Extra Virgin Olive Oil As A ‘Functional’ Food

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Examines the role of best olive oil – extra virgin olive oil – as a foodstuff and a medicine

Evoo As A Functional Food
Evoo As A Functional Food


  • Extra virgin olive oil has long been lauded as one of the best olive oils for cooking and salad dressings. But is it more than just a delicious foodstuff? Some experts now believe that high quality extra virgin olive oil may in fact be a form of medicine. This is due to its high levels of polyphenols, the naturally occurring plant compounds that have been linked to a variety of health benefits, from reducing inflammation to protecting against heart disease and cancer.
  • While extra virgin olive oil may not be a cure-all, it certainly has a place in the medicine cabinet as well as the kitchen pantry. So next time you’re reaching for the best olive oil you can find, remember that it’s not just a tasty addition to your meal, but also a potential health booster.


The History Of Food As Medicine

Although human nutrition and the effects of food constituents on our health is a relatively new science based on biochemistry, the effects of what we eat have been studied for millenia.

Many ancient cultures, especially Greek, Asian and pre-Christian considered many foods as remedies for physical conditions or the treatment of diseases. Similarly they thought that some foods had beneficial effects on health, while others believed some foods were capable of causing illness.

So proper nutrition has been considered the basis of good health for millenia. Hippocrates (460-377 BC), father of modern medicine in the western world, claimed that “good health implies an awareness of the powers of natural or processed foods”,  The Salernitan School (a Medieval medical school, the first and most important of its kind. Situated in the south Italian city of Salerno, it was founded in the 9th century and rose to prominence in the 10th century, becoming the most important source of medical knowledge in Western Europe at the time) maintained that “the doctor must observe what food consists of, how much, and when it must be eaten”, while Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) believed that “a man’s life depends on what he eats”.

Now however, understanding molecular nutrition, the interaction between nutrients and DNA at the cellular level, and obtaining specific biomarkers is now helping to formulate diets in which what we eat is not only considered a food but can also be considered as a medicine. These dual function foods are now referred to as “neutraceutic” or “functional” foods.

What Are Functional Foods?

Functional foods are ingredients that offer health benefits that extend beyond their nutritional value. Some types contain supplements or other additional ingredients designed to improve health. The concept originated in Japan in the 1980s when government agencies started approving foods with proven benefits in an effort to better the health of the general population. Some examples include foods fortified with vitamins, minerals, probiotics, or fiber.

Nutrient-rich ingredients like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and grains are also often considered functional foods. Similarly, fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants which are beneficial compounds that help protect against disease.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil: A Classic Functional Food

An example of a “nutraceutic” or “functional” food right from infancy, extra virgin olive oil is one of the best medicaments for delaying ageing and is also a good source of phytochemicals including polyphenolic compounds that contribute to its overall therapeutic characteristics.

An integral ingredient of the Mediterranean diet, extra-virgin olive oil has always been considered a middle road between food and medicine and there is growing evidence that its health benefits include reduction of coronary heart disease risk factor, prevention of several types of cancer, and the modification of immune and inflammatory responses.

The origins of the olive tree date back to the Eneolithical era, or Copper Age, in the sixth millennium BC. Having first appeared in Italy during the Bronze Age, the fruit and oil of the olive tree were widely used in nutrition, medicine, art, literature, and daily life during the Etruscan and Roman civilisations, and throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Many of the characteristic components of the traditional Mediterranean diet are known to have positive effects on health, capacity and well-being, and can be used to design functional foods. Vegetables, fruits and nuts are all rich in phenols, flavonoids, isoflavonoids, phytosterols and phytic acid–essential bioactive compounds providing health benefits.

Accumulating evidence suggests that extra virgin olive oil, an integral component of the Mediterranean diet, has many health benefits, including the reduction of the risk of coronary heart disease, the prevention of several types of cancer and the modification of the immune and inflammatory responses.

In the context of the Mediterranean diet, the benefits associated with the consumption of several functional components may be intensified by certain forms of food preparation. In addition, the practice of more physical activity (once common among Mediterranean populations) and the following of other healthy lifestyle habits also has positive effects on health and wellbeing.