The Australian olive oil pro­ducer Boundary Bend recently dis­trib­uted a press release that said its Cobram Estate California Select blend was named the “health­i­est olive oil in the world” at a com­pe­ti­tion in Spain that mea­sured the total polyphe­nol and oleo­can­thal lev­els in sub­mit­ted entries.

It is safe to con­clude that EVOOs con­tain­ing phe­no­lics are more healthy than those with­out them, but it is unlikely that more is always bet­ter.- Gary Beauchamp

High phe­no­lic con­tent is being mar­keted by some com­pa­nies to gain a com­pet­i­tive advan­tage in a crowded olive oil mar­ket­place. Forbes Magazine recently wrote, “Olive oil can be sold as much as much as $150, pack­aged in a nice liter in pop­u­lar sites, pro­vided that it is cer­ti­fied to con­tain the right phe­nols — chem­i­cal com­pounds, which accord­ing to EU research con­tain health-pro­tect­ing prop­er­ties.”

“This is excit­ing news as we com­peted against the world’s great­est oils from Spain, Italy and Greece,” Cobram Estate’s tech­ni­cal direc­tor, Leandro Ravetti, said in the state­ment. “We are proud that our sim­ple com­mit­ment to qual­ity and fresh­ness has gained California oil the recog­ni­tion it deserves.”

While few would argue that Cobram Estate has estab­lished itself among the most awarded olive oil com­pa­nies in the world, the “health­i­est olive oil” dis­tinc­tion raises an impor­tant ques­tion: How can we know if one olive oil is health­ier than another?

The com­pe­ti­tion, called the World Best Healthy EVOO Contest, in Málaga was held in May and did not release the num­ber of con­tes­tants in its brief pre­sen­ta­tion of the results. What it did say is that entries were rated by their total polyphe­nols, oleo­can­thal lev­els and “most bal­anced fatty acid pro­file.”

Phenolic com­pounds, which includes oleo­can­thal, are antiox­i­dants in extra vir­gin olive oil that have been shown to pre­vent degen­er­a­tive ail­ments such as can­cer and car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­eases.

But is an olive oil that has more polyphe­nols nec­es­sar­ily health­ier than one with mod­est amounts? Aspirin, for exam­ple, has been shown to pre­vent heart attacks when taken daily. After years of research and mil­lion-dol­lar stud­ies, 81 mil­ligrams is pre­scribed as the ideal amount in a daily reg­i­men. What is the ideal num­ber for phe­nols?

Gary Beauchamp, the pres­i­dent emer­i­tus of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia who dis­cov­ered oleo­can­thal, said we just don’t know the answer yet.

“It is safe to con­clude that EVOOs con­tain­ing phe­no­lics, and par­tic­u­larly con­tain­ing oleo­can­thal (amounts of which can roughly be iden­ti­fied by the pun­gency or throat irri­ta­tion of an oil), are more healthy than those with­out them, and it is prob­a­bly the case that gen­er­ally those with more are likely to be bet­ter than those with much less. But it is unlikely that more is always bet­ter.”

Antioxidants in pill form, for exam­ple, have been crit­i­cized by some med­ical pro­fes­sion­als who say they could be too much of a good thing. “You get to a point, and some­times early, that the high doses become haz­ardous,” Jim Kehrer of the phar­macy depart­ment at the University of Alberta in Edmonton said in an inter­view with CBC News.

“Advertisers have put forth the idea that a lit­tle is good, more is bet­ter and a lot is great but that isn’t really cor­rect,” said Kehrer, who has been research­ing the effects of free rad­i­cals since the 1970s, accord­ing to CBC.

After all, Beauchamp rea­soned, too much water can be toxic, “so it is rea­son­able to assume that there is a level of phe­no­lics that would not be healthy to con­sume. We do not know what these opti­mal lev­els are because there are almost no human exper­i­ments directed at inves­ti­gat­ing this impor­tant ques­tion.”

And it could be that the pic­ture is much more com­pli­cated than that.

“It is also likely that how oleo­can­thal and other phe­nols are con­sumed — whether they may have syn­er­gis­tic effects if taken together rather than as sin­gle com­pounds or whether they may be more effec­tive when con­sumed with other foods than alone — will influ­ence their effi­cacy and their opti­mal amounts,” Beauchamp said.

“I think there are enough stud­ies to say that higher lev­els have more ben­e­fit than lower lev­els,” agreed Mary Flynn, the Brown University nutri­tion­ist who devel­oped the Plant Based Olive Oil Diet. “But what is the cut­off?”

“Oleocanthal is a nat­ural anti-inflam­ma­tory agent, but what amount is needed? And do you need a level that is too high for peo­ple to tol­er­ate? We don’t know which or what amount of the spe­cific phe­nols have the most ben­e­fit.”

“There is a def­i­nite need for more research to fig­ure this out,” said Flynn.

Experts agree it may be a long time before we know for sure that higher lev­els of phe­nols and other com­po­nents in olive oil are bet­ter for us, or what the opti­mal num­bers might be. Frequency — or how often we con­sume these nutri­ents — could even turn out to be more impor­tant than potency. In that case, the best tast­ing olive oil would seem to be the bet­ter choice.

In the mean­time, much like Dr. Oz’ “fridge test” or Rachael Ray’s clar­ity check, “world’s health­i­est” claims run the risk of adding more smoke to the already abun­dant con­sumer con­fu­sion on mat­ters of olive oil qual­ity and health ben­e­fits.



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