Polyphenols are a type of organic compound that naturally occurs in plants. They are characterized by having multiple phenol units and act as antioxidants, meaning they can help prevent damage to cells caused by free radicals. There are over 8,000 different types of polyphenols, and they can be found in a variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and seeds.
In the case of extra virgin olive oil, polyphenols are believed to be the primary source of its health benefits. There are 25 different polyphenols found in extra virgin olive oil, with the most significant being tyrosols, which include oleuropein, hydroxytyrosol, and oleocanthal. These polyphenols have been associated with a range of health benefits, including reducing inflammation, improving heart health, and potentially even helping to prevent cancer.
It’s important to note that not all olive oils are created equal when it comes to polyphenol content. Extra virgin olive oil is the type that contains the most polyphenols, while virgin olive oil contains some but less than extra virgin. Refined olive oil, on the other hand, typically contains little to no polyphenols due to the refining process.
Refined olive oil only has trace amounts of the polyphenols, which are removed during the refining process and are added back in when the refined oil is blended with small quantities of virgin or extra virgin olive oil before it is bottled and sold.
Polyphenols have been extensively studied for their potential health benefits, including reducing the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. The antioxidant properties of polyphenols have been linked to a reduction in chronic inflammation, which is a significant risk factor for heart disease. Research has shown that diets enriched with polyphenols can lower blood pressure, decrease LDL cholesterol levels, increase HDL cholesterol levels, and reduce the risk of blood clots.
Polyphenols have also been shown to lower blood sugar levels. Several studies have found that consuming large amounts of polyphenol-rich foods is associated with a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. This may be due to the ability of polyphenols to stimulate insulin secretion, which helps move sugar from the bloodstream and deposit it in the cells, keeping blood sugar levels stable. Additionally, polyphenol-rich diets are linked to lower fasting blood sugar levels and higher glucose tolerance.
The oleocanthal, a polyphenol found in extra virgin olive oil, may have the potential to regulate a receptor responsible for the development of Alzheimer’s disease and decrease inflammation in the brain. Additionally, consuming high-polyphenol extra virgin olive oil has been associated with promoting the growth of beneficial gut bacteria, which can improve digestion and weight management.
In addition to providing health benefits, polyphenols in extra virgin olive oil also play a role in its flavor profile. Depending on the type of olives and when they are harvested, different attributes such as astringency, bitterness, and pungency can be sensed in the oil.
Astringency, which is the puckering sensation, is primarily created by tannins and is associated with early harvested and robust extra virgin olive oils. Bitterness, due to the presence of oleuropein, is an acquired taste that indicates the oil has been made with fresh olives. Pungency, which is the stinging sensation in the throat, is mostly associated with oleocanthal and can be strong enough to force a cough.
These different flavor attributes can impact the way people perceive and enjoy extra virgin olive oil, and some may prefer oils that are more or less astringent, bitter, or pungent depending on their personal taste preferences. However, it’s important to note that the health benefits of polyphenols are not dependent on the flavor profile of the oil, so even if someone doesn’t enjoy the taste of bitter or pungent oils, they can still reap the health benefits by consuming extra virgin olive oil with a milder flavor.
To find high-polyphenol extra virgin olive oil, there are several things you can look for. First, check the label to see if the olives were harvested early. Early harvest EVOO has more polyphenols than those harvested later. Second, look for specific olive varieties like Coratina, Cornicabra, Maurino, Picual, and Mission monocultivars, which are known to have high levels of polyphenols. Third, consider olives harvested in temperate climates rather than arid ones, as they also tend to have higher levels of polyphenols. Finally, choose robust EVOOs over mild or delicate ones, as robust oils tend to have more polyphenols.
In addition to its polyphenol content, extra virgin olive oil is also rich in healthy monounsaturated fats and other beneficial compounds, which make it a valuable addition to a healthy diet. When using extra virgin olive oil in cooking, it’s important to choose a high-quality product that hasn’t been overly processed or diluted with other oils. With its delicious flavor and impressive health benefits, it’s no wonder that extra virgin olive oil is considered one of the healthiest cooking oils around!