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The real superfood? Olive oil

a glass jug of olive oil and an olive branch with leaves and fruit

People love to claim that such-and-such ingredient is a "superfood", from kale to eggs to omega-3 fatty acids, acai juice, and wheatgrass. While "superfood" is a marketing term and not a term nutrition experts use with any seriousness, if we were inclined to enthrone an ingredient with the term, it might have to be olive oil.

A study recently printed in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (2022 Jan 18;79(2):101-112) utilized health and dietary data from two long-term studies: the Nurses Health Study (NHS) and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (HPFS). The NHS began in 1976 with a group of over 120,000 women between 30 and 55, and the HPFS began in 1986 with a groups of over 51,000 men between the ages of 40 and 75. These are prospective studies that are ongoing, and the participants are surveyed every two years regarding their health and lifestyle, and every 4 years regarding their diet.

Today's research focuses on the participants' olive oil consumption as gleaned from questions regarding the average consumption of olive oils used for salad dressings, added at the table, or used in baking or frying. The authors also calculated participants' overall dietary quality according to an Alternate Healthy Eating Index score based on the Mediterranean diet but modified for Americans.

After excluding those NHS and HPFS participants who reported a history of cancer or heart disease at the start of the respective studies, there were over 60,000 women and 30,000 men included in an analysis that included data collected up through 2018.

The authors grouped the participants into 4 increasing levels of olive oil consumption: never or <1 gram/month, <0 to 4.5 grams/day (equivalent to up to 1 teaspoon), >4.5 to 7g/day (between 1 teaspoon and 1/2 tablespoon), and over 7 grams per day (at least 1/2 tablespoon).

As is often the case, the authors compared the diets of those who had died of heart disease, cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, respiratory diseases, or any other cause with those who did not die in the 28 years of follow-up.

The results are astounding: compared to those who consumed the least olive oil, those who consumed at least 1/2 Tablespoon of olive oil per day (that's 1 1/2 teaspoons - not very much) were

19% less likely to die of any cause;
19% less likely to die of heart disease;
17% less likely to die of cancer;
29% less likely to die of a neurodegenerative disease; and
18% less likely to die of a respiratory disease.

This was after taking into account the participants' Body Mass Index, demographics, smoking status, Healthy Eating Index Score, education, and other variables that might also affect health risk.

The authors performed further analyses and concluded that "replacing 10g/[day] of margarine with 10g/d of olive oil was associated with 13% lower risk of total mortality...."

No, other vegetable oils did not yield the same results.

What this means for you

Use olive oil for dressings and wherever possible for sauteing, frying, or baking. It's a small dietary change that could have a huge impact on your health. Here are a few resources to help you make the best use of your olive oil - and when it's best to choose another oil:
Is olive oil appropriate for high-temperature uses?
When should I use oils other than olive oil?
Does olive oil lose its health benefits when it is heated?
Some Olive Oils are Better For You Than Others

First posted: January 26, 2022