In Australia, where skin cancer is top of mind, perhaps the most interesting research is how extra virgin olive oil can be protective and lower your risk. Note that it must be extra virgin olive oil. That’s because it is the unrefined, pure juice of the olive that contains the special plant compounds that are proving to be key skin health ingredients.
Olive oil, or the misnomer ‘pure olive oil’ bottles on the supermarket shelf have been refined and they lack the high levels of the goodies we need.
There are two key components present in extra virgin olive oil that have piqued scientific interest and are proving to be pretty special.
The first is squalene. This is fat soluble and concentrates in the skin surface lipid film that acts to protect our skin from the external environment. A high concentration of squalene seems to not just affect skin integrity, but lower the risk of a skin cancer forming too.
"A high concentration of squalene seems to not just affect skin integrity, but lower the risk of a skin cancer forming too."
We make some squalene ourselves, but there are limits to how much we can produce. It is produced in our skin oil glands but decreases markedly by age 30. Dietary sources can significantly increase our levels. Although it does appear fairly widespread in nature, extra virgin olive oil is the stand out source. So much so that while the usual Western diet provides only 30mg a day of squalene, a Mediterranean Diet provides 200-400mg.
As well as being anti-cancerous, squalene is also a fabulous anti-aging agent for the skin by protecting against the free radical damage that ultimately leads to aged skin. I can’t think of a more delicious anti-aging ritual than daily extra virgin olive oil!
The second compound is oleocanthal. This one of the substances in extra virgin olive oil that delivers a lovely peppery kick in the back of the throat. Feel the kick and it’s a pretty good sign you have oil high in oleocanthal.
Taste aside you also then know you have a potentially powerful anti-cancer agent on board. In the lab oleocanthal has been shown to inhibit the growth of human skin cancer cells, while healthy cells continue to flourish. Exactly what we want.
Oleocanthal is also an anti-inflammatory agent so it has the potential to help with inflammatory skin conditions. Psoriasis severity has been linked to dietary intake and a Mediterranean diet has been shown to be useful in lessening the disease and in one study it is postulated that this may be acting through oleocanthal in extra virgin olive oil (1).
"Oleocanthal is also an anti-inflammatory agent so it has the potential to help with inflammatory skin conditions"
While science discovers these things and I have no doubt more good research is yet to come, the people who have consumed a traditional Mediterranean Diet for generations have long known that extra virgin olive oil is good for the skin.
I spoke with Maeve O’Meara, host of Food Safari Earth on SBS, about her observations on extra virgin olive oil on her travels. She told me that in Greece babies are immersed in olive oil during baptism and the godparents anoint the child with the oil. Any part of the body missed out is thought to be prone to sickness.
That may well be superstition, but could it be a result of recognising how good extra virgin olive oil is as a topical agent for the skin? When I’m cooking I always rub some oil into my hands as hand cream and it seems I’m not alone. Maeve shared:
“Olive oil is used as a moisturiser, and to cure skin diseases…great for cradle cap says my friend Liz Kaydos, whose family is from the island of Lemnos (in Greece).”
Olive oil is also used in soap across the Mediterranean region and olive oil skincare products are starting to appear in Australia. Perhaps there is a double whammy effect of delivering extra virgin olive oil internally and externally!
Certainly, in the Mediterranean regions where extra virgin olive oil has been a staple food for thousands of years, they revere and celebrate this fabulous food. Maeve says:
“Extra virgin olive oil is so much more than an ingredient in the sun-drenched countries that grow olives. Every year for the past 17 years I’ve taken a group to Greece on one of my Gourmet Safaris and I’m always awed at the reverence that people have for extra virgin olive oil. Its genuinely treasured - and used liberally not just as a dressing and cooking oil, but an essential flavour component in many dishes.”
Sadly, all too often in Australia extra virgin olive oil is relegated to a salad dressing oil. It can play a much bigger role in your kitchen and that brings with it all the health benefits including those for your skin.
We can now put to bed the idea that you can’t cook with it. The latest research shows that not only is extra virgin olive oil safe to cook with, it’s the safest oil to cook with! The many antioxidant compounds present actually protect the oil during cooking, while compounds including squalene are incredibly stable during cooking.
To get the maximum benefits use extra virgin olive oil every day, just as the Greeks, Italians and Spanish traditionally do. Check out these recipes from Maeve and her travels:
“Greece and Turkey both use olive oil to add richness and flavour to slow cooked vegetable dishes like zeytinyagli bakla - baby broad beans cooked in tomato, lemon and olive oil…a recipe that can be used with green beans both flat and round.”
“Peter Conistis’ recipe is a celebration of both the olive and extra virgin olive oil… and is based on a favourite everyday recipe for keftedes (or meat balls) Peter adapted it for vegetarians by using tomato and olives.”
More recipes from the series can be found vis SBS Food at www.sbs.com.au/foodsafari
Many thanks to Associate Professor Greg Goodman from the Skin & Cancer Foundation for his assistance in writing this article.
 Barrea L, Balato N, Di Somma C, et al. Nutrition and psoriasis: is there any association between the severity of the disease and adherence to the Mediterranean diet? Journal of Translational Medicine. 2015;13:18. doi:10.1186/s12967-014-0372-1.
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