vegetables.
Other quick serving ideas:
- Puree minced garlic, cooked potatoes and extra virgin olive oil together to make exceptionally delicious garlic mashed potatoes. Season to taste.
- Drizzle extra virgin olive oil over healthy sautéed vegetables before serving.
- Puree extra virgin olive oil, garlic and your favorite beans together in a food processor. Season to taste and serve as a dip.
- Instead of putting the butter dish out on the table, place a small cup of extra virgin olive oil out instead to use on your bread or rolls. For extra flavour, try adding a little Balsamic vinegar or any of your favourite dried herbs and spices to the extra virgin olive oil.
Eye Makeup Remover
Put one or two drops of extra virgin olive oil on a cotton face pad and use it to remove your eye makeup at the end of the day. Gently remove your eye makeup without stretching and pulling the delicate skin around your eyes. As you use it, the olive oil works to soften the skin, especially when you use it as a makeup remover on a consistent basis.
Ruta Ganceviciene, Aikaterini I. Liakou, Athanasios Theodoridis, Evgenia Makrantonaki, and Christos C. Zouboulis. Skin anti-aging strategies. Dermatoendocrinol. Jul 1, 2012; 4(3): 308-319. doi: 10.4161/derm.22804.
D’Angelo S, Ingrosso D, Migliardi V, et al. Hydroxytyrosol, a natural antioxidant from olive oil, prevents protein damage induced by long-wave ultraviolet radiation in melanoma cells. Free Radic Biol Med. 2005 Apr 1;38(7):908-18.