The Miracle of the Mediterranean Diet:
Polyphenols in Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Until recently I hadn’t heard the word ‘polyphenols’ never mind considered their health benefits. It was only when I started working with Kostas, a friend who painstaking explained the world of finance to me during our MBA studies, that this unfamiliar word ‘polyphenols’ started to attract my attention. Kostas was launching a new organic olive oil product in the UK called November Early Harvest Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) and was characteristically enthusiastic about the oil, its high polyphenol content and the potential health benefits.
Kostas comes from the Greek Island of Crete, the home of November Olive Oils and believed to be where Olive oil was first cultivated in ancient times. It is a beautiful Island, full of warm hospitable people. In my early 20’s I had the pleasure of exploring the Greek Islands over a full summer of independent travel, hopping on and off a network of ferries to experience the unique delights of each island paradise and at times camping on small, secluded beaches. Since I was sharing this experience with a chef and naturally a food lover, some of my fondest memories are of the hospitality and meals we shared with local people and travellers we met along the way.
Anyone who has experienced sun-drenched days along the Aegean coastline or on any one of the stunning Islands where time stands still, and days run seamlessly into evenings of feasting on freshly caught fish accompanied by salads glistening with an olive oil drizzle, will surely understand my love of Greece. If not, I would highly recommend watching the film version of Mama Mia.
The sights, the sounds, the tastes, and aromas are sensory delights enough to make anyone just feel healthier. But there is more to it than that. Countless articles backed by scientific research make compelling health claims for following a Mediterranean diet partly because the diet is rich in foods (including a significant amount of Olive Oil) that contain a high content of polyphenols. There is that word again!
Polyphenols: Nature’s Medicine
So, what are Polyphenols? Simply, they are the micronutrients which naturally occur in plants and are potent antioxidants which work to eliminate the free radicals that continually attack the body damaging healthy cells. This process, known as oxidation, is a natural result of our metabolism and the oxidative stress it produces in our bodies is linked to certain diseases as well as the ageing process. It turns out that the antioxidant properties of polyphenols can however help reduce abnormal cell formation, combat inflammation and over time, restore cells back to normal health. No wonder Kostas was so excited!
There are over 500 types of polyphenols, collectively known as phytochemicals which can be further categorised into Flavonoids, phenolic acids, stilbenes and lignans. The most important polyphenols found in EVOO with respect to health claims, include OLEUROPEIN, TYROSOL, HYDROXYTYROSOL, OLEOCANTHAL, CAROTENES and OLEACEIN. Each of these possess very strong antioxidant properties that can help fight specific physical and neurological diseases by reversing the damage caused to healthy cells. Studies claim that a daily dose of Extra Virgin Olive Oil over a period, either as a supplement or used in cooking can for example:
- prevent heart disease
- prevent cardiovascular issues
- help control diabetes
- delay the aging process
- slow down the progress of Alzheimer’s disease
- counter the free radicals that can cause certain cancers
These health claims are backed by significant scientific research and possibly why even in ancient civilisations, Olive Oil was a prized commodity, referred to by Homer as “Liquid Gold”. The Greeks believed that the Olive Tree was even a gift from the Goddess Athena herself.
Olive Oils: Not all are rich in polyphenols
Olive oils are categorized based on how they are processed and not all offer the same benefits. It is worth noting that the Olive Oil Health Claim (EU 432/2012) applies only for olive oils that contain at least 250 mg/kg of hydroxytyrosol, tyrosol or their derivatives. The benefits are obtained with a daily intake of 20 gr of olive oil. Fresh, early harvested Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil is always the best option to ensure a good concentration of polyphenols. November Early Harvest Organic EVOO contains above 450mg/kg of polyphenols and is therefore an excellent choice for the discerning purchaser. Why not start your new year by adding a great quality EVOO to your pantry that will bring you some incredible health benefits!