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Cancer Benefits of Olive Oil

Olive oil is the traditional symbol of the Mediterranean diet, being the primary source of fat in these types of diets. Diets similar to the “original” Mediterranean diet are considered beneficial for the prevention and/or treatment of inflammatory disorders, obesity, and type-2 diabetes. However, it is important to note that the term “Mediterranean diet” was introduced to refer to the typical dietary patterns common in the 1960s in countries around the Mediterranean Sea, countries also characterized for growing olive trees1, and those dietary patterns have changed substantially over the past decades.

The Mediterranean diet is one of the most studied eating patterns and, along with the consumption of olive oil, has been connected in several studies with longevity and a reduced risk of morbidity and mortality2. However, lifestyle factors, such as physical activity and social cohesion, also must be taken into account when evaluating the results of populational studies2.

The Mediterranean diet is characterized by the high consumption of vegetables, salads, fruits, nuts, and seeds, but also whole grain cereals, potatoes, legumes/beans, and bread. In low to moderate amounts, these populations would eat dairy products, fish, shellfish, eggs, and poultry, and rarely red and processed meats. A common and essential, if not central, point of the many variations of the Mediterranean diet is the consumption of olive oil as the main source of fat1.

Macronutrient Composition of Olive Oil

Olive oil is a supreme source of fat, with mainly monounsaturated fatty acids.

Nutritional composition of olive oil per 100g1,3,4:

  • Energy – 884 kcal/3699 kJ
  • Carbohydrates, fiber – 0–0.2 g
  • Protein – 0
  • Fat – 100 g
  • saturated FA – 14 g
  • mono-unsaturated FA – 73 g (up to 73% of RDA)
  • poly-unsaturated FA – 13 g
  • Cholesterol – 0

Micronutrient Composition of Olive Oil

Olive oil is a rich source of certain vitamins and minerals1:

  • Vitamin A 0–157 µg
  • Vitamin E 0–37 mg (up to 72–96% RDA)
  • Vitamin K 55–60 µg (up to 50–75% RDA)
  • Sodium 1–2 mg
  • Potassium 0–1 mg
  • Calcium 0–1 mg
  • Magnesium 0–1 mg
  • Phosphor 0–2 mg
  • Iron 100–560 µg (up to 7% RDA)
  • Zinc 10–60 µg
  • Copper 0–70 µg

Bioactive Compounds of Olive oil

Olive oil is a rich source of beneficial phytochemicals1,5:

  • Phenolic compounds
  • phenolic acids (vanillic, coumaric, caffeic, protocatechuic, p-hydroxybenzoic, ferulic)
  • lignans (acetoxypinoresinol, pinoresinol)
  • flavones (apigenin, luteolin)
  • flavone glycosides (luteolin-7-O-glucoside, apigenin-7-O-glucoside)
  • phenolic alcohols (tyrosol, hydroxytyrosol)
  • secoiridoids (oleacein, oleocanthal, oleuropein, p-HPEA-EA)
  • Phytosterols
  • Tocopherols
  • Pigments

The predominant phenolic compounds in olive oil are oleuropein and its breakdown products, hydroxytyrosol and tyrosol.

Potential Beneficial Health Effects

Olive oil consumption has been associated with many health benefits since antiquity. When we refer to olive oil, we mean the “true” extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), not the olive oil you may buy in some stores, and that has been mixed with other oils. But we will be detailing more about how to choose your olive oil in our next post. For now, it is important to highlight that EVOO, due to its excellent nutritional value, is considered a key bioactive food.

Traditionally the beneficial effects of olive oil have been attributed to its high content in oleic acid. However, with more and more research being dedicated to this important staple of Mediterranean diets, we now know that many of these effects are also attributable to the phenolic compounds present in olive oil, which exhibit antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-microbial activities2.

There are many studies evaluating the potential health benefits associated with olive oil consumption, reporting that regular consumption of olive oil can be efficacious in the prevention and treatment of chronic illnesses.

Potential health benefits associated with olive oil consumption include1,6,7:

  • anti-inflammatory action
  • antioxidant activity – improvement of antioxidant capacity and reduction of oxidative stress
  • protection of blood lipids against oxidative stress and avoidance of oxidative damage
  • neuroprotective
  • immunomodulatory properties – help modulate immune system responses
  • antimicrobial activity
  • cancer protection, prevention, and treatment
  • lower the risk of cardiovascular diseases and coronary heart diseases
  • beneficial for the treatment of metabolic syndrome, contributing to a healthy lipid profile and glycemic control
  • contribute to weight management and prevention of obesity
  • beneficial effects on diabetes mellitus type 2

Due to all these beneficial effects, researchers consider that extra virgin olive oil is able to “prevent or reduce the inflammatory processes associated with chronic-degenerative diseases, such as cardiovascular-cerebral diseases and cancer1,” and a study released in January 2022 concluded that higher olive oil intake is associated with a lower risk of total and cause-specific mortality8.

Health Benefits of Plant Polyphenols in Olive Oil

Furthermore, plant polyphenols, such as those found in olive oil, have also been shown to promote a broad spectrum of effects that benefit health, such as9:

  • antioxidant
  • anti-inflammatory
  • anti-allergic
  • anti-atherogenic
  • anti-thrombotic
  • anti-mutagenic
  • immunomodulatory

Similar to the findings regarding olive oil, polyphenols are believed to reduce morbidity and prevent or reduce the development of chronic illnesses, such as cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases and cancer9.

Benefits of Olive Oil Consumption for Cancer

Olive oil has been used for centuries and is credited as being one of many healthful components of the Mediterranean diet with anticancer properties. More recently, due to the growing numbers of cancer worldwide, more studies have evaluated the effects of olive oil consumption and the use of olive oil extracts in cancer prevention, protection, and even treatment. Here are some of the most important findings:

MUFAs

  • Oleic acid: the main olive oil’s monounsaturated fatty acid, can suppress the overexpression of HER2, a well-studied oncogene that is critical to the etiology, invasion, progression, and metastasis in several human cancers, especially of human mammary carcinoma10,11,12.

Bioactive compounds

  • Hydroxytyrosol: one of the major phenols present in EVOO, has been shown to prevent oxidative DNA damage in breast cell lines. The antioxidant activity of hydroxytyrosol, and its protective action against oxidative DNA damage in mammary cells can contribute to a lower incidence of breast cancer in populations that consume extra virgin olive oil13. Furthermore, hydroxytyrosol seems to contribute to improved response to tumors in women with breast cancer undergoing chemotherapy, influencing plasma levels of tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinases 1 (TIMP-1), one of the molecules involved in cell proliferation, apoptosis, and metastasis14.
  • Hydroxytyrosol, oleuropein, pinoresinol, squalene, and maslinic acid: EVOO minor compounds are able to modulate and reverse the proliferative effects induced by oleic acid on intestinal epithelial cells, which means they reverse eventual negative effects generated by oleic acid15.
  • Tyrosol and hydroxytyrosol and secoiridoid derivatives (oleocanthal and oleacein): a recent in vitro study showed that these EVOO extracts “reduced non-melanoma skin cancer cell viability and migration, prevented colony and spheroid formation, and inhibited proliferation of atypical keratinocytes stimulated with epidermal growth factor16.” This means that these phenolic extracts can block molecular steps that occur after the initial UV radiation exposure and before or during tumor development. It was demonstrated that the secoiridoid derivatives oleocanthal and oleacein contribute more than simple phenols (tyrosol and hydroxytyrosol) to the in vitro therapeutic potential of extra virgin oil-derived extracts in non-melanoma skin cancer1,16.
  • Oleocanthal: one of the anti-inflammatory phenolic compounds of extra virgin olive oil with potential anticancer activity has shown selective in vitro antiproliferative and cytotoxic activity against human malignant cutaneous melanoma cells17, a dangerous form of skin cancer.

Systematic reviews and meta-analysis

  • A systematic review and a meta-analysis of 13,800 patients and 23,340 controls in 19 observational studies concluded that olive oil intake is inversely related to cancer prevalence. Olive oil consumption was associated with a lower risk of developing breast cancer and cancer of the digestive system, compared with the lowest intake18.
  • A 2022 systematic review and meta-analysis comprising data from 45 individual studies investigated the association between olive oil consumption, cancer risk, and prognosis. The researchers concluded that olive oil consumption seems to exert beneficial actions in terms of cancer prevention. Overall, highest versus lowest olive oil consumption was associated with a 31% lower cancer risk. Significant protection was noted for breast, overall gastrointestinal, upper aerodigestive, and urinary tract cancer19.

Are you adding a good extra virgin olive oil to your delicious meals?

References

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Vanessa Pinto graduated with a degree in Biology and Masters in Ecology from Lisbon University. After graduating, she underwent a series of professional and personal growth experiences, including being an officer in the Portuguese Army, working in countries as diverse as Iceland and Costa Rica.  Vanessa became certified as a Yoga and Meditation teacher in rural India.

Being a compassionate person by nature, Vanessa is able to bring her connectedness when working with others while enhancing the importance and practicality of a pragmatic evidence-based approach to facilitating lasting and permanent change. Vanessa is a certified health coach whose specialties are nutrition, exercise, and mind/ body connection.  She works both in Portugal, Thailand and USA, where she develops her work closely with people diagnosed with cancer, mainly in the areas of nutrition, movement and health education.

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