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by GIORGIO CALABRESE, Lecturer in human nutrition - Università Cattolica di Piacenza (Catholic University of Piacenza) - University of Turin La Sapienza University, Rome - Member of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) - Vice Chairman of the I.N.R.A.N. Scientific Committee - Chairman of the dieticians committee - Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies

Recently, a few consumers asked me the following question: "is extra virgin olive oil a seasoning, a food item or a medicine?"

Certainly an interesting question, but also an original one because it makes us wonder if extra virgin olive oil could be considered a kind of medicine; and in certain ways it is. However, we should remember that there is no single food item than can be actually considered such and that may therefore heal one or more illnesses or replace medications.

On the other hand, many consumers mistakenly consider extra virgin olive oil to be a simple seasoning instead of an actual food item. The truth lies halfway between these two extreme interpretations.

Currently, 80% of the consumption of extra virgin olive oil is concentrated in Mediterranean countries like Italy, Greece, North Africa, Spain, Portugal, etc.

The day the world starts using a proper daily amount of extra virgin olive oil will be the day when there is a worldwide improvement in people's health and a decrease in the amount of tumours. In fact, extra virgin olive oil plays an important role in preventing potentially fatal illnesses.

In adults, its regular use helps prevent metabolic diseases and cardiovascular illnesses in particular, due to its high antioxidant content, including lots of vitamin E; substances that contribute to a longer life.

Extra virgin olive oil helps the elderly retain their physical, mnemonic and mental integrity. Consumed in moderation, pregnant women can use it to improve the intelligence of their children.

We Italians are lucky because extra virgin olive oil is part of our farming and cultural heritage, and therefore we have always used it. This very special oil has protective qualities that many benefit from, but only a few realize it.

The Mediterranean Diet has quantified the true amount useful to our health; it has to do with the right biochemical ratios. Let's not forget that the R.D.I. (Recommended Daily Intake) foresees a daily intake of 30% of fats. Currently, a new redistribution of the three kinds of fatty substances is recommended:

  • One third monounsaturated fats, like extra virgin olive oil, which has a very high oleic acid content;
  • One third polyunsaturated fats, meaning an increase in oils of a single seed, especially sunflower, peanut and soy;
  • One third only saturated fats, meaning animal fats, which used to make up the majority.

A recent scientific study compared the oleic acid content of mother's milk with that of extra virgin olive oil. The levels are very similar, which means that nature used a winning combination to help human growth, especially with the aid, from infancy, of this fat: oleic acid.

This monounsaturated fat, which is present in high quantities in extra virgin olive oil, is easily digested, especially by infants and children. In fact, they benefit greatly from its action, which strengthens the cell membranes, especially those of the nerves, and therefore promotes muscle growth and develops their intelligence beyond what "mother nature" has endowed them with genetically.

Extra virgin olive oil increases the level of good cholesterol, known as HDL, and decreases bad cholesterol, known as LDL; this dual action helps prevent cardiovascular diseases and strokes and promotes longevity.

This is because it has a very low quantity of saturated fats and a very high monounsaturated fats content. This ratio is unlike that of other food items containing fats because usually they predominantly contain saturated fats, which favour atherosclerotic action.

Extra virgin olive oil reverses the trend and helps people lead longer, healthier lives.

Dr Javier Menendez, of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, performed a series of experiments that revealed the oil's anticancer mechanisms. According to the Annals of Oncology, the fats in the oil lower the levels of one of the main oncogenes that cause breast cancer by 46% and help the action of a medication designed to fight this oncogene specifically.

This explains why women in Mediterranean countries are at lower risk for this type of neoplasia, as shown my many epidemiological studies carried out in the past on female population samples.

These colleagues are planning to conduct new investigations to see if female patients who use extra virgin olive oil with their food respond better to oncology therapies.

In the future, basic molecules in the oil might be used as adjuvants to the therapies themselves. Researchers have studied the protective effects of olive oil (so traditional throughout the Mediterranean) to determine the reasons why breast cancer is not as widespread throughout Southern Europe.

American colleagues have studied the effects of oleic acid, main molecules of extra virgin olive oil, on laboratory cultured diseased cells.

Oleic acid works against tumour cells because it reduces by 46% the activity of the Her-2/neu gene, an oncogene that is disastrously hyperactive in one out of five cases of breast cancer and its hyperactivity is linked with tumours having more critical prognoses. Furthermore, they discovered that oleic acid interacts with the medication "hercept", a monoclonal antibody that recognizes and bonds with the protein produced by Her-2/neu and traps it.

Additionally, oleic acid stimulates the activity of an oncosuppressing gene, in other words a natural suppressant of the growth of the tumour that produces p27Kip1 protein. This molecule is very important because it prevents the patient from becoming resistant to herceptin.

Therefore, oleic acid is protective for women, acting on several levels. Currently we researchers are trying to verify whether the presence of olive oil in a patient's diet can strengthen the efficacy of oncology therapies and if it helps decrease resistance to herceptin.

Later on, through animal testing, the means to add oleic acid to breast cancer drug therapies could be developed, so as to make them more effective and decrease the risk of drug resistance.

Olive oil is a natural-functional-food, which contains many elements that allow us to prevent, rather than cure, the onset of diseases, especially those of a metabolic nature, such as diabetes, heart attacks, etc.

Oil is obtained by pressing the drupes of the olive tree, a plant which belongs to the Oleacee family, Olea Europea species, where this fat is distributed 35% in the pulp and the skin, 6% in the pit and 24% in the seed. Any kind of oil, regardless of its origin, has 910 calories for every 100 grams of product, but the difference lies in the quality of its fats and vitamins.

While it has a high level of vitamin E, its levels of vitamin A are low, and its levels of vitamin D are virtually non-existent. Therefore, olive oil means alpha-tocopherol (technical name of a type of vitamin E).

Alpha-tocopherol is important for a person's health because it protects the body from the negative effects of an excessive intake of fats, both saturated (like the ones found in butter) and polyunsaturated (like the ones found in seed oils).

When the latter prevail, gallstones may form, although only in excessive cases.

An original study published in "Nature" magazine reveals that American colleagues have concluded that this oil has a strong anti-inflammatory action, starting from the fortuitous observation that fresh extra virgin olive oil irritates the throat in a unique and unusual manner.

The same thing happens when a person swallows the granular drug ibuprofen. This feeling of irritation is due to the presence of oleocanthal, which inhibits the activity of COX (cyclooxygenase) enzymes, just like ibuprofen. Some of the beneficial effects of the Mediterranean Diet could be due to the natural anti-COX activity of oleocanthal, which is found in all the best olive oils.

Therefore, extra virgin olive oil is not only the ideal antioxidant, but is also a true landmark for health. It is a pity that it is still not used more.