Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food
We’ve all heard countless times that extra virgin olive oil is the core of the Mediterranean diet, and extremely healthy. But how solid is the science surrounding olive oil? Medical pundits frequently hold forth about olive oil with faulty facts. How often have you been warned not to cook with extra virgin olive oil because heat breaks it down – despite the fact that quality extra virgin olive oil actually has a very high smoke point, and is extremely healthy? Who saw Dr. Oz, in an otherwise fairly useful segment on olive oil real and fraudulent, urge his viewers to use the “fridge test” to find out whether their olive oil was authentic? (The fridge test is based on bad science, and doesn’t work, as explained by chemist Richard Gawel here.)
Shaky olive oil science isn’t confined to TV health gurus and urban legends: sometimes it's spread by serious researchers. Hundreds of medical studies involving olive oil have been performed over the last several decades, but their methods – and the olive oils they've employed – haven’t always been the best. A recent Spanish study on the cardiovascular benefits of the Mediterranean diet, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, triggered a spate of press coverage including two articles in the New York Times (here and here). Trouble is, much of the olive oil used was donated by Hojiblanca, Spain’s largest olive oil producer/bottler, which was recently outed by the Organización de Consumidores y Usuarios, the Spanish answer to Consumer Reports, for deceptively selling an inferior grade of olive oil as “extra virgin” (summary in Spanish here). Just think how heart-healthy the study participants would have been if they’d actually been eating extra virgin olive oil, with its store of anti-oxidants, anti-inflammatories and other health-promoting substances!
Things could be worse. Three weeks earlier, a group of Scandinavian scientists published “Mediterranean Dietary Pattern and Risk of Breast Cancer”. The study revealed no correlation between Mediterranean diet and reduced incidence of breast cancer, which is surprising until you read the fine print: the sources of monounsaturated fat in their diet weren't olive oil, but meat, dairy products and “fat for food preparation and sandwiches.” As far as I can determine, participants in this “Mediterranean diet” study didn’t eat any olive oil at all, though olive oil is of course a key part of this dietary regime.
It’s time to start separating the wheat from the chaff in olive oil health, by building a canon of solid scientific information, and debugging a number of widespread olive oil misconceptions. Truth in Olive Oil has been in contact with several top medical researchers who really understand olive oil, whose research is helping to clarify how healthy extra virgin olive oil helps fight, and even cure, a number of pathologies – as well as to identify areas where olive oil isn’t actually beneficial at all. One of these researchers is Mary Flynn, PhD, RD, Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School in Providence, Rhode Island. Over the last thirty years, while working as a teacher, researcher and outpatient dietitian, Mary has reviewed the existing science concerning the role of olive oil and health; performed her own research on olive oil health; created a weight-loss diet that features extra virgin olive oil; co-authored books about the fallacy of low-fat weight-loss diets (Low-fat Lies, Lifeline Press, 1999) and the health benefits of an olive oil- and vegetable-rich diet for breast cancer survivors and for people in general (The Pink Ribbon Diet, Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2010); and celebrated olive oil in culinary events with prominent chefs. In the process, she has gained a remarkable appreciation of olive oil not only as a health-promoting substance but as a delicious, uniquely satisfying food. “The sooner people realize that foods like extra virgin olive oil are medicine, pure and simple, the healthier we all will be,” she told me recently – a phrase worthy of Hippocrates.
Dr. Flynn is joining Truth in Olive Oil this week, to explain how her fascination with extra virgin olive oil was born. In future posts she’ll talk in more detail about the science behind extra virgin olive oil health, describe the weight-loss and therapeutic benefits of her olive-oil-based diet, and detail her research, past and future, into the beneficial effects of extra virgin olive oil, especially against coronary heart disease and certain types of cancer.
Truth in Olive Oil aims to raise funds for Dr. Flynn’s vital and ongoing research, as well as to help create a working group of internationally-recognized scientists and research institutes interested in exploring the therapeutic properties of high-quality extra virgin olive oil. (Details on how you can contribute to this cause will be provided in Mary's next post on Truth in Olive Oil.)