Olive oil, rich in monounsaturated fat, is good for us. You’ve heard it all before – that monounsaturated fat appears to explain why the so-called Mediterranean diet is healthier than the standard American diet, high in fried and trans fats. Getting the full benefit from olive oil, it turns out, may have as much or more to do with differences in the production process as it does with the type of fat involved.
Why is this so?
A natural olive oil of the highest quality will be rich in polyphenols, which account for many of the astounding results researchers have reported over the past 8-10 years.
Just such a high quality oil was found by Spanish researchers to dampen at least 98 different genes involved in the chronic inflammatory aspect of metabolic syndrome (beyond cardiovascular disease and diabetes it also improved arthritis). Researchers looked a little farther to see if they could discover what component of these oils were the most effective at down-regulating the inflammatory-promoting genes, coaxing the inflammation aspect of the metabolic syndrome to function in a far less deleterious way.
One healthful impurity found in these highest-quality olive oils is a polyphenol called oleocanthal, that has been found to exert a potent, ibuprofen-like activity. Oleocanthal’s positive effects occur all over the body and in many ways.
Ibuprofen and oleocanthal both work by inhibiting the same T helper cell and cyclooxygenase enzymes in the prostaglandin-biosynthesis pathway. The difference is that oleocanthal acts in a milder manner, requiring far more to do the job than what is required by ibuprofen, but without the risk of bleeding that ibuprofen presents.
Researchers also have found that oils rich in oleocanthal were the most effective at down-regulating the inflammatory-promoting genes, coaxing the inflammation aspect of the metabolic syndrome to function in a far less deleterious way.
About 3 tablespoons per day, it appears, can do much to reduce inflammation all over the body. It’s most effective taken straight from the bottle for this purpose.
Other research has reported that oleocanthal reduces the binding of a toxic group of proteins (ADDLs) to hippocampal neurons, an event that occurs early in Alzheimer’s Disease. It does this by increasing the protein’s size, which also made olive oil-treated ADDLs a better target for therapeutic antibodies.
Another important health benefit of olive oil is that it reduces the risk for heart disease and colon cancer, while signaling for glutathione synthesis (which aids in countering these and other health conditions).
If an oil contains oleocanthal and other healthful impurities, you’ll often know after drinking a spoonful of it. A few seconds later, you may experience a ‘catch’ or ‘sting’ or cough-like sensation in your throat. The feeling is similar to what researchers have said they got from sipping liquid forms of ibuprofen.
So not only is it important to make olive oil a regular at your table, research now confirms our long-held suspicion that choosing the right type or brand of olive oil is just as important a decision – perhaps even more so.
Now, how do YOU find the best oil to do all this?
We mentioned earlier the importance of the production process. You’ll want to buy extra virgin, cold pressed, olive oil; made from the olives of a single country rather than a blend.
Why? Olive oil is made (somewhat obviously) when the oil is extracted from olives. This can be done in two ways: using pressure or using chemicals. When chemicals are used, the oil is referred to as ‘refined’. Refined oils are inferior to virgin oils.
‘Virgin’ oil is extracted without chemicals, using pressure only; and ‘extra virgin’ is the oil that is the least processed. It also is less acid than other forms, making it tastier. Since the impurities in olive oil account for much of the health advantages, the less processed the better, for a greater number of those impurities.
‘Cold-pressed’ is almost a given when buying extra virgin – this refers to the fact that no heat is used to process the oil. You don’t have to look specifically for this feature – but it can’t hurt because it also ensures that healthful attributes aren’t processed out of the oil by heat.
Why from a single country?
Each of the major oil-producing countries are proud of their product. A brand that is not from one single country, but which was pooled from a collection of countries, is not going to be the premier product you want. A blend is more likely going to be an inferior product produced by a company with only profits in mind – not flavor or health.
What brands are best?
An informal taste test of 1 tablespoon of a variety of one-country brands of extra virgin olive oil found in our local stores revealed a positive throat “catch” effect in 6 of 9 brands. The six brands that passed our taste test (listed here in descending order of intensity):
- Colavita 100% Organic
- Newman’s Own Organic
- Whole Foods 365 100% Italian
- Whole Foods 365 Arbequina Cold Processed
A few that didn’t make the cut:
There are many more brands out there – if you find one that fits within these recommendations and produces the “catch” in your throat, we’ll be happy to add them to our list.
One further note – some people are not sensitive to this “catch” effect, and so don’t notice it even when using one of the recommended oils. If you’re one of them, know that the oils listed above WILL still give you the health benefits you’re looking for.
Can you expect the same positive effects when cooking with these oils?
No. Research has shown that the best positive effect will come from the raw, uncooked oil, such as what you might use on salads and bread. Cooking does tend to destroy various polyphenols. Of course there are other positive reasons for cooking with olive oil in place of another oil, so there’s no need to stop doing this. Just know that you should add uncooked oils to your diet as well for different reasons.
For all of these reasons and more, we chose several years ago to make extra virgin olive oil a major part of our mucosa butter.
(Thanks to our clients J.L. of St. Louis, MO and J.B. of Huntsville, AL who inspired this blog post!)
 Perez-Jimenez, Francisco, et al, “Virgin olive oil may help keep blood clot free,” AJCN, August 2007.
 Camargo, A., et al., “Gene expression changes in mononuclear cells from patients with metabolic syndrome after acute intake of phenol-rich virgin olive oil,” BMC Genomics 11: 253, May 04, 2010.
 Beauchamp, Gary K., et al., “Phytochemistry: Ibuprofen-like activity in extra-virgin olive oil,” Nature 437: 45-46, September 1, 2005.
 Pitt, J. et al., “Alzheimer’s-associated Aβ oligomers show altered structure, immunoreactivity and synaptotoxicity with low doses of oleocanthal,” Toxicol Appl Pharmacol, 2009 October 15; 240(2): 189–197.
 Masella R, et al., “Extra virgin olive oil biophenols inhibit cell-mediated oxidation of LDL by increasing the mRNA transcription of glutathione-related enzymes,” J Nutr, 134(4):785-91, April 2004.