09 Nov

Olives and olive oil have been linked to reduced risk of heart disease and even cancer

Several European studies highlight benefits of a Mediterranean diet.

It now seems that there is yet another reason why those living near the Mediterranean have it better than the rest of us, as if we needed another reason to be envious. There’s the sun, there’s the sea, there’s the beautiful terrain. Now on top of all that, several European-led studies indicate that the Mediterranean diet is significantly healthier than most. Despite significant levels of fatty acids present in the average meal, our neighbours to the south are at a lower risk of heart disease and possibly cancer, the studies conclude.

One such study is EUROLIVE, an EU-funded project conducted by María-Isabel Covas of the Municipal Institute for Medical Research in Barcelona and her research team. They published their results in a recent edition of Annals of Internal Medicine. Traditionally, olive oil has been thought of as healthy due to its high concentration of monounsaturated fatty acids. Dr Covas and her team, however, suspected more was at play.

They studied the effects of polyphenols in olive oil. Polyphenols are a group of chemical substances found in olives, and have been shown to possess antioxidant characteristics with the potential to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. Researchers created a study where subjects were given extra virgin olive oil (with high levels of polyphenols), common olive oil (with low phenol content) and a polyphenol-free olive oil.

They determined that there was a rise in the ‘good’ type of cholesterol in subjects that had consumed the polyphenol-rich extra virgin olive oil. Though the difference was slight, it had a clear correlation with the polyphenols present in the oil.

The results of the test lead Dr Covas to conclude that “olive oil is more than a monounsaturated fat.” Science News online quotes her as saying that the relationship between the olive oil and cholesterol levels is “the most striking” finding of the study.

The study was carried out by research centers in Germany, Denmark, Italy and Finland, ensuring that test subjects were from different sectors of the European population. This is the first time an international study on polyphenols has been carried out with such a large sample size.

A separate study published in the Journal of Nutrition by a group of Spanish researchers led by Dr M. Emília Juan suggests that consuming ten olives a day may help fight the spread of cancer. Again, the researchers looked beyond monounsaturated fatty acids to compounds contained in the olive’s skin.

When a concentrated form of the triterpenes, class of hydrocarbons, found in the skin was added to a culture of colon cancer cells, the cancerous cells underwent a degeneration phase that such cells don’t normally experience. The scientists estimate that the amount of compound required to produce such effects are contained in ten medium sized olives, according to Science News. This is the first time such evidence has been published.

Such studies have only been carried out on relatively small test groups, and are expected to lay the groundwork for larger-scale research.

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