Olive oil and the antioxidants

Olea europaea, the olive tree, has a long and some would say checkered history, perhaps most infamously that Jesus betrayed by Judas in the olive groves of the Garden of Gethsemane. Today, the medicinal and culinary applications of the fruit and the oil that olive trees bear are legion. Oleic acid, squalene, and phenolics, such as hydroxytyrosol, tyrosol, and oleuropein, are its key constituents, the phenolics, particularly those mentioned above, and whose concentrations are maximal in virgin olive oil, known to have significant antioxidant properties1.

Indeed, the antioxidant properties of olive oil make up an important aspect of its biological activities, both oleic acid and squalene known to have cancer prevention, and anticancer properties, respectively, for examples2.Among the other health benefits of olive oil include lowering blood pressure and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) (‘bad cholesterol”). Olive oil is a major part of the “Mediterranean diet”, alongside vegetables, fish, and fruits, which epidemiological studies have shown to provide significant protection against coronary heart disease CHD, cancer, and degenerative diseases in general 3.

No doubt, the fiber, in particular whole-grain fiber, fish, fruits and vegetables components of the Mediterranean diet are bounteous sources of antioxidants, but recent studies indicate plentiful antioxidants in olives and olive oil too3. In fat, research evidence shows that it is the combination of its unique phenols, squalene and oleic acid that makes olive oil a health-booster3.

Thus, its key phenols, members of three dissimilar classes, namely, simple phenols (hydroxytyrosol, tyrosol); secoiridoids (oleuropein, ligstroside’s aglycone, and their individual decarboxylated dialdehyde offshoots); and the lignans [(+)-1-acetoxypinoresinol and pinoresinol], all have strong antioxidant properties, and are derivable from extra-virgin olive oils, which also have significant quantities of squalene and oleic acid3.

In inhibiting oxidative processes in the body, these substances protect against cancers such as those of the breast, colon, and skin, CHD, and ageing, and promote health in general. Olives, particularly not Spanish-brined, are estimated to have up to 16 g/kg, mostly acteosides, hydroxytyrosol, tyrosol and phenyl propionic acids, and although olive oil, principally the extra-virgin variety has lesser quantities of hydroxytyrosol and tyrosol, has lots of secoiridoids and lignans2.  

In fact, olives and olive oil have significant quantities of other anticancer compounds such as squalene and terpenoids, and those resistant to peroxidation such as the monounsaturated fatty acid, oleic acid2. Hydroxytyrosol, tyrosol, and oleuropein also have antimicrobial properties, and are known to be effective against many strains of bacteria causing gut and respiratory infections. It thus seems that it is not only the intake of olive oil that is healthy, but also that of whole olives1.

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