Olive oil plays a vitally important part in the Mediterranean diet that has attracted so much interest from nutritionists and health professionals in recent times.

Initially, it was thought that olive oil's high concentration (over 70%) of monounsaturated fatty acids was the explanation – it certainly does help to reduce the level of bad LDL cholesterol in the blood while maintaining levels of good HDL cholesterol. But scientists have long suspected that there must be more to it than this. After all, rapeseed oil contains similar levels of monounsaturates, but doesn't seem to confer the same health benefits.

Olive oil is unusual among vegetable oils in that it can be consumed in its “crude†virgin form without the need for refining. This has the effect of conserving a wide range of phytonutrients, including Vitamin E, pigments (chlorophylls and carotenoids), polyphenols and other powerful natural antioxidants. Olive oil also contains significant levels of plant sterols which have been associated with lowering bad LDL cholesterol.

Recently, it has been discovered that Extra Virgin Olive oil also contains a natural anti-inflammatory substance called oleocanthal. This works by blocking cyclooxygenase (COX) enzymes – an action it shares with ibuprofen. This could be significant because inflammation increasingly is believed to be associated with a wide range of chronic conditions. The link was discovered by accident when someone noticed that good extra virgin olive oil tickles (in some cases even "burns") the back of the throat in the same way as liquid ibuprofen does.

Another benefit of olive oil, when used in frying, is that it is more heat stable than many other oils, which means that it's less likely to degrade into potentially harmful substances.

Remember that while olive oil is easily digestible, it contains the same amount of calories as any other oil or fat, and is best eaten as part of a healthy lifestyle programme that includes a sensible diet and exercise.

The Bottom Line :

Eating about 30ml (2 tablespoons) of olive oil a day in place of your usual oil or fat can improve cardiovascular health, joint health and defences against potentially harmful substances.

For those of you who like numbers, here's a comprehensive analysis of typical, good quality, extra virgin olive oil:

Nutrient Per 30ml serving
(2 tablespoons)
per 100g
Total fat 25g 99g
of which:
saturates 3g 12g
monounsaturates (oleic) 19g (18g) 75g (72g)
polyunsaturates 3mg 12g
Calories 210kcal 844kcal
Vitamin E 4mg 18mg
Cholesterol trace trace
Plant sterols 62mg 250mg
Phenolic compounds 12mg 50mg
Chlorophylls 1mg 3mg
Carotenoids 0.25mg 1mg