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Essential oil

A staple of the Mediterranean diet, olive oil offers more benefits than just flavour alone

By Cristina Alcock

In a country where olive oil is a permanent fixture in any kitchen or on any dinner table, Portugal’s olive oil-making tradition is thought to date back as far as the 8th century BC.

Used in cooking and added to everything from salads and pasta to simple fish dishes, it’s a tasty addition that best defines the Mediterranean diet.

But it’s not just about flavour: rich in monounsaturated fats, particularly oleic acid (an omega-9 fatty acid) and with high levels of antioxidants, no other culinary oil provides as many benefits as our home-grown ‘liquid gold’.

From the inside out

The health benefits of olive oil are well documented, and although all types of this culinary oil are sources of monounsaturated fat, extra-virgin olive oil (the first pressing of the olives) is less processed and thus contains higher levels of antioxidants and more polyphenols, recently termed “lifespan essentials”.

Long associated with protection against heart disease, studies have shown that  olive oil controls LDL (the ‘bad’) cholesterol whilst raising HDL (‘good’) cholesterol and therefore reducing the risk of heart attack. According to research, it can also help lower blood pressure.

Unusually, olive oil is said to have anti-inflammatory properties, credited to the polyphenol antioxidants. According to reports, as little as one to two tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil a day have shown to be associated with significant anti-inflammatory benefits and can help reduce the severity of arthritis and asthma.

One of the most positive effects associated with olive oil is the lowered risk of certain cancer types, including cancer of the breast, respiratory tract, upper digestive tract and, to a lesser extent, lower digestive tract (colorectal cancers). According to the publication Annals of Oncology (January 2005), this is a result of the oleic acid, which comprises around 75% of the fat in olive oil.

It has also featured positively in research on prostate and endometrial cancers, and there are encouraging studies on the potential for olive oil to help control certain cancers once they have already developed.

Said to benefit people with diabetes or those at risk of developing it by controlling blood sugar levels, early studies also indicate that olive oil could help improve bone health and even cognitive function.

On the surface

It’s not just the medicinal benefits of olive oil that have been tapped into since antiquity. The Egyptians, Greeks, Phoenicians and Romans discovered its beauty secrets long ago by using it as a skin moisturiser, but olive oil can be used in a huge range of head-to-toe beauty treatments.

With Vitamins A and E, extra-virgin olive oil is believed to promote a radiant complexion, help maintain skin elasticity and repair and renew damaged skin. Apply to the face and body to keep skin smooth and supple (it works wonders on dry areas such as elbows or heels).

To use as an exfoliator, mix with sea salt and massage into dry skin, or alternatively combine with sugar to make a scrub for rough, dry hands.

Blend olive oil, honey and an egg yolk to make a moisturising facial mask – leave for 15 minutes and rinse with warm water – or add a few teaspoons to your bath alongside a few drops of essential oils (lavender will help you relax) to soothe and moisturise the whole body.

It can even be used to help control dandruff. Either massage into shampooed hair and rinse after five minutes, or for a deep conditioning treatment, warm several tablespoons of olive oil and rub into the scalp and hair. Cover with a shower cap for up to half an hour for a stronger, shinier mane.