Olive Oil Polyphenols - Oleocanthal: Effect on human health

oleocanthal ibuprofen olive oil health polyphenols
In recent years we are facing new developments in the olive oil field. Large research teams, through clinical studies, research and analysis, try to simplify the range of olive oil substances, to attribute to each substance its true biological action but also to help us understand which olive oils can have a significant positive effect on human health, as well as why this happens.

It is well known that olive oil, belonging to the category of Fats and Oils, consists mostly of fatty acids, mainly monounsaturated. There are already extensive studies that prove that due to its composition of monounsaturated fatty acids, olive oil and in particular extra virgin, has particular benefits for the human body, being the healthiest vegetable oil for human nutrition.

Olive oil Phenols or Polyphenols

oleocanthal polyphenols olive oil ibuprofenThere are, however, substances in smaller quantities in olive oil (micronutrients) that have not yet been extensively researched. These substances tend to differ in composition from one olive oil to the next and consist of sterols, tocopherols, phosphatides and various other compounds. Of great research interest is a group of compounds found in olive oils - the so-called polyphenols.

Polyphenols are substances that occur naturally in olive oil and are formed from early compounds contained in the olive fruit. The most commonly mentioned polyphenols are oleocanthal, oleacin, oleuropein and its various aglycones, ligstroside and vanillin. During the processing of the olive, part of the oleuropein is hydrolyzed and thus several compounds are produced (mainly oleocanthal) which give the olive oil specific organoleptic properties and especially part of its bitter taste and pleasant burning in the throat. Polyphenols also play an important role in reducing the oxidation of fatty acids in olive oil (rancidity).

Oleuropein, tyrosol, hydroxytyrosol and squalene (a hydrocarbon and triterpene, a precursor of cholesterol and other steroids) are the main antioxidants in olive oil. We can simply say that the antioxidants of olive oil - predominantly polyphenols - help the olive oil itself to be preserved (reduce its oxidation) and have greater resistance over time, but the latest scientific evidence suggests that they can also have a positive effect on human health.

Depending on the biological cycle of the olive and the extraction method of the olive oil, the content of polyphenols in the olive oil varies. The content depends, among other things, on the variety of the olive and the ripeness of the olive fruit, since the content of polyphenols in the ripe olives is lower than in the unripe olives. This is the reason why the early harvest olive oil from green unripe olives, is considered the highest quality extra virgin olive oil, both for its quality and for its organoleptic properties, but also based on the micronutrients it contains.

Health Claim and olive oil polyphenols

The available scientific data and particularly extensive studies on diseases and specific conditions were hardly any, until a few years ago. More recently, an extensive study has been launched on the effect of olive oil polyphenols on human health. So, it is still early to have a complete and clear picture of the action - properties of olive oil polyphenols, but there are already valid and recognized studies that show that it is a group of compounds that help the human body in a variety of ways.

oleocanthal efsa health olive oil polyphenolsThese data, mentioned below, were taken into account by the European Food Safety Authority, when in 2012 it officially recognized the positive effect of polyphenols on oxidative stress, through the Health Claim mentioned in European Regulation 432 / 2012. It explicitly states that "Olive oil polyphenols contribute to the protection of blood lipids from oxidative stress". A basic condition in the Health Claim of European Regulation 432/2012 is the daily intake of 20 grams of olive oil that contains at least 5 mg of hydroxytyrosol and its derivatives (i.e. oleuropein and tyrosol complex).

Also, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recognizes that consuming two tablespoons of olive oil (20-25 grams) daily can help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. This is due to the monounsaturated fats of olive oil and at the same time suggests the replacement of saturated fats included in our diet with olive oil, and in particular extra virgin olive oil that has the best proportions of fatty acids compared to the other categories of olive oils.

Oleocanthal: the phenolic derivative with important biological activity

oleocanthal health olive oil polyphenolsA very important phenolic derivative, oleocanthal, seems to be of particular research interest, as it is characterized by strong biological activity.

Below are detailed scientific studies regarding the activity and properties of oleocanthal, with their respective sources.

• Oleocanthal seems to have an anti-inflammatory effect similar to Ibuprofen (Phytochemistry: Ibuprofen-like activity in extra-virgin olive oil. Beauchamp, Gary K. et al. Nature (2005), 437(7055), 45-46).

• Oleocanthal  seems to have a positive effect on Alzheimer's, slowing down the disease(“Oleocanthal-rich extra-virgin olive oil enhances donepezil effect by reducing amyloid-β load and related toxicity in a mouse model of Alzheimer's disease” Batarseh YS, Kaddoumi A., J Nutr Biochem. 2018 May;55:113-123. doi: 10.1016/j.jnutbio.2017.12.006. Epub 2017 Dec 27.).

• Oleocanthal rich olive oils help reduce blood clots (Journal of Functional Foods 36 (2017) 84-93).

• Beneficial effect of oleocanthal against malignant melanoma of the skin (Nutr Cancer. 2016 Ju;68(5):873-7).

• Oleocanthal and its derivatives act against inflammatory diseases of the joints (Arthritis Rheum. 2010 Jun;62(6):1675-82).

• Oleocanthal has a beneficial effect on melanoma (Oncol Rep. 2017 Jan;37(1):483-491).

• Daily consumption of olive oil rich in oleocanthal and oleacin seems to have a positive effect in patients with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia(Effect of Dietary Intervention With High-Oleocanthal and Oleacin Extra Virgin Olive Oil in Patients With Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia a Pilot Study – Interventional Clinical Trial 2018/2019)

• According to the Professor of the Department of Pharmacognosy and Natural Products Chemistry of UOA, Mr. Magiatis Prokopis, "Chronic exposure to low doses of antioxidants / anti-inflammatory substances such as oleocanthal, offers protection against cardiovascular disease and aging." Also, "Oleocanthal is responsible for the pungency that is characteristic of unripe olive oil." (INGREDIENTS OF OLIVE OIL WITH SPECIAL IMPORTANCE FOR OXIDATIVE STRESS AND HEALTH, UOA, Presentation 2015)

Olive Oil Selection Criteria

olive oil grades oleocanthal health polyphenolsHowever, caution is advised when talking about olive oil and its benefits to human health. Certainly, the polyphenols found in olive oil seem to have a multitude of positive effects on the human body.

Despite that, the scientific community has not yet discovered all the beneficial effects that polyphenols can have, as it is currently one of the most important research and study objects.

Taking into account all the above, we come to the conclusion that we must choose which olive oil to consume and with what criteria. Below the most important selection criteria are analyzed, based on bibliography and verified scientific data.

1) Category Selection: we always prefer the superior category of olive oil, the extra virgin olive oil. Olive oils belonging to this category must meet very specific requirements, which are the most stringent in relation to the other categories (virgin olive oil, olive oil, refined, etc.). These specifications, in addition to the classical acidity, the absorption indices (K) and the peroxides, include a variety of other indicators, which ensure that the extra virgin olive oil is superior to the rest.

2) Prefer Organic: Unfortunately, the endless crop sprays with various types of pesticides and chemicals, which aim to eliminate diseases thus increasing production, lead to the production of olive oils that contain traces of pesticides. In recent years we have observed that many of the active ingredients of pesticides are directly associated with serious diseases and adverse effects on the human body. On the contrary, organic olive oils and foods in general, are controlled so as not to contain such substances and traces of such preparations, making them safe for human consumption but also safe for the environment.

3) If an olive oil, based on the above, satisfies us, then we examine its phenolic content. In particular, we must confirm the individual composition, i.e. the content of polyphenols. If it is high, then we can safely acquire it.

4) Single Estate: a term that is highly valued internationally, describes a product that comes from a single producer, in one location. Thus, a single estate olive oil is not the result of commercial transactions and quantities, which are blended to provide a final product. It is the definition of complete traceability and guarantee for the consumption of an olive oil.

5) Special Characteristics: we search for any kind of special characteristics that the producer attributes to the olive oil, in order to give it "character" and to make it stand out. Examples are the harvest date of the olives, the extraction temperature, storage, processing, etc.

6) Awards: most of the awards, especially those that take place in the largest tasting competitions in the world, are a confirmation that the taste and quality of the olive oil is very high, as it is confirmed by expert tasters who taste olive oils using the blind tasting method.

Nick Sakellaropoulos
Chemical Engineer M.Sc.
Production Manager
Sakellaropoulos Organic Farms


EUR-Lex - 32012R0432

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Kiritsakis A., Christie W.W. (2000) Analysis of Edible Oils. In: Harwood J., Aparicio R. (eds) Handbook of Olive Oil. Springer, Boston, MA

Beauchamp GK. Et al (2005) Phytochemistry: ibuprofen-like activity in extra-virgin olive oil. Nature 2005 Sep 1;437(7055):45-6.

Batarsheh YS, Kaddoumi A, Oleocanthal-rich extra-virgin olive oil enhances donepezil effect by reducing amyloid-β load and related toxicity in a mouse model of Alzheimer's disease, J Nutr Biochem. 2018 May;55:113-123. doi: 10.1016/j.jnutbio.2017.12.006. Epub 2017 Dec 27.

Karan Agrawal, et al.,Oleocanthal-rich extra virgin olive oil demonstrates acute anti-platelet effects in healthy men in a randomized trial Journal of Functional Foods 36 (2017) 84-93

Fogli S. et al., Cytotoxic Activity of Oleocanthal Isolated from Virgin Olive Oil on Human Melanoma Cells,Nutr Cancer. 2016 Jul;68(5):873-7

Iacono A. et al., Effect of oleocanthal and its derivatives on inflammatory response induced by lipopolysaccharide in a murine chondrocyte cell line. Arthritis Rheum. 2010 Jun;62(6):1675-82. doi: 10.1002/art.27437.

Gu Y., et al., Oleocanthal exerts anti-melanoma activities and inhibits STAT3 signaling pathway, Oncol Rep. 2017 Jan;37(1):483-491. doi: 10.3892/or.2016.5270. Epub 2016 Nov 23.

Andrea Paola Rojas Gil et al., Effect of Dietary Intervention With High-Oleocanthal and Oleacin Extra Virgin Olive Oil in Patients With Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia a Pilot Study, Interventional Clinical Trial, 2019.