Olive oil’s health benefits explored at Yale School of Public Health symposium

Yale’s Olive Oil and Health symposium drew a deeply invested group to New Haven this month—chefs, growers, importers, scientists, associations of producers, entrepreneurs and business people—to celebrate this amazing fruit juice and begin mapping out a new olive institute at the Yale School of Public Health.

Olive oil is the cornerstone of Mediterranean nutrition and speaker after speaker cited its vital role in better health outcomes throughout the region. Athanasios Panagiotopoulos, the mayor of Delphi, Greece, home to the Delphi Grove, a UNESCO world heritage site, was among the international attendees.

“There is no greater crisis in public health today than diet, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases,” Sten Vermund, dean of the Yale School of Public Health, told the gathering in Winslow Auditorium in his opening remarks for the two-day event that begin on October 3. 

An olive oil institute at the Yale School of Public Health would include research in chemistry, and metabolomics to develop assays and datasets to enhance further health research. “We are extremely excited about the interest from around the world in participating in an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary institute that will fill such an important void, said Professor Vasilis Vasiliou, chair of the YSPH’s Department of Environmental and Health Sciences.

For decades Americans have been told to reduce calories and cut fat, even healthy fat like olive oil. “We are paying a hefty price for that,” said Rafi Taherian, associate vice president of Yale Hospitality. Over the last decade, he has spearheaded a shift toward Mediterranean-style nutrition—rich in vegetables, seafood, legumes and extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), among other staples—in the university dining halls, increasing the consumption of produce by over 40 percent.

The symposium was organized by Tassos C. Kyriakides, an olive oil sommelier and associate research scientist in biostatistics at the Yale School of Public Health and director of the VA West Haven Cooperative Studies Program coordinating center, “It is time to bring together people from all the olive oil sectors to break down silos, open up the olive groves and find ways to support and enhance their work with this amazing fruit and inform future research directions,” he said.

Health benefits

Olive oils that are high in oleocanthals have high profiles for bitter taste receptors and have a peppery affect at the back of the throat. This pungency is associated with many health benefits—a reduced risk for cancer, Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases and added protection against viruses, said Catherine Peyrot des Gachons of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. 

In addition to prevention of neurodegenerative diseases, Amal Kaddoumi, a professor at the Harrison School of Pharmacy at Auburn University in Alabama, has found that EVOO increases the activity of the drug donepezil that is used to treat dementia.

Mary Flynn, an associate professor at the Miriam Hospital and Brown University in Rhode Island, has studied the effects of a plant-based olive oil diet since the 1980s. Albeit small in sample size, numerous comparative studies among cancer patients consistently show better weight loss compared to National Cancer Institute diet plans, and when the patients are given the opportunity to self-select which diet to follow for the final period of the study they largely choose the olive oil diet. Her data reflect improved weight, insulin, blood pressure and triglyceride levels. 

By shifting to more plant-based meals on this diet, Flynn also finds that the money saved on groceries ($14.36 per week) not only reduces food insecurity, but also results in weight loss and reduced blood glucose. “Most Americans eat too much protein and that turns to fat,” said Flynn. With the decrease in fasting blood glucose, people don’t get hungry.”

It is time to bring together people from all the olive oil sectors.

Tassos C. Kyriakides

Among the natural chemicals that make EVOO such a super food are oleocanthal, a phenolic compound, and elenolide which is associated with lowering hypertension. Exploring the line between food and medicine, Propopis Magiatis, associate professor at the University of Athens, is researching efficacy of medical foods, or nutraceuticals, supplements and drugs—a rapidly growing sector. 

"Consumer education remains important in traditional olive oil producing countries, such as Greece," said Maria Kapsokefalou, professor of human nutrition at the Agricultural University of Athens. Consumption of olive oil has dropped 50 percent in Crete since 1960 as the country has shifted from an agricultural to a service economy. Through genomic research, Kapsokefalou’s group is identifying specific healthy properties in cultivars to link quality with the genome.

Industry perspective

Industry representatives agreed that market opportunity in the United States requires further consumer education on health benefits and incorporating olive oil into one’s cooking. After decades of steadily increasing consumption, rates began to decline after a 2010 report on the quality of olive oil from California.

“We have a population in dire need of dietary correction,” said Joseph Profaci of the North American Olive Oil Association in New Jersey. “If 20 percent adhered to the Mediterranean diet, we’d save $20 billion from 10 major health outcomes,” he said. Currently, only 40 percent of American households regularly use olive oil.

Alexandra Devarenne, founder of the Extra Virgin Alliance, said that consumer trust can be restored through better labeling practices, pricing that reflects quality and an increased emphasis on flavor. “People’s souls are also hungry. Olive oil is like wine with its richness of culture and food possibilities,” she said.

For farmers, growing olives is a good way to diversify crops, said Kimberly Houlding of the American Olive Oil Producers Association. Olive trees require far less water than nut trees that are widely grown in regions of the United States and can provide crop diversification to monocultural farms.

In the race to develop EVOO with higher phenolic levels, producers are experimenting with new pressing methods, precision farming and organic practices. Nicholas Netien told the story of Atsas Organic Farm which was founded on abandoned land located in the U.N. buffer zone between the Greek and Turkish controlled parts of Cyprus. Situated in a manmade dessert with no ground water, Netien has concentrated on collecting rainwater, preventing run off and enhancing the soil. Compost, no tilling, and aromatic plants in the fields around the trees have worked to “re-green” the grove. He plans to use olive pits to produce electricity for the farm and introduce a small herd of cattle. The cows will feed on the plants around the trees, and while their manure acts as fertilizer, hoof prints create cavities to hold water.

An industry as large as olive oil is not without a downside. In order to protect the health of the land, control release of polyphenols into the environment, the production and waste products need research driven solutions. 

Demetrios Kouretas, a professor at the University of Thessaly in Greece, has developed a low-cost animal feed containing the pomace of the olive that remains after pressing. Livestock also show the health benefits of EVOO’s antioxidants and it improves their nutrition. Other presenters spoke of the need to preserve heritage groves from pests, disease and fire as well as to document the genetic properties of approximately 1,000 cultivars.

The conference culminated with attendees joining some 250 Yale students for a dinner featuring celebrity chef Michael Psilakis of New York. The dinner was part of Yale’s Hospitality’s Food Conversations series and demonstrated the use of olive oil to enhance and compliment flavors.

The group that convened formed a planning group to work towards developing the mission, vision and structure of the olive institute.

Watch a livestream of the morning session and the afternoon session

This article was submitted by Elisabeth Reitman on October 10, 2018.

Related People

Tassos Kyriakides

Associate Research Scientist in Biostatistics; Biostatistician; Acting Deputy Director, Cooperative Studies Program Coordinating Center (West Haven, CT), Department of Veterans Affairs

Vasilis Vasiliou

Department Chair and Susan Dwight Bliss Professor of Epidemiology (Environmental Health Sciences) and of Ophthalmology and Visual Science

Sten H. Vermund

Dean and Anna M.R. Lauder Professor of Public Health