The Olive Wellness Institute is a science repository on the nutrition,
health and wellness benefits of olives and olive products, which is
all subject to extensive peer review.

Bioactive Compounds

Extra Virgin Olive Oil is rich in a variety of active compounds.1 It is important to note that the level of bioactive compounds found in an Extra Virgin Olive Oil will depend on the olive cultivar, the environment and technological factors.1 Some brands of Extra Virgin Olive Oil will list the levels of some bioactive compounds on the nutritional panel. Typically, the fresher the oil, the higher the levels of bioactive compounds.2

In summary, the following major compounds are found in Extra Virgin Olive Oil. The descriptions below provide a top-level summary of the evidence of these compounds when consumed in Extra Virgin Olive Oil. The activity and actions of these compounds can also vary when found in other parts of the olive tree, such as the olive leaf.

1. Phenolic acids and derivatives

  • Caffeic acid
  • Phenolic alcohols
  • Hydroxytyrosol
  • Tyrosol

The phenolic profile of the olive fruit changes over time, as it grows and develops.3 These compounds act as potent natural antioxidants (which scavenge free radical species), and are found naturally in Extra Virgin Olive Oil.3 The phenolic profile of Extra Virgin Olive Oil is one of the key reasons for the superior health benefits of Extra Virgin Olive Oil when compared with refined oils (which are devoid of, or very low in natural antioxidants).2 Specifically, hydroxytyrosol has been shown to inhibit low-density lipoprotein (LDL) oxidation.3

2. Secoiridoids

      Oleuropein derivatives

  • Oleuropein
  • Oleacin

Oleuropein (and derivatives) are potent antioxidants which scavenge free radical species in the body.4,5 Some evidence suggests that oleuropein can reduce LDL oxidation.6,7 In addition, oleuropein has potential as an antiangiogenic in cancer, with some preliminary evidence showing it may inhibit cell growth and invasiveness.8–12 It also has some antimicrobial activity.13,14

3. Ligstroside derivatives

  • Oleocanthal

Oleocanthal is responsible for the characteristic pharyngeal pungency stimulated by high quality Extra Virgin Olive Oils.3

Oleocanthal has been shown to have anti-inflammatory action, through inhibition of cyclooxygenase enzymes – COX1 and COX2 (similar to the mode of action of Non-Steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs – NSAIDs).15

4. Lignans

  • 1-acetoxypinoresinol
  • 1-pinoresinol

Lignans are phytoestrogen compounds which may have anti-cancer activity.1

5. Flavones

  • Apigenin
  • Luteolin

Although human studies are not yet completed, in vivo research shows that apigenin has some potential as a cancer chemo-preventive agent.16 Research also indicates that luteolin may have anti-inflammatory activity and play a role in cognitive disorders.17

  • B-sitosterol
  • Campesterol

Phytosterols have been shown to reduce the levels of plasma cholesterol and LDL cholesterol.18 There is also some evidence to suggest that phytosterols may have anti-tumor activity.18

Squalene is a triterpene acid found in Extra Virgin Olive Oil.3

Extra Virgin Olive Oil is one of the only foods to contain such high levels of squalene (approximately 0.7%).3 Squalene is an antioxidant that has been reported to have a chemoprotective effect specifically against skin cancer.3 Squalene is a major intermediate in the biosynthesis of cholesterol and may have effects to lower cholesterol levels in some individuals.3

  • α-tocopherols

Tocopherols, also known as vitamin E, are known to prevent lipid oxidation.18 α-tocopherol is a well-known antioxidant, which acts in a variety of ways to scavenge free radical species in the body.1,18

  • Oleanoic acid
  • Maslinic acid

Studies suggest that hydroxyterpenic acids may have potential pharmacological effects relating to inflammation, cancer, cardiovascular pathology and vasorelaxation.2

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  2. Boskou D. Olive oil and olive oil bioactive constituents. 1st edition. 2015. AOCS Press: Illinois.
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  4. Lee O, Lee B. Antioxidant and antimicrobial activities of individual and combined phenolics in Olea europaea leaf extract. Bioresor Technol. 2010; 101:3751-4.
  5. Umeno A, Takashima M, Murotomi K, et al. Radical-scavenging Activity and Antioxidative Effects of Olive Leaf Components Oleuropein and Hydroxytyrosol in Comparison with Homovanillic Alcohol. J Ole Sci. 2015; 64:7;793-800.
  6. Lockyer S, Rowland I, Spencer J, et al. Impact of phenolic‑rich olive leaf extract on blood pressure, plasma lipids and inflammatory markers: a randomised controlled trial. Eur J Nutr. 2017; 56(4):1421-1432.
  7. MacFarlane B. Olive leaf extract for cardiovascular disease. AJP. 2016;58–61.
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  9. Milanizadeh S, Bigdeli M, Rasoulian B, et al. The effect of olive leaf extract on antioxidant enzymes activity and tumor growth in breast cancer. Thrita. 2014;3(1):
  10. Cardeno A, Sanchez-Hidalgo M, Rossillo M, et al. Oleuropein, a Secoiridoid Derived from Olive Tree, Inhibits the Proliferation of Human Colorectal Cancer Cell Through Downregulation of HIF-1α. Nutr Cancer. 2013;65(1):147–56.
  11. Samet I, Han J, Jlaiel L, et al. Olive (Olea europaea) Leaf Extract Induces Apoptosis and Monocyte/Macrophage Differentiation in Human Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia K562 Cells: Insight into the Underlying Mechanism. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2014; :927619. doi: 10.1155/2014/927619.
  12. Goulas V, Exarchou V, Troganis A, et al. Phytochemicals in olive-leaf extracts and their antiproliferative activity against cancer and endothelial cells. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2009;53(5):600–8.
  13. Sudjana A, D’Orazio C, Ryan V, et al. Antimicrobial activity of commercial Olea europaea (olive) leaf extract. Int J Antimicrob Agents. 2009;33:461–3.
  14. Pereira A, Ferreira I, Marcelino F, et al. Phenolic Compounds and Antimicrobial Activity of Olive (Olea europaea L. Cv. Cobrançosa) Leaves. Molecules. 2007;12:1153–62.
  15. Beauchamp G, Keast R, Morel D, et al. Ibuprofen-like activity in extra virgin olive oil. Nature. 2005. 437;45-6.
  16. Shulka S, Gupta S. Apigenin: a promising molecule for cancer prevention. Phar Res. 2010;27(6):962–78.
  17. Science direct. Luteolin – an overview.
  18. Health effects of the minor components of olive oil.