The most important fatty acids present in olive oil are oleic acid (65–85%), linoleic acid (8–12%) and linolenic (0.8–1.5%). Oleic acid is the distinguishing component in olive oil – it is the monounsaturated fatty acid, ie. with only one unsaturated (double) bond. Linoleic has two unsaturated bonds, and linolenic has three – that makes them polyunsaturated, even though they possess far fewer double bonds than many other polyunsaturated oils.
In the 1960’s people started realising that consumption of predominantly saturated (animal) fats was responsible for causing many forms of cardiovascular disease. Saturated fats cause increases in both cholesterol fractions, namely the low density lipoprotein (LDL) and the high density lipoprotein (HDL). The LDL is the dangerous – or lethal – fraction, while the HDL is the good – or healthy – fraction. They also then discovered that the polyunsaturated fats (sunflower seed) improved this condition.
It was only in the ‘70’s that researchers realised that the polyunsaturated fats decreased the LDL as well as the HDL., while the monounsaturated fats, as found in olive oil, decreased the LDL while simultaneouosly increasing the HDL. This is why it is now said that olive oil maintains the correct balance of cholesterol fractions in the blood.
The characteristic aroma and flavour of EVOO is provided by compounds which are retained by the careful natural extraction of the oil from the fruit, without any additives or manipulative refining processes. This natural extraction process distinguishes EVOO from the other ‘good for the heart’ plant oils such as canola and high oleic sunflower oil and also enhances the flavours in food prepared with quality olive oil.
The high concentration of antioxidants in EVOO (polyphenols, Vitamin E and the carotenes) not only ensure oxidative stability in the product itself, they play a major role in neutralising the deleterious free radicals formed in the body.
The FDA in the USA has just approved using the health benefits of olive oil as a cardio-protective ingredient on food labels – this is a wonderful stride forward for quality EVOO. As recently as a week ago another group of researchers demonstrated the protective role that EVOO plays against breast CA, and how it promotes longevity in patients who have already contracted cancer.