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The Mediterranean Diet: Phytochemicals In Olive Oil

Updated on October 26, 2009

Olive oil has been the cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet since the Bronze age. Olives and/or olive oil have been featured in literature since records have been kept. Hippocrates prescribed olive oil to cure ulcers, gallbladder disorders and muscle problems. The Holy Bible mentions olives or olive oil 140 times. Both the Greeks and the Romans feature olive oil in their mythology. The Greeks claim the goddess Athena gave the Greeks 2 gifts: wisdom and the olive. The Romans claim that Minerva, the goddess of peace and wisdom, gave the gifts of olive cultivation and wool spinning to mankind.

Much of the aura surrounding the olive tree throughout history pertains to the ability of the plant to survive. The olive tree can live for more than 600 years and still produce fruit, and some specimens are more than 1000 years old. The olive tree can survive much damage and still return and flourish. The tree does not start to produce fruit until it is 5 to 6 years old. However, adequate production is not obtained until 15 to 20 years old.

These phytochemicals are found in olive oil:

Hydroxytyrosol: Hydroxytyrosol is a powerful antioxidant. Works by trapping metals that could contribute to oxidation. Hydroxytyrosol can also destroy free radicals if they do form. May help reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer.

Vanillic Acid: One of the polyphenols. Has been shown to inhibit the growth of some bacteria and fungi. May help fight infection.

Caffeic acid: Caffeic acid is a polyphenol, which is a general group of phytochemicals. Caffeic acid may prevent heart disease, cancer and gout. In a test tube, caffeic acid works as a general antioxidant and may prevent oxidation of LDL (it is oxidized LDL-c that can lead to heart disease). Caffeic acid has also shown to stop the production of heterocyclic amines, which are ingested with meat or seafood which has been seared. Heterocyclic amines have been shown in a test tube to be potentially cancer causing. Caffeic acid can also been shown to slow tumors from growing, to destroy carcinogens and make the carcinogens into compounds that more easily leave the body. Caffeic acid has also been shown to inhibit the enzyme used to make uric acid and it is uric acid that causes gout.

Oleuropein: One of the polyphenols and is responsible for the bitter taste of olives. Oleuropein can prevent oxidation of LDL and is possibily a more effective antioxidant than vitamin C or E. Oleuropein also had anti-inflammatory properties. May help reduce the risk of heart disease.

Squalene: Squalene has been shown in animals to inhibit colon, lung and skin cancer. Squalene is one of the compounds in the steps that the body utilizes to have low density cholesterol. Diets using olive oil usually result in slightly higher levels of blood cholesterol due to the squalene content. However, olive oil has been shown to be very effective in preventing oxidation of LDL so the blood cholesterol is less likely to contribute to heart disease.

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