Mediterranean Superfood: Olives

By Russell H. Greenfield, MD Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine UNC Chapel Hill School of Medicine

Posted on | By Russell H. Greenfield, MD | Comments ()

A recently discovered phenol present in extra virgin olive oil called oleocanthal has garnered a great deal of interest due to its natural anti-inflammatory activity that compares well with the actions of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen. High-quality extra virgin olive oil that contains oleocanthal confers a slightly bitter, yet enjoyable, peppery taste that is typically experienced at the back of the throat.

Cancer-Fighting Properties

Some olive oil constituents also appear to possess anti-cancer activity. The monounsaturated fat, oleic acid, may inhibit a gene, Her-2/neu or Her-2, also known as human epidermal growth factor receptor 2, that can be overactive in a significant number of cases of aggressive breast cancer. In fact, early laboratory data suggest that high-quality olive oil may one day prove to be a useful adjunct in the treatment of Her-2 positive breast cancer.

Hydroxytyrosol, a phenol found in high concentrations in Kalamata olives, may help prevent DNA damage and abnormal cell growth. Other olive oil phenols may play a role in helping to prevent colon cancer, either by impacting the production of irritant bile acids in the gut or by a direct protective effect on the lining of the large intestine. In addition, a compound found in the skin of olives, called maslinic acid, may promote the programmed death of colon cancer cells.

Olive Oil Quality

In simple terms, olive oil is extracted through the physical crushing of olives and the subsequent pressing of the pulpy mass that remains. Oil obtained from the earliest presses (extra virgin) contains the highest concentration of health-promoting phenols and is the least acidic. Ensuing presses, together with other processes, allow for the collection of additional quantities of oil (virgin and ordinary olive oils), but they are typically deemed to be of both lower culinary quality and therapeutic potential. 

Russell H. Greenfield, MD

Article written by Russell H. Greenfield, MD
Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine UNC Chapel Hill School of Medicine