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The phenolic fraction, responsible for the stability and flavor of extra virgin olive oil, is endowed with “pharmacological” properties. Phenolic compounds such as hydroxytyrosol and oleuropein in extra virgin olive oil are powerful antioxidants, both in the oil and in the body. They have bioactive properties that support the effects of the Mediterranean diet being effective against oxidative stress associated health issues, including ageing, in a dose-dependent manner. Oxidative stress is defined as an imbalance between the oxidant and the antioxidant systems of the body in favor of the oxidants. Olive oil polyphenols are dose-dependently absorbed in humans, metabolized and excreted in the urine as glucuronide conjugates.
It is the unique profile of the phenolic fraction, along with squalene and oleic acid which confers the health promoting properties of olive oil. Squalene is to a large extent transferred to the skin. Its major protective effect is by scavenging singlet oxygen generated by ultraviolet light. The phenolic substances from olive oil are much more potent antioxidants than the classical free radical scavengers like vitamin E and dimethylsulphoxide.
The EUROLIVE study (a research project funded by the EU commission) aimed at assessing the beneficial effects of extra virgin olive oil on human health, provided evidence of the protective role of the phenolic compounds from olive oil on lipids and lipid oxidative damage in humans at real life olive oil daily dosages. The polyphenols account for greater protection of blood lipids and oxidative stress damage than those provided by oleic acid. A phenolic rich extra virgin olive oil may contribute to the dietary intake of biologically active compounds in quantities that correlated with good heart health. This was approved as a claim by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in 2011. In vitro studies show that both hydroxytyrosol and oleuropein inhibit the oxidation of LDL cholesterol. Hydroxytyrosol also inhibits aggregation of platelets, prevents accumulation of the pro-aggregant thromboxane in human serum, the production of pro-inflammatory molecules such as leukotrienes and the inhibition of arachidonate lipoxygenase. These results indicate that biological activity of extra virgin olive oil polyphenols goes beyond their antioxidant properties.