The difference in taste between a quality extra virgin olive oil and a "light" or refined olive oil is staggering. The presence of compounds called biophenols in EVOO contribute to its unique flavour profile and the bulk of its health benefits.
What are Biophenols?
Firstly, the term "biophenols" has largely replaced the previously-used term, "polyphenols" to better describe the biological origin of these phenolic ring compounds. Some of the literature still uses the term polyphenols, but we stick with the more up-to-date name.
Biophenols are produced by plants as secondary metabolites- meaning they do not directly contribute to the plant's growth, but rather serve other purposes, such as herbivory defense. They are by no means unique to olive trees, but some of the biophenols in these trees, and thus the fruit itself, are exclusively found in olive plants. The mechanism by which these compounds act is largely through their antioxidative activity; a valuable attribute when we think of EVOO consumption in humans.
Why do we Need Antioxidants?
In our bodies, compounds called free radicals get produced by a number of physiological reactions. These free radicals are oxidized molecules, meaning they do not have a full set of electrons, and are thus unstable and can damage our cells and DNA. Free radicals can also be formed from environmental factors such as UV light, and exposure to smoke and pollution.
Fortunately, many foods contain antioxidants- compounds that donate electrons to free radicals to neutralize them and help prevent cellular damage. If the number of free radicals overwhelms the amount of antioxidant compounds for a sustained period of time, it can lead to a whole host of complications, most commonly including chronic inflammation, atherosclerosis, and even cancer.
As more is discovered in the field of free radical chemistry, the importance of a diet that includes a varied source of antioxidants cannot be ignored. Colourful fruit and veggies are great candidates, as is extra virgin olive oil. There are dozens of recognized biophenols with antioxidant capabilities in EVOO. They can help prevent the effects of free radicals and can impart many other beneficial properties for our health.
Biophenols are present in the olive fruit and are retained as the oil is extracted from the olives. One of the chemical tests that extra virgin olive oil must undergo in its grading process is for the concentration of these biophenols. Evoolution's EVOOs must register over 130 parts per million, but we always ensure a healthy range of medium and robust oils on the shelves as well that reach three or four times that minimum.
When you taste an extra virgin olive oil (refer to our strippagio guide for proper EVOO tasting) you will often detect some peppery or bitter notes, especially at the back of your throat. Those tasting notes and that particular peppery bite are the direct result of biophenols in the oil. In addition to providing this unique flavour that is one of the hallmarks of true EVOO, these phenolic compounds impart the antioxidative benefits discussed above. Oleocanthal, which is the main contributor to that peppery sensation, is a natural anti-inflammatory agent that can provide a similar effect to Ibuprofen. Oleacein and oleuropein can also help prevent cholesterol oxidation in arterial walls and help lower blood pressure.
Notice how those three names all begin with a derivative of the olive plant family, Oleaceae? That is because these compounds are found at the greatest natural concentration in olive plants and some, such as oleocanthal, are only found in olive trees. You simply cannot talk about the health benefits of these compounds without talking about olives and EVOO.
Biophenols in Your Diet
EVOO is a superb addition to your diet for a multitude of reasons. It is the cornerstone of the Mediterranean Diet and is a strong contributor to a healthy heart and brain and healthier aging in general. Fortunately, adding EVOO to the diet is also a tasty way to increase your consumption of biophenols. Swapping EVOO in anywhere you are currently using butter or coconut oil not only introduces these antioxidants, but also dramatically cuts down on the amount of saturated fat you are consuming. For the really robust oils, which typically have the highest biophenol concentrations, some people simply take a tablespoon or two a day supplement-style.
However you choose to incorporate extra virgin olive oil into your diet, it is a true superfood that benefits you well beyond imparting its unique flavour. Next time you are visiting your local Evoolution, try our selection of extra virgin olive oils to taste the difference that biophenols make.