Extra Virgin Olive Oil and the Mediterranean Diet – Beyond the Mediterranean Shores
There is an urgent global need to create healthier populations through better diet and lifestyle patterns and to support individuals in reaching their full potential of wellbeing, adding years to life and life to years.
The Mediterranean Diet has been shown to improve health outcomes1, reduce the burden of chronic disease and measurably enhance quality of life as well as provide a sustainable and enjoyable pattern of eating which has significantly less impact on the environment2,3. It is essential that what we know and understand about the evidence of the effectiveness of the Mediterranean Diet is communicated to a public who are increasingly interested in making informed lifestyle choices.
The many regional expressions of the traditional Mediterranean Diet all have in common the regular use of extra virgin olive oil as the main source of fat, for cooking and dressing the many and varied vegetables and other ingredients. The key to unlocking the potential benefits of this most healthy of dietary patterns is in a much greater understanding of the extraordinary benefits of the daily use of extra virgin olive oil in countries where other oils or fats are more commonly used.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil – the Key Component of the Mediterranean Diet
The regular use of extra virgin olive oil (several tablespoons a day) as the main source of fat for cooking or added as a dressing or flavouring is assessed in all scoring methodologies used to measure Mediterranean Diet adherence. There is also research which demonstrates that extra virgin olive oil as an individual component of a diet is associated with significantly reduced risks of some common chronic illnesses including stroke and cardiovascular disease.4,5
What is of particular interest is the emerging understanding that the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil in particular are almost certainly more related to its unique anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds called polyphenols rather than to its composition of healthy monounsaturated fats. Other oils, especially seed or “vegetable oils” so commonly regarded as healthy alternatives do not have comparable profiles of these “minor compounds”. They are indeed “minor” only in their proportional quantities, but clearly have very powerful biological effects, the understanding of which is increasing as the degree to which mitigation of chronic inflammatory processes is shown to protect from chronic disease.
This is important because high levels of these polyphenols are only present in olive oil in its extra virgin form, especially but not exclusively when added in its raw state as a dressing, and not in the modern form of processed and refined olive oil. It is also dependent not only on the variety of olive, but more importantly on the quality of production, the timing and care taken at harvesting, the freshness and proper storage of the extra virgin oil.
The antioxidant effect of polyphenols in extra virgin olive oil ensures that harmful oxidation of fats during heating does not occur, making all usual forms of cooking in extra virgin olive oil entirely safe and well below the “smoke point” characterised by harmful changes in food composition. This should not be a surprise given that the Mediterranean Diet has relied on the use of extra virgin olive oil for cooking for generations. Recent research has further shown that the transfers of polyphenols between extra virgin olive oil and vegetables during cooking enhances the antioxidant potential of the final meal6, and that these healthy components in a modest amount of oil may also reduce the formation of potentially harmful chemicals produced during the preparation of cooked meat7.
It is essential that the pivotal role of extra virgin olive oil in the Mediterranean Diet is widely understood. It is greatly encouraging that not only is the importing of extra virgin olive oil to established markets increasing, but also emerging markets in the developing world are embracing its health qualities and incorporating this most versatile of fats into local culinary practices. To meet this demand it is even more exciting to see the production of high quality oils, where climate allows in new regions around the northern and southern 40 degree parallel such as in the USA, South America, Australia and New Zealand. These countries in particular can play an important part in bringing the ancient stories and modern scientific understanding of the benefits of extra virgin olive oil at the heart of the Mediterranean Diet to new populations beyond the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.