The ‘Mediterranean diet’ and its key ingredient, olive oil, have become associated with long life and good health. Producers are cashing in, yet some dieticians have raised a voice of dissent. Far from being a ‘functional food’, might olive oil not be conducive to hardened arteries and weight gain? Pam Ahlberg examines the issues.

The “Mediterranean diet” has received considerable attention over the past few years, with lifestyle and health gurus touting its benefits in books, magazines and on the talk show circuit. In addition to generous amounts of fresh vegetables, fruit, grains, nuts and fish, a key feature of the diet is olive oil. According to health and alternative medicine author Dr Andrew Weil, those who adhere to a traditional Mediterranean diet such as is practiced in Spain, southern France, Italy,

Greece, and Crete, have a lower incidence of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and cancer than people in other parts of Europe and the Americas.

Olive oil has been shown in many scientific studies to have cholesterol-lowering properties. Predominantly a monounsaturated fat, olive oil contains high-density components that carry cholesterol fragments away – reducing plaque in the arteries and lowering the risk of heart disease.

A study published in October 2000 showed that high consumption of extra-virgin olive oils, which are particularly rich in phenolic antioxidants, protects against cancer, coronary heart disease and aging by inhibiting oxidative stress.

Such messages have not been lost on consumers. According to industry data released by the North American Olive Oil Association in July of this year, olive oil dollar sales in the US in 2000 exceeded those of all other cooking oils. They accounted for nearly one-third, of the nearly US$1.2bn Americans spent on cooking oils. Olive oil was also the only major cooking oil to see its percentage of volume sales increase year over year in 2000. In addition, imported olive oil hit an all-time high of 204,000 metric tons. And more US consumers bought olive oil than ever before, with household penetration reaching 31.5%.

And statistics like these have not been lost on would-be olive oil producers. In the US, Texas and California have begun investing in olive oil production. In Australia, olive oil producer Mark Lloyd says that changing trends in Australians’ olive oil consumption over the last decade point to big opportunities for the South Australian industry.

“In just over ten years, olive oil has passed from an unknown product to the oil of choice for health and flavour,” said Lloyd. “In the same timeframe, consumption of olive oil in Australia has increased four fold,” he added.

But Texas, California and Australia represent a pittance of olive oil production – less than 1% worldwide – compared with Spain and Italy, which produce 30% and 24% respectively. Olive oil from these two countries, along with Greece, accounts for the majority of all imported olive oils.

That olive oil is delicious, sensuous and enhances the flavor of foods, is well recognised. But should this fragrant balm be elevated to the vaunted status of “functional food?” Can anything that contains as many calories as lard or butter really be considered heart-healthy? Supporters argue that despite the fact that one tablespoon of olive oil contains 14 grams of fat – or 126 calories – its mono-unsaturated fat metabolises differently in the body, decreasing appetite and making it health-protective. But not everyone agrees.

A study presented at the American Heart Association meeting on Dietary Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Health in 2000 reported that mice and monkeys fed monounsaturated fats – such as olive oil – develop more hardening of the arteries in major blood vessels than animals fed polyunsaturated fats.

“Our studies cast doubt on the much-touted ‘Mediterranean diet,'” said Lawrence Rudel, PhD, professor of pathology and biochemistry at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C. “The animal studies speak very loudly that monounsaturated fats may not be beneficial.”

“I don’t think research has provided us with the last word yet, but I also am not comfortable with the wholesale recommendation of the Mediterranean diet,” said Robert Eckel, MD, professor of medicine and physiology and biophysics at the University of Colorado, who is also chairman of the American Heart Association Nutrition Committee.

But for the culinary elite, such warnings fall on deaf ears. Olive oil has become exalted for more than its health properties. For olive oil lovers and aficionados, differences in colour, viscosity, fruitiness, and a host of other qualities have elevated this ancient oil to the status of fine wine. And like wine, olive oils today are chosen by professional tasters who judge for bouquet, texture and flavour.

But beyond a tiny segment of “foodies”, how long will ordinary consumers pay more for olive oil instead of the less expensive and equally heart-healthy canola oil or other vegetable oils? My guess is that like most luxury items, when times get tough consumers will make due with what best fits their budget – perhaps keeping a small bottle of “the good stuff” hidden in the back of the cupboard for company or medicinal purposes.

By Pam Ahlberg, correspondent

Pam can be reached by email at:

To view related research reports, please follow the links below:-

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