Olive oil is nutri­tion­ally con­sid­ered to be the best source of fatty acids. It is also highly appre­ci­ated for its pos­i­tive effect on human health and its excel­lent taste and aroma. Why is olive oil more ben­e­fi­cial to human health than seed oils or sat­u­rated fats such as but­ter?

The short­est answer is that olive oil has the per­fect fatty acid com­po­si­tion, which is mainly monoun­sat­u­rated fatty acids (MUFA).

These acids, in con­trast to polyun­sat­u­rated fatty acids (PUFA) that are found in seeds oils, are more sta­ble against oxi­da­tion, and there­fore the pro­duc­tion of per­ox­ides and free rad­i­cals, which have been linked to induce car­cino­gen­e­sis, is hin­dered. The fatty acid com­po­si­tion also affects the low den­sity lipopro­tein (LDL) cho­les­terol (i.e.‘bad’ cho­les­terol) level which is respon­si­ble for ath­er­o­scle­ro­sis (thick­en­ing of the artery wall) and is known to be linked to the heart dis­ease. The MUFA and PUFA have been found to decrease the LDL cho­les­terol lev­els; olive oil with high level of MUFA is clearly ben­e­fi­cial to our health.

Though peo­ple focus on the fatty acid com­po­si­tion, they often ignore some minor, but also impor­tant com­po­nents of olive oil. Those minor com­pounds, which appear in olive oil in low con­cen­tra­tion, indeed have sig­nif­i­cant health ben­e­fits as they play major bio­log­i­cal roles in the body. They can also be used as effec­tive fin­ger prints (i.e. bio­mark­ers) to eval­u­ate qual­ity and authen­ti­ca­tion of the olive oils. The most impor­tant minor com­pounds of olive oil are polyphenols/​tocopherols (includ­ing vit­a­min E), sterols and squa­lene.

Polyphenols, such as oleu­ropein, tyrosol, hydrox­y­ty­rosol, oleo­can­thal and olea­cein found in olive oil, are extremely strong antiox­i­dants. Their antiox­i­dant activ­ity is com­pa­ra­ble with arti­fi­cial antiox­i­dants like Butylated hydrox­yanisole (BHA) and Butylated hydrox­y­toluene (BHT), and they are known to play mul­ti­ple pos­i­tive roles in our health. Polyphenols fur­nish the immune sys­tem, pro­tect us from heart dis­eases and dis­play anti­cancer activ­ity as they act as free rad­i­cals traps. They pro­tect olive oil from oxida­tive dam­age and they con­tribute to its supe­rior oxida­tive sta­bil­ity among other edi­ble oils. They also affect its taste, specif­i­cally for a dis­tinc­tive bit­ter taste. The con­cen­tra­tion of polyphe­nols in olive oil ranges from 100 to 1000 mg/​kg.

Sterols are con­sid­ered impor­tant ele­ments for human nutri­tion and health. Clinical stud­ies have shown that the dietary intake of phy­tos­terols decrease the blood cho­les­terol lev­els and is likely to inhibit its absorp­tion from the small intes­tine. Moreover, sterols have been shown to act as anti-inflam­ma­tory, anti-bac­te­r­ial, anti-fun­gal, anti-ulcer­a­tive, anti-oxi­dant and anti-tumor. The total sterols con­tent in olive oil ranges between 1,000 to 2,200 mg/​kg.

Squalene is believed to offer pos­i­tive effects on human health as it may have a chemo­pre­ven­tive effect in some type of can­cer and it is ben­e­fi­cial for patients with heart dis­ease and dia­betes. Olive oil has the high­est con­cen­tra­tion of squa­lene com­pared to other edi­ble oils. Its con­cen­tra­tion in olive oil ranges from 1,000 to 7,500 mg/​kg whereas in corn oil, for exam­ple, ranges from 190 to 360 mg/​kg.

Other minor com­pounds that affect the olive oil qual­ity and have an impact to our health are phos­pho­lipids which are known to rein­force the phos­pho­rous com­pounds in the brain and tis­sues and have anti-inflam­ma­tory activ­ity, diglyc­ery­des, glyc­erol, water, β‑carotene, triter­penic acids such as maslinic acid and oleano­lic acid and triter­penic alco­hols such as ery­thro­diol and uvaol.

In sum­mary, olive oil has supe­rior nutri­tional value in com­par­i­son to other types of edi­ble oils not only because of its fatty acids com­po­si­tion but also because of the pres­ence of many impor­tant minor com­pounds that pos­i­tively affect our health.


Emmanuel Hatzakis è il direttore della spettroscopia di risonanza magnetica nucleare presso il Dipartimento di Chimica della Penn State University.

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