What’s High Phenolic Olive Oil, Anyway?

Fresh early harvest olive oil, rich in phenolic compounds.

“High phenolic” olive oil is a new category of olive oil recognized by the EU Health Claim Labeling Regulation 432-2012 stating that olive oil polyphenols contribute to the protection of blood lipids from oxidative stress. This means that it is good for heart health.

The health claim applies to olive oil with a minimum of 250 mg/kg of polyphenols and is based on the daily consumption of 20 g or 4 tsp. This indicates that benefits of high phenolic olive oil are dose dependent.

SInce 2012 and the discovery of the accurate way to measure phenolic compounds in olive oil, the number of olive growers adjusting harvest times and methods is increasing. The findings of the 3-year, 5 country EU funded ARISTOIL Interred MED program to study high phenolic olive oil (now concluded) has supported this new category. The minimum limit for the EU health claim for its heart protective properties is 250mg per kg of polyphenols. Olive oils are now being produced by specific methods and some varieties are reaching beyond 1000mg per kg, 2000mg per kg and sometimes even higher.*

Supply is rising to meet the demand engendered by scientific research into the potential health benefits of high phenolic to prevent or treat chronic illness beyond heart health. And there you have the new category: High Phenolic Olive Oil.

High Phenolic Olive Oil as a Functional Food

Research since that time has increased with the growing awareness that chronic inflammation may be at the core of the many illnesses that we consider inevitable in our Western culture – autoimmune, neurodegenerative, cardiovascular disease and many cancers. This Harvard article, Inflammation: A unifying theory of disease describes it this way:

The four horsemen of the medical apocalypse — coronary artery disease, diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s — may be riding the same steed: inflammation.

Our first defense against any illness is a robust immune system and a healthy immune system depends largely on our lifestyle. This includes at the top of the list: nutrition, rest, exercise and stress management and needs to be partnered with avoidance of processed foods, sugar, and environmental toxins causing free radicals and oxidative stress in the body.

Chronic inflammation and free radicals are the two culprits mitigated by a healthy lifestyle.

A balance between free radicals and antioxidants is necessary for proper physiological function.

This article Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health from the US National Library of Medicine provides a brief overview on oxidative stress and role of dietary antioxidants as functional foods in the management of human diseases.

The two most widely researched phenolic compounds found in olive oil are oleocanthal known for its anti-inflammatory properties and oleacein which is an antioxidant. These two, in high concentrations, along with the array of beneficial phenolic compounds in other elements in olive oil have led to this new category of high phenolic olive oil to gain interest for researchers. This in turn has attracted health conscious individuals to look again at the known health benefits of extra virgin olive oil and see something newly revealed thanks to science.

Ancient Wisdom

Olive oil is in fact the juice of the olive fruit. High phenolic olive oil is made from early harvest green olives. Physicians Hippocrates and Disoscorides from ancient times referred to this type of olive oil as “medicinal”.  It was recommended for a wide variety of inflammatory conditions from muscle soreness to toothaches and intestinal problems. And it was also included in recipes for poultices for skin cancer.

All olive oils, as monounsaturated fats, are good for health – especially when replacing all animal fats. However this new category is being researched based on the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of the polyphenols or phenolic compounds.

Indeed, in ancient times, Greece, Hellas, shipped olive oil to other olive oil producing countries and in their travels far and wide planted olive trees. Why is that? Presumably because the quality of olive oil was superior to that used for every day cooking, cleansing and lamp oil. In addition, the olive tree variety ancient Hellenes transplanted was certainly of a superior quality, providing increased health-supporting benefits.

Eighty percent of the trees in Greece are of the Koroneiki variety known for the prevalence of extra virgin olive oil and for most consistent occurrence of phenolic compounds. However, many other varieties are proving to be high in phenolic content when cultivated and produced in ways to enhance these properties.

 

Photo Credit: Eleni Zotou, Golden Tree

What are Polyphenols?

A polyphenol is a cluster of smaller phytochemicals or phenolic compounds. These are a by-product or metabolite resulting from plant photosynthesis. This is the process where the plant converts the light energy of the sun to the chemical energy essential for growth, protection and propagation, in the process converting carbon dioxide to oxygen.

While not exact, the word polyphenol has become synonymous with phenolic compound in the case of olive oil.

These phytonutrients occur in fruits and berries, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes, beverages (coffee, tea and wine), fats (olive oil) as well as spices and seasonings.

Polyphenols are well known for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. When considering adding polyphenols to a healthy diet, olive oil presents the most versatile way of getting these benefits all day long.

What are Phenolic Compounds?

There are 36 known phenolic compounds in olive oil. Polyphenols are found in significant concentrations in certain olive varieties when harvested early and processed under specific conditions.

Phenolics vary according to olive variety, time of harvest, soil and weather conditions, production methods and temperatures as well as care in storage, shipping and distribution. Phenolic compounds can vary within the same grove and from year to year.

Oleocanthal and Oleacein

The two most widely researched phenolic compounds found in olive oil for their health protective benefits are oleocanthal and oleacein, which occur predominantly in olive oil.

Oleocanthal, has extraordinary anti-inflammatory properties and is known by the peppery effect on the back of the throat sometimes causing a cough sensation. It is often referred to as similar to ibuprofen. See Phytochemistry: Ibuprofen-like Activity in Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

Oleacein is an antioxidant and adds a bitter taste to the olive oil.

Many times, people used to bland or even rancid oils will mistake this pungency thinking that the oil has gone bad. Nothing could be further from the truth!

As research progresses, the other phenolic compounds are being identified to have specific health protective and health promoting effects on human health.

Modern Science

In vitro (laboratory) and in vivo (animal or human) clinical trials around the world are studying the potential benefits of high phenolic olive oil. Presently research is focused on olive oils rich in oleocanthal or extracted oleocanthal applications for cardiovascular, autoimmune and neurodegenerative diseases and well as many cancers.

These illnesses considered chronic in Western culture include Alzheimer’s, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Type II Diabetes, Parkinson’s and many types of cancer; breast, prostate, liver, colon, and leukemia.

Research has indicated that oleocanthal, aside from its beneficial anti-inflammatory effects may also increase the efficacy of pharmaceuticals. See Oleocanthal-Rich EVOO – “A Medical Food?”

In some cases, individuals have found that they were able to reduce the dosage of their prescription medication. Oleocanthal is also a blood thinner and has other effects that may impact medication dosages. This, of course, is always done under medical supervision.

Anecdotal Evidence

There are many factors which affect any kind of anecdotal response. However, a number of individuals undergoing chemotherapy have experienced a reduction in the negative side effects of the treatments like nausea, loss of appetite, exhaustion and depression.

Some others suffering from arthritis are taking the olive oil or using it topically and have experienced a reduction in inflammation, swelling and pain. Adding high phenolic olive oil to your daily regimen is best observed by you as to the achieved benefits and health objectives.

A group of mothers with autistic children found that high phenonolic olive oil added to a nutrition protocol had additional benefits. See When a Child Stops Playing

Some individuals have reported reduction in pharmaceutical prescription doses.

And if under doctor’s care, your health care practitioner can assess results.

Advise Your Professional Health Practitioner

It is always necessary to advise your medical or health practitioner that you are adding high phenolic olive oil to your daily regimen. Natural substances can be potent and effective and interact with pharmaceuticals. This must be monitored for best results.

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If some is good – is more better?

Like any kid with a chemistry set, the urge is to test the limits. And that’s great. We see some phenomenal levels of oleocanthal and other phenolic compounds in olive oil. These were off the charts and in the arena of nutraceuticals. It is exciting to be sure.

As part of the ARISTOIL Interreg MED program to study best practices in the production of high phenolic olive oil, many questions arose:

  1. Are high levels sustainable – are they retained over time?
  2. Are they repeatable – or was it a lucky confluence of circumstances?
  3. Is more actually more beneficial?

Our philosophy at Aristoleo Awards is very Ancient Olympian. We want to see the competition raise the bar for overall excellence.

As the 3000 producers in five countries tinker with the parameters of olive oil production to see if they can get better numbers, we suggest moderation is always a good beginning.

If we look at what the scientists are doing in the various human clinical trials we see that the olive oils they use have a phenolic content between 700 and 1000 mg/kg. They use between 30 – 45 ml per day (1 – 3 tablespoons) and sometimes twice a day. These trials have merely added olive oil to the daily diet and have not changed anything in terms of nutrition or lifestyle.

This then becomes a very personal question to ask yourself and assess in terms of your health objectives and those of the ones you love and care for. When adding any change to your daily routine, it is important to monitor your own physical response. New regimens may take a few months to assess the effect.

Phenolic compounds in olive oil have not been shown to have adverse effects even in Crete, Greece where they consume ,on average, 3 liters a month. High concentrations of bio-phenolic EVOOs are perfectly suited for individuals who wish to consume higher concentrations of polyphenols naturally without having to consume massive amounts of olive oil, rather than ingesting extracted polyphenols in supplements.

The extreme consumption of polyphenols supplements can be dangerous because the polyphenols are extracted from the olive oil and sold in pill or capsule or tincture forms. Not enough research has been done on pure extracted phenolic compounds  to conclude potential toxicity. An analogy would be comparing a bottle of wine with extracting the pure alcohol to consume larger doses.

We are currently involved in the first-ever human trial for the injection of pure oleocanthal as a potential prostate cancer treatment. Prostate Cancer Pilot Study

Again, we cannot stress strongly enough that if you are under medical care or on medication that you let your health care practitioner know you have added high phenolic olive oil to your diet.

How Are Phenolic Compounds Measured?

The two most accurate ways of measuring the individual phenolic compounds in olive oil are NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) and LC-MS/MS (liquid chromography and mass spectrometry). These two methods give parallel measurements of individual phenolic compound’s molecular weight so they can be accurately measured by type and by weight. This is of utmost importance when we choose olive oils based on their specific concentrations and types such as oleocanthal and oleacein for specific wellness objectives.

The EU funded 3-year, 5-country ARISTOIL Interreg MED Programme is conducting ring tests of these two methods to confirm accuracy in measuring individual phenols, and have them officially recognized as methods for measuring phenolic content in olive oil. This is important for those choosing olive oils based on their specific phenolic profile.

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance NMR

 

Before the EU Health Claim,

HPLC (high performance liquid chromography) was used to measure polyphenols in olive oil. However, it is a general measurement and limited in accurately measuring the specific molecular weight of single phenols. When you cannot measure each phenolic compound based on the molecular weight what do you do? You measure them based on the molecular weight of the ones you can measure. In this case it was tyrosol and hydroxytyrosol. Tyrosol and hydroxytyrosol do not actually exist in fresh olive oil and their molecular weight is about half that of oleocanthal and oleacein. Therefore the result was fundamentally inaccurate.

In addition there was no way of knowing the amount of oleocanthal or oleacein in the olive oil. It has taken 6 years of lobbying the IOC (International Olive Council) EFSA (European Food Safety Agency) and the EU Commission to finally assert the obvious: the method to be used to measure phenolic compounds in olive oil for compliance with the EU health claim 432/2012 is the same method that was used by the scientists that set the minimum requirement of 250mg per kg to have the right to place the health claim of the label.

The EU Commission has since ruled in favour of the LC-MS/MS method, which was the original method used to create the health claim. The NMR method provides similar accuracy as the LC-MS/MS as verified by the ARISTOIL Interreg MED Programme.

How Do I Know What Olive Oil to Buy?

As a monounsaturated fat, all olive oil is healthy especially if it replaces all animal fats in the diet. If you are choosing an olive oil for added health benefits choose an extra virgin olive oil with a phenolic content of 250 mg/kg or more. See A Buyer’s Guide to High Phenolic Olive Oil.

 

 

How Do I Choose a High Phenolic Olive Oil?

When it comes to your health it’s important to do a little research. The Internet allows everyone access to the research, producers and distributors of high phenolic olive oil.

Ask for certification of phenolic content accurately measured at time of bottling by NMR OR LC-MS/MS methods of analysis. You can also ask for a chemical analysis, which is mandatory for export. The phenolic content is very sensitive to heat and light and for this reason, transportation (not during summer months) and warehousing (cool temperature control) are essential to maintaining the phenolic content.

Make sure you purchase from a reputable distributor, knowledgeable about the product and aware of the special handling required to preserve the integrity of this premium product.

Nutritional labels in Canada and America require specific vitamin and caloric values only and do not allow phenolic content or any health claim for polyphenols to be made. It is up to the individual to research and attain confidence in the benefits of adding high phenolic olive oil to a healthy lifestyle.

Producers and distributors of high phenolic olive oil should be happy to provide relevant information and certification.

Does High Phenolic Content Last?

The IOC, International Olive Council, allows olive oil to be bottled within one year of harvest and Best Before Date eighteen months after bottling.

However, high phenolic olive oil is most potent and vital for all its many health benefits as close to harvest as possible and best consumed within four to six weeks once opened. If taken as a daily addition to a healthy diet, it is usually 30 – 45 grams or 2 – 3 tablespoons per day.

You will pay a premium for high phenolic olive oil for its health benefits but also because production methods, yield, storage, transportation and distribution require more care, but it’s worth it.

It also requires care when you get it home…

Care for High Phenolic Olive Oil

Air, heat and light are the enemies of olive oil quality, especially the phenolic content so keep it cool, cap quickly and keep far away from the stove when cooking.

Once opened, store in the refrigerator (vegetable section perfect) to protect the phenolic content. The oil may solidify slightly but will quickly liquify when left out before use.

Unfiltered olive oil must be consumed within weeks of opening.

If you purchase in bulk, (several liters in a tin) always decant into smaller dark glass bottles and store in a cool dark place – the refrigerator vegetable section is the ideal temperature. Many producers are offering a bag in a box for larger quantities, which is ideal and can be placed in the refrigerator as is and decanted into serving bottle as needed.

Health Claims

The EU registered the Olive Oil Health Claim Labeling Regulation in 2012. 432-2012

There is no corresponding health claim in Canada or the United States.

The research on the Internet on high phenolic olive oil, in particular oleocanthal, is plentiful and we encourage individuals to make their own assessment given their health objectives.

 

Consult Your Health Professional

If you are under doctor’s care or on medication, advise your health practitioner that you are adding high phenolic olive oil to your daily regimen.

 

Caveat Emptor – Buyer Beware

Once something significant starts trending – like high phenolic olive oil, opportunists see a lucrative niche and enter the Internet marketplace. Clever social media and selective “borrowing” of real information can contrive credentials and expertise. Online shopping can circumvent the FDA and Health Canada only so long. Please use caution when purchasing to assure that you are getting what you are paying for and what you are expecting in terms of quality. Ask questions and expect answers.

To your health!

Marilyn

If you have any questions, please ask Athan. He LOVES to share his passion for high phenolic olive oil. Contact him at aristoleo.com@gmail.com.