The Role of Monounsaturated Fatty Acids in Olive Oil's Health Benefits

Oleic acid, classified as a monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA), has been extensively studied by scientists over the last decades, consistently demonstrating many positive effects on human health.
By Paolo DeAndreis
Apr. 9, 2024 12:51 UTC

The excep­tional health ben­e­fits of extra vir­gin olive oil are par­tially attrib­uted to its fatty acids, par­tic­u­larly oleic acid, which com­prises 55 to 83 per­cent of the oil’s total com­po­si­tion.

Oleic acid, clas­si­fied as a monoun­sat­u­rated fatty acid (MUFA), has been exten­sively stud­ied by sci­en­tists over the last decades, con­sis­tently demon­strat­ing many pos­i­tive effects on human health.

Role of monoun­sat­u­rated fat in olive oil health ben­e­fits

Research has demon­strated that the monoun­sat­u­rated fatty acids found in olive oil can sig­nif­i­cantly enhance heart and car­dio­vas­cu­lar health, mainly by low­er­ing LDL (bad) cho­les­terol lev­els, increas­ing HDL (good) cho­les­terol lev­els and reduc­ing triglyc­erides.

LDL and HDL cho­les­terol

LDL (low-den­sity lipopro­tein) and HDL (high-den­sity lipopro­tein) are two types of cho­les­terol that play cru­cial roles in our car­dio­vas­cu­lar health. LDL cho­les­terol is often referred to as bad” cho­les­terol because high lev­els of it can lead to the buildup of plaque in the arter­ies, increas­ing the risk of heart dis­ease and stroke. LDL car­ries cho­les­terol from the liver to cells through­out the body, but when there’s an excess, it can deposit in the arter­ies, nar­row­ing them and hin­der­ing blood flow. On the other hand, HDL cho­les­terol is known as good” cho­les­terol because it helps remove LDL cho­les­terol from the blood­stream, trans­port­ing it back to the liver, where it can be processed and excreted from the body. Higher lev­els of HDL are asso­ci­ated with a lower risk of heart dis­ease, as it acts as a scav­enger, pre­vent­ing plaque buildup in the arter­ies.

Moreover, oleic acid is rec­og­nized for its anti-inflam­ma­tory prop­er­ties, fur­ther con­tribut­ing to heart health.

Additionally, pre­lim­i­nary research sug­gests that oleic acid may reduce the risk of obe­sity by induc­ing a feel­ing of full­ness, aid­ing in weight man­age­ment.

See Also:Health News

Furthermore, sev­eral stud­ies have indi­cated that reg­u­lar con­sump­tion of mod­er­ate amounts of oleic acid may play a pre­ven­tive role in demen­tia among older indi­vid­u­als.

Ongoing research also explores the poten­tial of oleic acid to inhibit the growth of cer­tain types of can­cer by sup­press­ing the expres­sion of genes asso­ci­ated with the metas­ta­sis of can­cer­ous cells.

What are MUFAs?

Fatty acids are essen­tial com­po­nents of lipids, which are impor­tant mol­e­cules for the struc­ture and func­tion of cells,” Nuno Rodrigues, a researcher at the Centro de Investigação de Montanha (CIMO) of the Polytechnic Institute in Bragança, in Portugal, told Olive Oil Times.

The word fat” in this con­text does not refer to the fat con­tent of the fatty acid but to its mol­e­c­u­lar struc­ture.

Fatty acids are an impor­tant source of energy for the body, being stored in adi­pose tis­sue, besides play­ing essen­tial roles in the struc­ture of cell mem­branes,” Rodrigues explained.

The dif­fer­ent impacts of sat­u­rated and unsat­u­rated fatty acids lie in their dif­fer­ent inter­ac­tion with human biol­ogy.

Unsaturated fatty acids con­tain a dou­ble bond, mak­ing them prone to inter­act­ing with other mol­e­cules. 


On the other hand, sat­u­rated fatty acids (SFAs) con­tain a sin­gle bond only, which has con­se­quences for how they are digested and absorbed.

Fatty acids’ chem­i­cal struc­tures influ­ence how they are metab­o­lized and uti­lized by the body.

See Also:Study Reveals Insights Into the Impact of Olive Oil Fats on Essential Cell Structures

The chem­i­cal struc­ture of fatty acids affects the states of mat­ter of the fatty acids, impact­ing the flu­id­ity of cell mem­branes and how much they are prone to oxi­da­tion. These char­ac­ter­is­tics con­vey sig­nif­i­cantly dif­fer­ent effects on health.

Saturated fats are mostly solid at room tem­per­a­ture. Meanwhile, monoun­sat­u­rated fatty acids, which con­tain one dou­ble bond, are gen­er­ally liq­uid at room tem­per­a­ture and can be found in olive oil, other veg­etable oils and food such as avo­ca­dos and some nuts.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) con­tain more than one dou­ble bond, fur­ther enhanc­ing their poten­tial to inter­act with other mol­e­cules.

PUFAs include fatty acids the human body can­not syn­the­size, such as omega‑3 and omega‑6, found in fish, flaxseeds, wal­nuts and veg­etable oils.

Similarly to MUFAs, PUFAs are also cred­ited with sev­eral health ben­e­fits, includ­ing sup­port­ing heart health and reduc­ing inflam­ma­tion.

How olive oil’s fatty acids are formed

The fatty acids in olive oil are formed at the end of the olive devel­op­ment process, essen­tially dur­ing their mat­u­ra­tion.

In the olive tree, dur­ing the fruit’s growth, the plant pro­duces car­bo­hy­drates that are later con­verted into fatty acids through pho­to­syn­the­sis,” Rodrigues said. The fatty acids are stored in the cells of the olive pulp in the form of triglyc­erides and are the main fat mol­e­cules, olive oil, present in the fruits.” 

See Also:Olive Oil Basics

After the olive har­vest, dur­ing the extrac­tion process, the olive oil present in the cells of the olive pulp is released and extracted.

Olive oil is mainly com­posed of triglyc­erides, which con­sist of three fatty acids linked to a glyc­erol mol­e­cule and rep­re­sent more than 97 per­cent of the olive oil,” Rodrigues said.

The sig­nif­i­cance of olive oil fatty acid com­po­si­tion 

Since fatty acids are the major com­po­nents of olive oil, they are also respon­si­ble for some of the most impor­tant func­tions attrib­uted to olive oil,” Rodrigues said.

According to the researcher, fatty acids are among the main con­trib­u­tors to the pos­i­tive impact olive oil can have on health.

Compared to other oils and fats, olive oil is very rich in monoun­sat­u­rated fatty acids, between 70 and 85 per­cent of the fatty acids in olive oil, of which oleic acid is the most sig­nif­i­cant,” Rodrigues said.

MUFAs are of great impor­tance from a nutri­tional per­spec­tive, as lipids are the main com­po­nent of our cell mem­branes,” he added. Due to their greater elas­tic­ity, MUFAs con­fer less rigid­ity to cell mem­branes and thus act in the pre­ven­tion of car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease.”

While olive oil con­tains all types of fatty acids, the ratio between MUFAs, PUFAs, and SFAs deter­mines its resis­tance to oxi­da­tion and shelf life.

Fatty acids also have an impor­tant func­tion as pre­cur­sors of some volatile com­pounds, where fatty acids are essen­tial com­po­nents of the meta­bolic path­ways that form the aro­mas of olive oils,” Rodrigues said.

MUFA com­po­si­tion dif­fers among olive oils

Not all olive trees develop sim­i­lar amounts of oleic acid in their fruits. Many fac­tors impact an olive oil’s fatty acid com­po­si­tion, includ­ing the tree’s age.

The work we have been devel­op­ing over the last decade shows that the age of the plant is a fac­tor that can affect the com­po­si­tion in fatty acids, not the fatty acids found, but the rel­a­tive amount of each of them,” Rodrigues said, point­ing to recent research pub­lished by Rodrigues and his col­leagues.

Several fac­tors can influ­ence each olive tree cul­ti­var’s com­po­si­tion of fatty acids.

The most impor­tant and deter­mi­nant fac­tor is the cul­ti­var of ori­gin; that is, each cul­ti­var has a char­ac­ter­is­tic fatty acid com­po­si­tion,” Rodrigues said.

The International Olive Council esti­mates more than 1,000 olive tree vari­eties. Only a few hun­dred, though, are cul­ti­vated for olive oil pro­duc­tion.

There are other impor­tant fac­tors, such as the cul­tural prac­tices the olive tree was sub­jected to, that is, whether it was pro­duced in dry farm­ing or irri­ga­tion, whether it was more or less fer­til­ized, the cli­matic con­di­tions, the cli­matic vari­a­tions, the lat­i­tude and alti­tude and also the age of the tree,” Rodrigues said.

Some of our work shows that older trees have a higher pro­por­tion of oleic acid than younger trees of the same cul­ti­var,” he added.

Other con­tribut­ing fac­tors include the amount of sun­light dur­ing the olives’ ripen­ing or the loca­tion, as olives in colder regions tend to be richer in unsat­u­rated fatty acids.

The ripeness of the olives at the time of har­vest can sig­nif­i­cantly affect the com­po­si­tion of fatty acids in olive oil,” Rodrigues said. The stor­age con­di­tions of the olive oil, such as tem­per­a­ture and expo­sure to light and oxy­gen, can influ­ence its sta­bil­ity and com­po­si­tion. These vari­ables can inter­act in dif­fer­ent ways, result­ing in dif­fer­ent fatty acid pro­files in dif­fer­ent olive oils.” 

Know the Basics

Things to know about olive oil, from the Olive Oil Times Education Lab.

  • Extra vir­gin olive oil (EVOO) is sim­ply juice extracted from olives with­out any indus­trial pro­cess­ing or addi­tives. It must be bit­ter, fruity and pun­gent — and free of defects.

  • There are hun­dreds of olive vari­eties used to make oils with unique sen­sory pro­files, just as many vari­eties of grapes are used in wines. An EVOO can be made with just one vari­ety (mono­va­ri­etal) or sev­eral (blend).

  • Extra vir­gin olive oil con­tains healthy phe­no­lic com­pounds. Substituting a mere two table­spoons of EVOO per day instead of less healthy fats has been shown to improve health.

  • Producing high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil is an excep­tion­ally dif­fi­cult and costly task. Harvesting olives ear­lier retains more nutri­ents and extends shelf life, but the yield is far less than that of fully ripe olives that have lost much of their healthy com­pounds.


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