Sometimes blind faith pays off, but it can take a while.

In Search of the Best Olive Oil

As the storage locker clattered down on all my worldly belongings except what was in my suitcase, you can believe I was having second thoughts. My partner, Athan and I had one way tickets from Toronto to Athens and an AirBnb reservation in Filopappou, blocks from the foot of the Acropolis. What was this mad adventure to Greece to find the best extra virgin olive oil? And what would we do when we found it?

Well, as it happens, we didn’t find ‘it’. What we did find was the key to unlock the secret to the medicinal qualities of olive oil that Hippocrates spoke of. And today there are thousands of olive oils here in Greece that are ‘best’ in terms of their health-protective benefits.

In Hippocrates time, Hellas (ancient Greece) was the exporter of medicinal quality olive oil around the known world – even to other olive oil producing countries. Fossilised olive leaves 60,000 years old on Santorini prove that olive trees were here then and it takes no imagination when speaking to a Greek olive grower to know that these roots are in his or her very DNA.

 

The World Wants High Polyphenol Olive Oil

So when the Google alert for extra virgin olive oil popped into my inbox the other morning and I read the text I knew our work, over these years, was pivotal to change here in Greece. The time has come and the treasure unlocked for every health conscious individual seeking to regain or maintain their wellbeing. There is a global increase in demand for high polyphenol extra virgin olive oil and Greece has the supply – just like ancient times.

“The increase in demand for extra virgin olive oil can be attributed to various factors including its strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant property due to its high polyphenol content along with its ability to reduce the occurrence of cardiovascular diseases,”
Global Olive Oil Category – Procurement Market Intelligence Report

When I refer to ‘our’ work I am including the research team of the University of Athens led by Dr. Prokopios Magiatis and Dr. Eleni Melliou who discovered the way to accurately measure the individual phenolic compounds in olive oil using sophisticated Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR). This was what lured us to Greece in the first place and here is Athan’s interview with Dr. Magiatis at that time.

Dr. Prokopios Magiatis explains the health benefits of EVOO from Athan Gadanidis on Vimeo.

“Dr. Prokopios Magiatis Explains Health Benefits of EVOO” description=”Dr. Prokopios Magiatis of the University of Athens explains the health benefits of the phenolic compounds in extra virgin olive oil in particular oleocanthal and oleacein.”

What Makes a “Best” Olive Oil

Athan and I were there at the very beginning. Long before Aristoleo® Text Kit was a twinkle in the eyes of Dr. Magiatis and Dr. Melliou, Athan was following their research into the health benefits of early harvest olive oil, described by Hippocrates as “medicinal”.  Indeed, Hippocrates made the first health claim in saying, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”.

In 2012, Athan travelled from Canada to Northern Greece to hear Dr. Magiatis present his findings for the first time. Dr. Magiatis’ discovery of the NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) method to accurately identify the individual phenolic compounds was on the heels of the EU registering the health claim labeling regulation 432-2012 stating that olive oils with polyphenol content greater than 250 mg/kg could state “olive oil polyphenols contribute to the protection of blood lipids from oxidative stress”. This claim essentially created a whole new category of ultra-premium health-promoting olive oil.

Photo Credit: Eleni Zotou, Golden Tree

The further discovery was that early harvest olive oil from green olives has high levels of the phenols oleocanthal and oleacein. Oleocanthal a known anti-inflammatory with ibuprofen-like properties (without the side effects), which causes the peppery sensation in the back of the throat while oleacein, a powerful antioxidant, causes the bitter taste on the tongue. To the uninformed, these attributes are sometimes considered defects allowing inferior oil to slide into first place only to bewilder and cheat the consumer of the true health benefit.

New Standards – New Category of Olive Oil

Athan had been learning about olive oil and scratching the surface of this ancient health food so well known as the core of the Mediterranean Diet. Up came some dark notes of fraud and adulteration. Award competitions rate according to taste and aromas like wines and disqualify nearly 50% of entries. What wins gold at one competition doesn’t get a mention at another. Sensory evaluation is not equal to scientific analysis and this is what hooked Athan. It was only a matter of months before we packed up and moved to Greece in search of that best olive oil.

Athan was asked by Olive Oil Times to write about the economic and political state of the olive oil industry in Greece. He leapt at the opportunity and his focus became the ongoing research by Dr. Magiatis and Dr. Melliou which he knew had far reaching implications, as well as the debate within the country about how to implement the EU health claim labelling regulation. This debate gained an international audience and news of the health benefits of high phenolic Greek olive oil from clinical trials and anecdotal evidence put Greece back on the world olive oil map. Later I would write on Huffington Post in the US and Greece as well as implementing a broad online media and social media marketing campaign, including our own online publication Beyond Organic, Beyond Extra Virgin on the robust Medium platform. The word needed to get out.

Over tea with Prokopios and Eleni one evening in those early days in our regency AirBnb apartment in Filopappou, Athan suggested that, rather than waiting weeks and spending a hefty amount on separate NMR evaluations, farmers could benefit from something simple, inexpensive and quick in the field. That way they could sort their olive oils for quality and then have them certified by NMR.  “We’re working on it…”

This was in the depths of the crisis just before the bank closures. There was no money for research – or even maintenance staff at the University of Athens for that matter. We offered to invest in the development of the invention to measure the phenolic compounds oleocanthal and oleacein. These are the most recognised and researched phenols in autoimmune, neurodegenerative and cardiovascular disease as well as many types of cancer.

Aristoleo® Test Kit was born and would go on to win first prize at Greece Innovates. We became partners with the University of Athens and patented the kit. We incorporated Aristoleo Ltd. in Cyprus because in the midst of the crisis, there were no laboratories in Greece with the capability to produce our fledgling test kit and we found Food Allergen Labs in Cyprus.

 

Photo Credit: OLEO Healthcare

Our next challenge was the status quo. For decades, Greek olive oil producers have sold off extra virgin olive oil to Italy and Spain at bulk prices to be mixed to improve the taste and quality of other oils. In order to get higher levels of polyphenols certain procedures are required, and while the price is higher, the yield is less. “Who will buy this high phenolic olive oil?” Athan was asked, “if we spend the time and money to produce it?” Our first order of business became market development and consumer awareness. There was plenty of compelling research, we just had to get it to the public. And we did.

The few first producers to see the way of the future endured ridicule from neighbours accusing them of ruining the trees. There  was also the backlash from the traditional olive oil industry who likes things the way they are and from pharmaceutical quarter which does not want to see a natural food referenced with a health claim. This core group of high phenolic olive oil producers has grown and they are  also included when I refer to “our” work. These dedicated high phenolic olive oil producers collaborate with one another and understand that to affect real change there has to be cooperation. They learn from and are inspired by each other.

Eftihis Androulakis, Pamako, Marilyn Harding, George Dafnis,The Governor Olympia-Conference-2016

Since then, thousands of olive oils have been tested and the number of producers changing their harvest and production methods to produce high phenolic extra virgin olive oil continues to grow. Greece has the highest ratio of olive varieties known to produce oleocanthal, which is often closely followed by oleacein.

Walking the Walk

Aristoleo is a proud partner and one year in to the EU funded 3-year, 5-country ARISTOIL Interreg MED Program to study high phenolic olive oil; health benefits, production and storage methods, testing and marketing and to share this information globally. This program has seen the development of the Aristometro™ spectrometer and the AristoApp™ to further the use of the Aristoleo Test Kit. The program has also seen the creation of the academically founded and populated  World Olive Center for Health (WOC) in Athens.

This year will see the 3rd Annual Aristoleo Awards for High Phenolic Olive Oil and Table Olives on March 17, 2018 with the official presentation at the 2nd Annual Aristoleo Conference: “The Future of Olive Oil” April 27, 2018. See 2017 Conference “Beyond Organic, Beyond Extra Virgin” which included agro-ecology and agro-tourism in the high phenolic EVOO industry and a special presentation for first prise by HRH Princess Basma Bint Ali of Jordan who recognised the importance of producing the highest quality olive oil.

[arve url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2BFmlDoj5UU” align=”center” promote_link=”yes” title=”Aristoleo Awards First Prize presented by Princess Basma of Jordan” description=”HRH Princess Basma Bint Ali of Jordan presents first prize in Aristoleo Awards to Atsas Organic Farm, Cyprus.” /]

Our new frontier is to make these precious oils available to the international market. But for today I am pausing, not to peer into the future, but to give a kind glance to the past and the many individuals who worked with us to make this day a reality. Health conscious consumers deserve to have the certified best; brands they can trust. As the demand grows so does the supply of this certified high phenolic olive oil.

In a few weeks I will be back in Toronto to share this story of our high phenolic olive oils. And, I will raise the door on that storage locker. I am reminded that it is blind faith that allows us to take the first step of an epic adventure not knowing where it will lead and unaware that it just might change history.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead

To your health!
mh

 

Here is a link to a FREE PDF download of Athan’s and my articles
over the past years tracking our adventure.
Click here.

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