Olive Oil’s Many Human and Planetary Health Benefits Discussed at 4th Annual International Yale Symposium

Leading experts involved in research and education related to the olive tree and its products gathered in Rome recently to discuss the positive health benefits of olive oil during the Fourth Annual Yale Symposium on Olive Oil & Health.

Hosted by the Yale School of Public Health, University of Rome Tor Vergata, and the University of Bari Aldo Moro, the September 15-18 symposium addressed a variety of themes central to olive cultivation and the future of olive oil as it pertains to human and planetary health.

“We’re in the eternal city presenting an amazing program among to people who dedicate their careers and lives and are as passionate about olive oil as we are,” said Vasilis Vasiliou, PhD, the Susan Dwight Bliss Professor of Epidemiology and chair of the Yale School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences, “This is a unique and impactful symposium.”

The symposium was organized by Vasiliou and Tassos C. Kyriakides, PhD, assistant professor at the Yale School of Public Health. The organizing committee also included Laura Di Renzo, director of the School of Specialization in Dietetic Sciences, University of Rome Tor Vergata; Alessandro Leone, professor of machines and systems for the agri-food industries, University of Bari Aldo Moro, and Francesca Rocchi, of Slow Food Rome.

Di Renzo focused attention on the role of high-quality extra-virgin olive oils in preventing non-communicable chronic degenerative diseases (NCDDs) and the health benefits of a sustainable Mediterranean diet. NCDDs include obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, inflammatory bowel diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic respiratory diseases, and many cancers. They have been the most frequent causes of prolonged disability and death worldwide.

“Healthy, personalized nutrition, bioactive molecules, and microbiota play an important role in the prevention and management of NCDDs,” Di Renzo said. She highlighted the role of the sustainable Mediterranean diet in the prevention and treatment of NCDDs, including the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO).

Di Renzo has formulated a new acronym — “the P4 (Pre/Pro/Post-biotic and Polyphenols components of EVOO) — as functional nutrients for wellness and beauty. A new procedure for the assessment of the Nutrient, hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (NACCP) process, for total quality management (TMQ), and optimal nutritional levels of EVOO also was highlighted during the conference.

Di Renzo, along with Professors Paola Gualtieri and Antonino De Lorenzo, explained the NACCP process as being based on four general principles: guarantee health maintenance; evaluate and assure the nutritional quality of food and TMQ; give correct information to consumers; and ensure an ethical profit. Nine specific actions for the application of NACCP and promotion of EVOO were presented at the symposium. They were: 1) identify nutritional markers, which must remain intact throughout the food supply chain; 2) identify critical control points, which must be monitored to minimize the likelihood of a reduction in quality; 3) establish critical limits to maintain adequate levels of nutrients; 4) establish and implement effective monitoring procedures of critical control points; 5) establish corrective actions as warranted; 6) identify metabolic biomarkers; 7) evaluate the effects of EVOO intake; 8) establish procedures for consumer information; 9) implement health claims according to Regulation EU 1924/2006.

Leone stated that the world demand for olive oil is constantly growing due to increased consumer awareness of olive oil’s benefits to human health. It is critically important therefore, that olive oil quality and quantity remain sufficient to satisfy the demand. This means organizing the olive oil supply chain in the best possible way with a view toward environmental sustainability, Leone said. In this regard, the University of Bari has been carrying out research and innovation in the oil supply chain for many years and sharing its findings with the production sector.

Attendees praised the symposium for helping to raise awareness of the health benefits of olive oil. Italy, the site of this year’s symposium, has a long tradition of olive agriculture with many advances in the sector arising from the country’s practices. During the week of September 12-18, the public could taste olive oil at three venues in Rome: the Garum Food museum, Palazzo Rospigliosi, and Palazzo Valentini, where the Symposium took place.

“I believe that this edition of the symposium was important for bringing the great issues concerning extra virgin consumption to the capital of the Italians, major consumers of extra virgin olive oil,” Rocchi said. “The symposium has been able to insert itself in the reflections of political decision-makers and thus give life to a free week of oil in Rome, which has never happened before, thus demonstrating the strength of our project, conceived on research but also on the proposal of new solutions for consumption.”

Vasiliou and Kyriakides have been leading international advocates for the promotion of olive oil as an important part of a healthy diet. The two researchers are working to launch a Yale Institute for Olive Sciences and Health next year. The institute would be devoted to the scientific exploration of the olive tree, its products and their derivatives, and ways to further integrate the fruit and its products into peoples’ nutrition. It will also focus on planetary health issues, including sustainability, circular economy models, and climate change. The institute is expected to serve as a global hub facilitating research in all areas pertaining to the olive tree and its products.

“It is imperative that we think of the global need towards sustainable practices that will benefit both human and planetary health,” Kyriakides said. “The proposed institute will serve as the home for activities and partnerships towards that goal.”

Kyriakides, an olive oil sommelier, not only constantly tastes oils from all over the world, he consumes copious amounts of olive oil daily in his cooking in addition to his daily morning extra virgin olive oil shot.

“It’s a delicious natural and healthfully nutritious food,” he said. “The olive tree and olive oil have been bringing people together for thousands of years; as public health professionals it is our task to maintain and safeguard the olive tree and its numerous positive effects on human and planetary health. The olive tree can serve as a vehicle in our pursuit for sustainable and planet-friendly agricultural practices.”

Evidence accumulated over the past six decades shows that olive oil promotes good health, Kyriakides said. A daily intake of 20 grams of olive oil (about two tablespoons) contains a polyphenol (at least 5 mg of hydroxytyrosol and its derivatives) that assists in the protection of blood lipids from oxidative stress. The finding has been supported by the European Food Safety Agency. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also supports a qualified health claim that consumption of oleic acid (the main component of olive oil) may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

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