Health/Sci-TechLifestyleVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 37

Olive oil the ultimate superfood?

If you could take a single pill that lowered your risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, neurological diseases like dementia and Parkinson’s, and early death in general, would you? Bad news: There’s no medication that can do all those things. But if you believe the headlines, one food can: Extra-virgin olive oil. It may be the ultimate superfood.

“There really is no other food that offers this range of benefits,” said Mary Flynn, PhD, an associate professor at Brown University who’s been researching olive oil for more than 20 years. “There’s no medicine.” Just last week, new research out of Harvard University showed that people who eat more than half a tablespoon a day had a 28% lower risk of dying from dementia than folks who rarely eat it.

After decades of headline-making research, the olive oil bandwagon has plenty of passengers. On TikTok, videos about drinking daily shots of olive oil have received more than 1 billion views. Several companies now offer “medical-grade” olive oil that contains higher levels of beneficial compounds. Actors Brie Larson and Chloe Grace Moretz use it to clean their faces, and Jennifer Lopez credits olive oil, not Botox, for her age-defying glow. Earlier this year, Starbucks introduced a line of coffee drinks made with extra-virgin olive oil.

For 6 decades, since the initial Seven Countries Study called attention to the Mediterranean Diet and its generous use of olive oil, researchers have been examining the health benefits of that golden fluid. And there are many. A 2022 analysis of previous studies, covering hundreds of thousands of people, found that each additional 5 grams you eat daily – that’s a little over a teaspoon – can lower your risk of dying overall by 4%.

Extra-virgin olive oil is rich with polyphenols, a powerful group of antioxidants that fight inflammation. “Inflammation is the base of any disease,” said Kristin Kirkpatrick, a registered dietitian nutritionist at the Cleveland Clinic. “So if we look at inflammation as the base, then we can see that olive oil can help with the reduction of a lot of different conditions.”

Researchers haven’t been able to pinpoint how, exactly, those polyphenols work, but they’ve consistently found similar effects across a wide variety of areas. “As a scientist, I’m curious: What is the mechanism? How does this thing work?” said Tassos Kyriakides, PhD, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Public Health and one of the organizers of Yale’s annual Symposium on Olive Oil & Health. “But big picture, does it really matter if it’s giving somebody a healthy outcome at the end? Does somebody who lives in a village in Sicily care about how this thing helps me be 95 and as sharp as ever?”