EVO* – healthy, but are you really getting EVO?

Medical and nutrition researchers have known for a long time that the Mediterranean Diet helps reduces the risk for chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease.  But all they know is that it’s related to reduced risk.  They have very little solid information about how it reduces risk.  The main focus of speculation is olive oil, since it represents one major difference between Mediterranean and Western diets.  Olive oil contributes a significantly different fat profile to the diet: less saturated fats and more monounsaturated fats.  But research that tries to connect fat types to risk aren’t always clear cut.

A new study that examines the effect of virgin olive oil on gene expression may provide a new direction for these investigations.  Does extra virgin olive oil (EVO) have some effect on gene expression that’s beneficial to health?  EVO contains high amounts of plant phenols, bioactive compounds that give the darker green color compared to regular lighter colored (cheaper) olive oil.  The subjects in this study already had metabolic syndrome.  Following several weeks of a generally low fat diet, they were given a high fat experimental breakfast containing olive oil.
Half the group got a virgin olive oil, high in phenolic compounds.  The other half got olive oil with just 1/6th of the phenol content.  The researchers then tracked the activity of thousands of genes after that breakfast.  The virgin olive oil breakfast turned down genes linked to increased inflammation, blood lipids and obesity.

Is the EVO effect on gene expression the whole story about the health benefits.  Not likely.  This study didn’t say whether continuous consumption of virgin olive oil led to long-germ effects on genes.  It also didn’t prove whether long term consumption can prevent diseases like metabolic syndrome in the first place.  But it’s fascinating, because it shows that a specific food component affects gene expression that affects disease risk.  What other food components might do this?  What food components might have detrimental effects?

Meanwhile, beware when you buy extra virgin olive oil.  A study of imported olive oils showed that 69% of imported oils labeled “extra virgin” (and with the higher price to match) did not meet the taste, smell and chemical standards established by the International Olive Council.  Only 10% of the California oils failed to meet the standards.  What’s even more concerning is that these standards are voluntary.  The USDA has no legal standards for olive oil, other than it must be 100% from olives.  Well, that’s comforting.  Some voluntary standards are coming out in October: “EVO should have excellent flavor and odor.”  So far, no definition of “excellent“.

*Extra virgin olive oil

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