All about polyphenols, the miracle molecule that makes olive oil so good for you
We all know that olive oil is incredibly healthy. You may have heard that following the Mediterranean diet, which definitely includes plenty of olive oil, is a way to live longer. But have you ever wondered why?
Much of the reason comes down to one (big) little word: polyphenols. A chemical compound that occurs in most plants, polyphenols are part of the plant’s natural defense system against ultraviolet radiation and pathogens like bacteria. When we eat them, these micronutrients go to work for us, providing powerful support for our own bodies’ defenses.
“Research is showing that olive oil may be helpful in Alzheimer’s disease and thereby help promote longevity,” says Dr. Uma Naidoo, a Harvard-trained nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef and nutritional biologist and the author of This Is Your Brain on Food and the upcoming Calm Your Mind with Food. In addition to supporting the brain, there’s evidence that consuming olive oil can lessen the risk of cancer, heart disease, and chronic illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes.
What is a polyphenol, anyway?
Polyphenols are a category of micronutrient that naturally occur in plants. There are more than 8,000 types of polyphenols: some of the most well-known that make it into our food include quercetin in fruit, proanthocyanidins in dark chocolate, resveratrol in red wine, and EGCG in green tea. Different plants contain different amounts of these substances—flavors like bitterness, astringency, and spiciness are often the result of high levels of polyphenols. In our bodies, polyphenols act as antioxidants, undoing damage caused by oxidation.
But wait, isn’t oxygen good for us?
Ironically, even though oxygen is essential to life, it’s not always helping us out. Just as oxidation makes metal rust, the same process can cause damage to your body’s cells. Free radicals, highly reactive chemical molecules that contain oxygen, occur naturally in the body as a result of normal metabolic processes but can also be caused by external sources such as exposure to X-rays, UV light, cigarette smoking, and other chemical pollutants. When these molecules circulate in the body, they can break down the building blocks of your cells, slowly building up damage over time.
Oxygen-containing free radicals can be neutralized by antioxidants—think of them as your body’s clean-up crew. A good rule of thumb to feel your best is to reduce your exposure to free radical–causing substances in the first place, and then make sure you consume plenty of antioxidants to take care of the rest.
Are some olive oils healthier than others?
Generally speaking, the more strongly flavored your olive oil is, the more polyphenols it contains. “Good olive oil should give you a peppery sting in the back of your throat when sipped,” says Dr. Naidoo. Those sharp, bitter, grassy notes are caused by the presence of high levels of polyphenols such as tannins, oleuropein, and oleocanthal. You’ll even be able to see the difference; the oil will be greenish or very dark gold in color, rather than a pale, buttery yellow.
Extra virgin olive oil means the “olives were picked and then immediately (within hours) cold-pressed to retain the antioxidants and polyphenols and prevent fermentation of the fruit and acidification of its oil,” according to Dr. Naidoo. The process of refining olive oil involves removing these beneficial compounds, so anything other than real extra virgin olive oil will not have those great health benefits. When shopping for olive oil, look for metal or dark glass bottles, which protect the oil from being degraded by light. Never store your oil in plastic, as chemicals from the container can leach into the oil.
What else can olive oil do?
As a fat source, olive oil is about 75% monounsaturated fatty acids, which can help lower “bad” LDL cholesterol in the body. “Olive oil is the richest source of a fatty acid called oleic acid,” says Dr. Naidoo. “In the gut, brain, and most other tissues, oleic acid can be converted into oleoylethanolamine (OEA). In humans, oleic acid intake is correlated with OEA levels in the blood, and research has shown that it can increase fat loss! It also helps to tell us we are satiated.”
And while its effects can’t be isolated to just olive oil, the Mediterranean diet has been shown to be incredibly healthy, lowering risk of heart disease and chronic inflammation and generally extending longevity. The Mediterranean diet includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and extra virgin olive oil vs. other fat sources, plus moderate intake of red wine (bonus!).
If you’re ready to dive into the deliciously healthy world of extra virgin olive oil, check out our wide selection of high-quality Italian oils here.