Olive oil, rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, is a major component of the Mediterranean diet.

Populations from that region have longer life expectancies and lower risks of heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke, compared with North Americans and Northern Europeans.

Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) are considered a healthy dietary fat, as opposed to saturated fats and trans fats.

This MNT Knowledge Center feature is part of a collection of articles on the health benefits of popular foods.

What is olive oil?

Olive oil is a fat obtained from the fruit of the Olea europaea (olive tree), a traditional tree crop of the Mediterranean region, where whole olives are pressed to produce olive oil.

The oil is used in cosmetics, medicine, cooking and soaps, and was also used as a fuel for traditional lamps. Although originating in the Mediterranean countries, today it is used worldwide.

Greece has the highest olive oil intake per person in the world. Greeks consume, on average, 24 liters per-person-per-year, according to the North American Olive Oil Association (resource no longer available at www.aboutoliveoil.org)1. Spaniards and Italians consume about 15 and 13 liters-per-person-per year, respectively.

Possible health benefits of olive oil

Over the last 50 years, there have been thousands of studies examining the health benefits of olive oil. Below are some examples:

Olive oil and the cardiovascular system

Olive oil and olives
In 2010, more than 45% of global olive oil production came from Spain

Olive oil is the main source of dietary fat in the Mediterranean diet, which is associated with a low death rate from cardiovascular diseases compared to other parts of the world.

Maria-Isabel Covas, at the Parc de Recerca Biomèdica de Barcelona, Spain, carried out an extensive review of studies that had focused on the biological and clinical effects of olive oil.

The study was published in the journal Pharmacological Research2.

The study found that people who regularly consume olive oil are much less likely to develop cardiovascular diseases, including hypertension (high blood pressure), stroke, and hyperlipidemia (high blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels).

Covas also found that regular olive oil intake helps reduce inflammation, endothelial dysfunction (problems with the inner linings of blood vessels), thrombosis and carbohydrate metabolism.

Covas concluded “The wide range of *anti-atherogenic effects associated with olive oil consumption could contribute to explain the low rate of cardiovascular mortality found in Southern European Mediterranean countries, in comparison with other western countries, despite a high prevalence of coronary heart disease risk factors.”

*Anti-atherogenic means preventing the hardening of the arteries and the development of atherosclerosis.

Frying with olive oil and heart disease risk

People who regularly eat foods fried in olive oil do not have a higher risk of heart disease or premature death, researchers at the Autonomous University of Madrid in Spain reported in the BMJ (British Medical Journal).

In this study, Professor Pilar Guallar-Castillón and colleagues surveyed 40,757 adults aged from 26 to 69 years over an 11-year period. They focused on the people’s cooking methods and dietary habits. None of the participants had heart disease when the study started.

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