The European Cultural Center of Delphi

“Some scientists say olive oil should be considered only a food, but the market seems to disagree,” said Prokopios Magiatis. He joined other olive oil experts in Delphi, Greece at the 2nd International Yale Symposium on Olive Oil and Health in December to discuss the impressive flavors, many uses, and promising health benefits of extra virgin olive oil.

As Professor Nikolaos Thomaidis of the University of Athens Department of Chemistry pointed out, “olive oil, the emblematic food of the Mediterranean diet, has been recognized for its nutritional superiority and various health effects and is considered one of the most important ingredients of well-balanced nutrition. The characterization of olive oil composition and quality has gained wide interest,” especially after the European Food Safety Authority (FSA) established an official health claim in 2012 “highlighting the health benefits related to bioactive compounds found in olive oil,” as Thomaidis put it. 

The FSA’s health claim states, “olive oil polyphenols contribute to the protection of blood lipids from oxidative stress”—a stress that increases the risk of such illnesses as cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. At the Symposium in Delphi, Professor Prokopios Magiatis and Dr. Eleni Melliou explained how their team at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens has sought ways to help olive oil producers certify their olive oil’s eligibility for the health claim. Their team has analyzed the phenolic compounds in more than 7,000 olive oil samples from around the world since they invented a new method for such measurement in 2010.

Inspired by studies that show high phenolic olive oil can increase good cholesterol (HDL) and decrease bad cholesterol (LDL), inflammation, and blood pressure, Magiatis emphasized that “olive oil is a very tasty food, but it is also a product for health.” Given qualified health claims from both the European FSA and the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), he and his team aim to “transform high phenolic olive oil from a healthy food to an herbal medicine and demonstrate the effectiveness of pure oleocanthal [an important phenolic compound] in humans” to open the way for the development of new drugs.

Magiatis suggested that oleocanthal, an anti-inflammatory we detect when oil from unripe olives makes us cough, may provide the therapeutic qualities the ancient Greek physician and pharmacologist Dioscorides identified with this type of olive oil. After all, scientists recently discovered that oleocanthal can kill cancer cells in just 30 minutes, without harming other cells. Now, the Athens-based nonprofit World Olive Center for Health (WOCH) is supporting clinical studies on high oleocanthal extra virgin olive oil’s (EVOO’s) ability to help combat a variety of diseases.

At the Yale Symposium, Magiatis (one of WOCH’s founding members) provided an overview of these studies: they explore high oleocanthal EVOO’s ability to help fight multiple sclerosis, inhibit platelet aggregation (for potential protection from infarction and strokes), delay the onset of Alzheimer’s, and help patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. WOCH is also supporting a new pilot study on the effect of pure oleocanthal infusions on prostate cancer. While additional clinical trials are necessary in each case, WOCH president Eleni Melliou finds oleocanthal’s potential as a disease-fighting compound very encouraging.

Professor Magda Tsolaki, Head of the 1st Department of Neurology at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece, and chair of the Greek Federation of Alzheimer’s Disease, shared more details about one of the clinical trials Magiatis mentioned: her pilot study, MICOIL. According to earlier studies, “higher adherence to the Mediterranean diet is associated with reduced risk for Alzheimer’s disease” (AD), reduced risk for Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), and less risk that MCI will progress to Alzheimer’s. With those findings in mind, MICOIL’s team compared the effects of different olive oils on elderly people with MCI: Yanni’s Olive Grove’s Early Harvest Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) and Yanni’s EVOO, both high phenolic EVOOs consumed as part of the Mediterranean diet (MeDi), compared to the MeDi without any specific olive oil.

This double-blind randomized trial involved 60 participants for 12 months. Results showed “that a long-term intervention with Greek Early Harvest Extra Virgin Olive Oil or EVOO was associated with improvement in neuropsychological performance” such as global cognition, verbal fluency, and attention, in comparison to the MeDi group that did not consume an olive oil noteworthy for its high phenolic content. Using blood tests to check for well-known indicators of Alzheimer's, the study also demonstrated that high phenolic EVOO therapy may improve these blood biomarkers, preventing patients with MCI from progressing to AD.

Although this is a small study, the results suggest that the type of olive oil patients consume can make a difference in the health benefits they enjoy. Tsolaki and her team hope to expand the study to include more patients over a longer time period. This is especially important, Tsolaki noted, since dementia is an increasing problem as the world population ages, and so far, there is only symptomatic therapy. However, “with olive oil and its derivatives, we can target everything connected with Alzheimer’s disease.”

Considering disease prevention in the kitchen, “almost nobody can say there is not enough scientific evidence that virgin olive oil for dressing is healthy,” according to Dr. Rosa Lamuela-Raventós, Director of the Institute for Research on Nutrition and Food Safety and Professor at the University of Barcelona. However, we need more evidence that it is also healthy to cook with olive oil. So Lamuela-Raventós provided data from clinical studies that suggest cooking with virgin olive oil increases the health benefits of phenolic compounds in tomato sauce (for example) by making them easier for our bodies to use. Based on these results, it seems not only safe to cook with olive oil, but—at least with some common Mediterranean recipes--especially beneficial.

With so much evidence for olive oil’s health benefits, chemistry professor Nikolaos Thomaidis decided it was time to introduce “powerful tools to meet the demands of people working with olive oil” who wish to find new markets that value those health benefits. Among other techniques, he uses high resolution mass spectrometry “to discover new compounds in olive oil and profile the authenticity of products.” This helps protect honest producers and consumers against fraud and specifies the presence of beneficial substances such as the polyphenols, tocopherols (Vitamin E), monounsaturated fatty acids, carotenoids, and squalene in olive oil.

Drawing Symposium participants’ attention to another Greek treasure, Dr. Kyriaki Zinoviadou, Assistant Professor of Perrotis College at the American Farm School in Thessaloniki, Greece focused on naturally fermented Greek table olives, discussing their potential healthy probiotic activity and high nutritional value. She pointed out that Greece supplies the second largest amount of table olives in the world, exporting 85% of its products to more than 100 countries.

Olive products have an important future,” Greek Minister of Rural Development and Food Mavroudis Voridis emphasized in his welcoming remarks at the Symposium opening. Co-organizer Vasilis Vasiliou of the Yale School of Public Health called the Symposium both “a celebration of olive oil” and an effort to promote scientific work on it. There is so much more to explore; only a small fraction of olive oil’s 400 micronutrients have been studied so far. The proposed Yale Olive Sciences and Health Institute aims to support a broader and deeper exploration of what olives and olive oil can offer the world.

The 2nd International Yale Symposium on Olive Oil and Health was organized by Professor Vasilis Vasiliou, Susan Dwight Bliss Professor of Epidemiology and Chair of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at Yale School of Public Health, Dr. Tassos Kyriakides of the Yale School of Public Health, and an international organizing committee. The platinum sponsors were the Yale School of Public Health, the Greek Ministry of Rural Development and Food, the Municipality of Delphi, and the Region of Central Greece; the gold sponsors were the A. G. Leventis Foundation, Noema Solutions, and the Captain Vassilis & Carmen Constantakopoulos Foundation.

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