The most comprehensive study to date highlights the far greater health benefits of virgin olive oil than traditional olive oils
One and a half spoonfuls of extra virgin olive oil a day will do wonders for your health by significantly reducing the risk of death — but regular olive oil has no benefit at all in protecting against mortality, according to a study.
That level of consumption — about 22 grams per day — lowers your risk of dying from any cause over a given period of time by 34 percent.
And it reduces the likelihood of cardiovascular-related death, such as from heart disease, by 57 percent, according to the study.
In contrast, conventional olive oil — which has been refined — resulted in no reduction in either risk, the study found, although that’s not to say it doesn’t offer other health benefits.
This is the first study to directly compare the effects of virgin and ordinary olive oil on mortality risk, based on a representative group of the general population – making it the most comprehensive study on the subject to date, experts say.
The superior health properties of virgin or extra virgin olive oil (they are essentially the same thing, with virgin olive oil being much rarer) are believed to be due to their much higher antioxidant content.
This group of chemicals protects against the effects of “free radicals” — endogenous molecules linked to diseases like heart disease and arthritis.
“This is the first study able to accurately distinguish the type of olive oil consumed: ordinary and virgin olive oil. And it clearly shows that whoever brings benefits is the Virgo, not the common man,” said lead researcher Carolina Donat-Vargas of the Autonomous University of Madrid I.
“Currently, several dietary guidelines recommend healthy vegetable oils such as olive or canola oil as part of the usual diet. Based on our findings, these dietary guidelines should emphasize consumption of virgin olive oil in preference to the refined one,” she said.
“However, whether virgin olive oil is also superior to other vegetable oils needs to be tested in future studies,” added Dr. Donat Vargas added.
Despite the livelihood crisis, Dr. Donat-Vargas that if you can, “it’s worth the economic effort to buy an extra virgin olive oil instead of a traditional one, not only to eat raw but also to cook with.”
The research made no distinction between raw olive oil — which is drizzled over a salad or spread on bread, for example — and heated olive oil, which is used in stews, soups or sauces, to fry bacon or grill vegetables.
She explains that extra virgin olive oil has a higher smoke point (240°C) than the other vegetable oils and therefore withstands temperatures better.
This means that it does not decompose and lose any nutritional properties or produce toxic substances.
“The message is to use extra virgin olive oil for everything in the kitchen and end the misconception that it should only be used raw. The higher the quality of the oil, the better the smoke point and the better for cooking,” she said.
Experts not involved in the study welcomed the results.
“These results are really important and are rightly considered in all dietary guidelines – as mortality is the most important hard endpoint measurable in clinical research. That kind of reduction in cardiovascular mortality is hard to achieve with a drug — and without the side effects,” said Ramón Estruch, senior physician in the hospital clinic’s department of internal medicine and lead author of a landmark study on the benefits of the Mediterranean diet.
“The type of olive oil that should be recommended for a healthy diet should be extra virgin olive oil,” added Dr. Estruch, who is also Associate Professor at the University of Barcelona.
“Although extra virgin olive oil is an excellent fat, it should be consumed as part of a healthy diet, such as the Mediterranean diet. Due to the synergy of the effects of different foods of the Mediterranean diet, it achieves greater health effects when consumed with healthy foods such as vegetables, legumes and whole grain bread,” he adds.
It’s not exactly clear why extra virgin olive oil is so much more beneficial than regular olive oil, although Dr. Donat-Vargas says this could be because it contains many more bioactive compounds such as polyphenols – a group of at least 8,000 compounds that protect plants from aggressors such as sun damage, insects and pathogens.
Humans can also benefit from these compounds, which can be rich in antioxidants, with powerful anti-inflammatory, antifungal, and antibacterial properties.
“Virgin olive oil is enriched with abundant bioactive compounds like polyphenols, which have a wide range of beneficial health effects,” she says.
“However, during the refining process used to obtain the common olive oil variety, most of these minor components are lost and chemical solvents are added. Therefore, these health-promoting compounds are basically only present in sufficient quantities in the extra virgin olive oil variety, which is obtained only by mechanical means by crushing and pressing olives. “
“In contrast, regular olive oil, which is a mix of virgin (20 percent) and refined (80 percent), contains far fewer bioactive compounds,” she said.