The roots of the olive tree go back thousands of years and they are deep in the soil of Greece. It’s fitting that the newly formed non-profit World Olive Center for Health (WOC) is located in Athens. It’s the vision of Drs. Eleni Melliou and Prokopios Magiatis, professors at Athens University who, with their team in the pharmacology department, dedicate their research to the study of the health benefits of olives and olive oil.
It all started with curiosity about what exactly made olive oil beneficial. References in ancient texts of Dioscorides and Hippocrates to the medicinal benefits of early harvest olive oil made from green olives inspired the discovery that would identify and certify a whole new category of health-protective olive oil. Research around the world over the past several years is verifying the potential of extra virgin olive oil for the prevention and/or treatment for such chronic illnesses as cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, rheumatoid arthritis, Type II Diabetes and cancer. Clinical trials are now progressing to human trials and the WOC will follow and document all this research and make it freely available.
The health benefits of extra virgin olive oil are well known. In 2012, the EU instituted a health labelling regulation that olive oils with polyphenols of 250/mg/kg could put a health claim on the label. This regulation essentially introduced a new category of olive oil for health. That same year, the husband and wife research team of Melliou and Magiatis decided to find out exactly what was going on with all those polyphenols and discovered the method to measure individual phenolic compounds in olive oil.
Using the exacting analytical science of the NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) to produce a full phenolic profile of each oil, they have tested over a thousand samples from around the world. What they discovered was that the phenolic compounds oleocanthal (anti-inflammatory) and oleacein (antioxidant) were more abundant in early harvest olive oil. It is oleocanthal, in particular, that is the star of much of the research into the medicinal benefits as most disease springs from inflammation. Other phenolic compounds are showing similar health protective affects. This was just the beginning of discovering the varieties, harvest and milling methods and other elements that affect the level of phenols and their efficacy.
The World Olive Center for Health was announced May 11 and is a deliverable of the EU funded ARISTOIL Interreg MED Program to study high phenolic olive oil. The event was held at the historic Old Parliament House in Athens where the 2ndAnnual Olympia Health and Nutrition Awards were presented to growers who produced oils that qualify for the health claim.
The purpose of the organisation is to provide certification for olive oil with a health claim, training of producers and targeted research on the hygienic and therapeutic properties of olives and olive oil. The ultimate aim is to increase economic value through consumer awareness. The boon for health conscious individuals is that they will no longer be at the mercy of fancy packaging and taste awards (highly subjective) but will have access to the hard numbers and analysis of what is in every olive oil with this certification. No hiding here. Science is unbiased. When it comes to your health, that’s a good thing.
The World Olive Center is attracting scientific academics and associations, both private and public from around the world. The aim is for the perpetual promotion and dissemination of scientific research into the beneficial elements of olive oil. Professor Diomedis Logothetis from Northeastern University of Boston, Professor Stephanos Kales of the Harvard Medical School and executive director of UCDavis Olive Center, Dan Flynn, join Magiatis and Melliou as founding members of WOC.
The day of the announcement was marked by a special ceremony high on Filappopou Hill under the gaze of the Acropolis. For those who might not know, Athens was named for the goddess Athena. She won a contest against her brother Poseidon, devised by their father Zeus to choose the name for this new city, which was to become the heart of modern Western civilisation. Poseidon plunged his trident into the rock and caused a fountain of clear water to erupt. Athena, in turn, brought forth an olive tree. We know who won, and now we are finding out scientifically why.
It is fitting that in the park of Pnyx, where the first democratic assemblies met and changed the Western world forever, an olive tree was adopted as a symbol for the World Olive Center. This olive tree has been officially dedicated with a commemorative plaque. A branch from the Olympia variety olive, found in ancient Olympia and known for its exceptionally high phenolic content was grafted to this tree. In Ancient Olympia winners of the first games were crowned with a wreath of olive leaves in reverence for the bounty of the olive; leaf, fruit, juice and wood.
The World Olive Center closes the circle from ancient wisdom to modern science and opens the door to a new era for Greece. Eleni Melliou asserts that a revolution in the olive oil industry has indeed begun. Two thousand years ago, Greece shipped olive oil, revered for its medicinal properties, into all parts of the discovered world. Today, an increasing number of olive growers are producing high phenolic olive oils of this premium health-protective quality. Once again, Greece is the epicentre for influence and excellence.
Originally published at aristoleo.com on July 17, 2017.