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Extra Virgin Olive Oil Seen Superior for Reducing Cardiac and Cancer Risks: Antioxidants Get Credit
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FDA OK’s heart-health claim for “mono” fats; antioxidants abundant only in EVOO offer added health benefits

by Craig Weatherby and Randy Hartnell

Along with the long-awaited arrival of our delicious new Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil came a raft of good news about olive oil.

And, they included discoveries that place all extra virgin olive oils on a nutritional pedestal above the heavily refined, “pure” and “virgin” grade oils that dominate the domestic marketplace.

Our new Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil came in just as research results multiplied the reasons to favor olive oil over common cooking oils (sunflower, safflower, canola, soy).

Rather than present the news in four separate articles, we’ve combined them here in one place. Click here to view them.

What if you're among the few who don't care for olive oil?  Fortunately, mild, versatile, heat-resistant macadamia nut oil is even higher in heart-healthy, cancer-inhibiting monounsaturated fats, and our Organic Macadamia Nut Oil from Kenya is a an especially pure, delicious example of this overlooked oil.

1) Antioxidants in Extra Virgin Olive Oil Add Extra Cardiac Benefits

Phenols in extra virgin grade add cardiac benefits to those imparted by its “mono” fats

There’s little doubt that olive oil is good for cardiovascular health, but it now appears that science has been wrong—to a remarkably significant extent—about the reasons why.

Olive oil's monounsaturated fats exert beneficial effects on people’s blood cholesterol profiles, but two recent reports shine the spotlight on the antioxidants abundant only in unrefined, extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), and suggest that it offers extra anti-cancer and cardiovascular health benefits.

These encouraging new findings were published just as the FDA approved a heart-health label claim for olive oil, based on the assumption that its cardiac benefits stem solely from the cholesterol-modifying effects of its main monounsaturated fat, oleic acid.

But it’s not certain that the U.S. olive oil industry will press the FDA to recognize these findings in its consideration of label claims, because most of the olive oil sold here is refined, “pure” grade oil, which contains far fewer antioxidants per ounce than extra virgin oils like ours, which account for a fairly small percentage of sales.

Olive oil’s potent, overlooked antioxidants

The antioxidants in olive oil belong to a class of compounds called polyphenols, which encompasses red-blue anthocyanins (berries, eggplant), yellow flavonoids (onions, garlic), flavon-3-ols (tea and chocolate), and tocopherols (e.g., vitamin E).

Most polyphenols possess the kinds of antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-clotting properties that protect cardiovascular health, and some display strong anti-cancer properties as well.

For several years, it’s been known that olive oil contains small amounts of antioxidant polyphenols called tyrosols, found in no other common foods.  These include an extremely potent phenolic antioxidant known as hydroxytyrosol, which ranks at or near the top of the oxygen radical absorption capacity (ORAC) scale.

And, last September, American scientists isolated a previously unknown phenol in olive oil called oleocanthal, which exerts anti-inflammatory effects similar to those that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDS (e.g., Advil, aspirin) exert on the body’s inflammatory COX enzymes.

Because the preventive benefits that aspirin and other NSAIDs bring heart patients relate to these drugs’ anti-inflammatory, COX-inhibiting effects, it makes sense that the olecanthal—and anti-inflammatory tyrosol phenols in olive oil—would bring similar cardiac benefits.

The results of several large population studies indicate that people who consume a lot of olive oil—as in Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal—enjoy a reduced risk of heart disease.  It was assumed that the oil’s unusual fat profile—low in essential fatty acids (omega-3 and -6) and high in monounsaturated fats—was responsible.

Olive oil’s beneficial effects on blood cholesterol seemed to support the “mono” fat hypothesis of olive oil’s cardiovascular benefits.  But as we now know, olive oils of the finest, “extra virgin” grade have even more to offer our hearts.

Olive oil phenols may explain heart health benefits

Spanish researchers who were conducting a study on blood vessel function in human volunteers last year found that an olive oil rich in antioxidant polyphenols—that is, an unrefined, extra virgin grade oil—produced a significant improvement.

The Spanish team tested the response of the inner lining (endothelium) of the participants’ small blood vessels to sudden

changes in blood flow.  A poor response is seen as a warning sign of cardiovascular disease.

U.S. Olive Oil Labels Seem Designed to Confuse Consumers
You'd think that "pure" on an olive label meant something good, but it actually identifies a bland, antioxidant-poor product made from the acidic dregs of olive oil presses.

Olive oils labeled “pure” in U.S. markets are heavily refined and contain very little phenols, while the highly misleading term “virgin” refers to a blend consisting mostly of refined, “pure” grade oil with a small amount of extra virgin oil added to enhance its flavor.  Consequently, oils labeled "virgin" in the U.S. fall well short of extra virgin grade’s phenol content.

Only olive oils labeled “
extra virgin”—which identifies unrefined oils from the first pressing—will offer reliably high levels of heart-healthy phenols.

European countries observe more accurate labeling conventions, under which the term “virgin” olive oil means unrefined oil from the first pressing of the fruit, and “extra virgin” is applied to the finest, least acidic virgin oils.

By itself, this test proved nothing about the source of olive oil’s cardiac benefits.  However, they tried the same test after subjects ingested an olive oil that had many of its phenols removed.

In contrast to the extra virgin oil, the antioxidant-poor oil—one like the cheap, refined, “pure” grade oils that dominate the mass market—had very little beneficial effect.

The subjects were 21 adults with high cholesterol levels, who were randomized to receive either an olive oil high in phenols (400 parts per million) or the same brand of oil processed to remove most of the phenolic compounds (80 parts per million). The researchers then switched the two groups of subjects, and repeated the study.

In both groups, consumption of the polyphenol-rich oil yielded an improvement in blood vessel endothelial response, as well as a greater increase in concentrations of nitric oxide, which, in this context, acts as an anti-inflammatory agent.

Lead author Dr. Francisco Pérez Jiménez explained the difference between “virgin” (i.e., extra virgin) olive oil and other cooking oils this way: "Virgin olive oils more than fat because it is a real juice with other healthy micronutrients."

Added to previous research conducted by Dr. Pérez Jiménez and others, the Spanish researchers’ recent findings support increased consumption of olive oil as way of preventing progression of atherosclerosis.

2) FDA Approves Heart-Health Claim for Olive Oil

New approval overlooks evidence that extra virgin grade offers added cardiac benefits

Last month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a qualified health claim for monounsaturated fat from olive

oil, related to its ability to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). The agency found limited, but not conclusive, evidence that using olive oil in place of more saturated fats may reduce the risk of CHD.

The FDA’s decision came in response to a health claim petition filed in August of 2003 by the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA).

The NAOOA petition was based on the very substantial evidence showing that the monounsaturated fats in olive oil—especially oleic acid—lower levels of LDL (”bad”) cholesterol and raise levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol.

Population studies also suggest that diets high in olive oil correlate with a reduced risk of getting heart disease.

And, as we report in parts 1 and 4 of this research review, it now appears that polyphenol antioxidants—which occur at much higher levels in extra virgin grade olive oils, versus “pure” grade (i.e., heavily refined) olive oils—may be responsible for additional cardiovascular and anti-cancer benefits.

The newly allowed label claim

The FDA will now allow olive oil labels to bear the following health claim:

“Limited and not conclusive scientific evidence suggests that eating about 2 tablespoons (23 grams) 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 total number of calories you eat in a day. One serving of this product contains [x] grams of olive oil.”

In addition, manufacturers must add a disclaimer adjacent to the claim directing consumers to the nutrition labeling panel for information on total fat content.


3) Olive Oil’s “Mono” Fats Seen Cutting Risk of Breast Cancer

New results support and explain hypothesized anti-cancer effect of the “Mediterranean Diet”

Findings published last year by researchers at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago confirmed what many suspected about the Mediterranean diets protective effects against breast cancer.

Their test tube results indicate that the main reason is indeed olive oil, and that its preventive effect stems largely from the actions of its main monounsaturated fat, called oleic acid.

The Chicago team’s results, obtained in tests using breast-cancer cells, show that oleic acid cuts the level of the key breast cancer-promoting gene Her-2/neu by up to 46 percent.

One in five breast cancers contain high levels of this gene, which is especially active in the cancers most resistant to treatment.

Women who consume a lot of olive oil exhibit anti-cancer genetic effects like those seen in women taking the drug Herceptin, which works by inhibiting expression of the same Her-2/neu gene.

According to lead researcher Javier Menendez, “Our findings underpin epidemiological studies that show that the Mediterranean diet has significant protective effects against cancer, heart disease and ageing.”

Interestingly, Dr. Menendez’ team also found that an anti-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acid in evening primrose oil—called gamma linolenic acid (GLA)—exerts similar inhibitory effects on the Her-2/neu gene.
4) Antioxidants in Extra Virgin Olive Oil May Curb Colon Cancer

Findings apply only to unrefined oils; standard “pure” oils fall short in protective polyphenols

The results of many population studies suggest that diets high in olive oil reduce the risk of breast and colon cancer.  And, the findings summarized above suggest that its primary monounsaturated fat—oleic acid—could be responsible for olive oil's protective power against breast cancer.

But new research results reported by a team at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland indicate that the potent polyphenol antioxidants in extra virgin olive oil may protect against colon cancer.

The Irish researchers’ work, conducted on cell cultures, identifies the ways in which extra virgin olive oil exerts its beneficial effects.

As the research report concluded, " We have demonstrated that phenols extracted from virgin olive oilare capable of inhibiting several stages in colon carcinogenesis in vitro [cell culture tests].”

The Irish team’s results also showed that olive oil phenols can reduce the invasiveness of a colon cancer cell line.

These findings must be confirmed in animal tests, but make sense in light of the known anti-cancer effects of many other polyphenols, and offer encouragement to those among us who love good olive oil.


  • Menendez JA, Vellon L, Colomer R, Lupu R. Oleic acid, the main monounsaturated fatty acid of olive oil, suppresses Her-2/neu (erbB-2) expression and synergistically enhances the growth inhibitory effects of trastuzumab (Herceptin) in breast cancer cells with Her-2/neu oncogene amplification. Ann Oncol. 2005 Mar;16(3):359-71. Epub 2005 Jan 10.
  • Menendez JA, Vellon L, Colomer R, Lupu R. Effect of gamma-linolenic acid on the transcriptional activity of the Her-2/neu (erbB-2) oncogene. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2005 Nov 2;97(21):1611-5.
  • Gill CI, Boyd A, McDermott E, McCann M, Servili M, Selvaggini R, Taticchi A, Esposto S, Montedoro G, McGlynn H, Rowland I. Potential anti-cancer effects of virgin olive oil phenols on colorectal carcinogenesis models in vitro. Int J Cancer. 2005 Oct 20;117(1):1-7.


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