Prof. Mauro Maccarrone:

“We found that the hydroxytyrosol -- a component of olive oil -- is successful in awakening the 'sentinels' that allow our body, particularly in the intestine, to defend us from some cancers, such as colorectal cancer. "

EVOO is an ally of our wellness, and over the years a number of studies have established and confirmed the importance of its daily consumption. There is still, however, much to discover about the mechanisms through which these healthy actions are carried out.

Researchers directed by Prof. Mauro Maccarrone from the University Campus Bio-Medico of Rome and Dr. Claudio D’Addario from University of Teramo have been working in this direction, revealing how certain elements abundant in high quality extra virgin olive oil function to protect from colon cancer. The research conducted in collaboration with the University of Camerino, the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and the Santa Lucia Foundation IRCCS in Rome, reveals new details on the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil.

The Campus Bio-Medico University of Rome, despite its recent foundation, today has become a center of excellence. I reached the kind Mauro Maccarrone, professor in Biochemistry and dean of the Bachelor’s Degree in Food Science and Human Nutrition, at his studio in the heart of the extended University area in the southern sector of Rome, to discuss his study.

First of all I asked him how his research began.

“The basic idea was to understand if EVOO — conerstone of the Mediterranean diet with various beneficial properties — had some ingredients with active properties verifiable on a strictly scientific basis,” he explained. “We found that the hydroxytyrosol — a component of olive oil — is successful in awakening the “sentinels” that allow our body, particularly in the intestine, to defend us from some cancers, such as colorectal cancer.

“Therefore, EVOO contains a substance that can improve our ability to ward off cancer, acting as a so-called ‘tumor suppressor’.” He further explained that this occurs through a mechanism called ‘epigenetic’, by which olive oil changes some of our genes, not breaking them up or changing them, but making them more or less readable — a bit as if it opened an instruction manual on one page rather than another, in this way, protecting us from the onset of tumors.

And what were your discoveries?

“The primary news is the fact that we have identified that the target of hydroxytyrosol is type 1 cannabinoid receptor (CB1)” (which carries this name because it also responds to plant derivatives present in hashish and marijuana, in substance the cannabinoids). “The second relevant factor,” Maccarrone continued, “concerns the way in which the hydroxytyrosol is able to activate CB1 to a larger extent in the cells, thanks to its epigenetic control of CB1 gene.”

At this point, it is important to know that the molecules behind the effects of olive oil have various activities and biological implications and they are connected, for example, to the haphazardness of soft drugs since the latter alter metabolism and action of their endogenous counterparts (so-called “endocannabinoids”).

These findings have definitely influenced the definition of EVOO quality, showing the benefits of choosing one richer in this substance in respect to a poor quality olive oil. “In this way,” Maccarrone said, “we can determine whether a typical certified product has different quality and quantity of these active components compared to a low quality and low price olive oil that you can find in the supermarket.”

Prof. Maccarrone said he is conducting research in this context (and again in collaboration with Santa Lucia Foundation IRCCS, Dr. Cinzia Rapino from University of Teramo and Prof. Giovanni Pacioni from University of L’Aquila) also on Tuber melanosporum, the black truffle from Abruzzo. Another element of the endocannabinoids (called “anandamide”, from the Sanskrit word ananda for inner bliss) is present in this type of truffle, which can give particular pleasure in consumption, making the animal that eats it a faithful customer that comes back for more. The curious thing is that breast milk contains the same substance. Take it out of the milk and babies like it less, which would naturally affect growth and development.

“So it is interesting to note how these molecules through which the oil protects us and have many implications in the development of tumors in various areas of our body, ultimately also serve as a reward and that nature used them to stimulate babies to feed,” Maccarrone considered.

Returning to experiences with EVOO, Maccarrone said his family has always bought the EVOO from local producers in Abruzzo, where he was born. “Sometimes,” he said, “I wonder how it is possible that some extra virgin olive oils are so low priced. They clearly lack in quality! This must serve as a warning for consumers since true quality undoubtedly implies an additional cost, which should not be exaggerated but adequate.

“Appreciating the true value of a genuine product. Demonstrating it scientifically has proved to be the best incentive both for consumers’ enjoyment, as for producers to go more and more in the direction of achieving high-quality EVOO production.”

Further scientific support to state with certainty that higher quality olive oil is better for us, and demanding quality helps us keep healthy.

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