Extra virgin olive oil is one of the few foods that health experts seem to unanimously praise. In fact, the list of benefits is so extensive that olive oil is widely considered to be a superfood. It’s thought to fend off Alzheimer’s disease and cut your risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke. It’s also packed with antioxidants and good, healthy fats.
Now, new research published in the journal PLOS One suggests that extra virgin olive oil just might have the power to kill off cancer cells — and some types of olive oil may actually protect the body against cancer better than others.
We talked to experts to figure out if extra virgin olive oil really can prevent cancer and what type we should be stocking in our kitchen cabinets.
Here’s what you should know:
The cancer-fighting power in olive oil mainly relies on one ingredient.
This isn’t the first study to find that extra virgin olive oil might have cancer-killing properties. Previous evidence suggests that certain olive oils can lower your odds of developing cancer, all thanks to an ingredient called oleocanthal — an antimicrobial, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound naturally found in high-quality, nonrefined olive oils.
This new PLOS One study not only reinforced these claims, but also found that extra virgin olive oils rich in oleocanthal are much more protective against cancer than those with only a little bit of oleocanthal. Where extra virgin olive oils seem to zap away cancer cells, non-extra virgin olive oils don’t appear to have any effect on cancer cells.
In other words, because of oleocanthal, extra virgin olive oil can help (key word being help) prevent a range of health conditions and suppress melanoma, breast, liver, and colon cancer cells, according to the researchers.
There are some limitations with this study.
Before you rush off to the grocery store and buy olive oil in bulk, there are a few things you should know. First, while it’s obviously exciting that olive oil could potentially nix cancer cells, it’s way too soon to conclude that olive oil can treat or cure cancer in people based off the research.
“You’re not taking a medication, you’re just eating olive oil, so I’m not going to be trying to give you some advice like ... once you have been diagnosed with cancer, go have olive oil,” explained Vasilis Vasiliou, chair of the department of environmental health sciences at Yale Cancer Center.
Additionally, the new study was conducted in animals — specifically mice — not humans. More research is needed to better understand how well oleocanthal works in humans, not just mice, before we can recommend olive oil as a cancer treatment, Vasilou explained. Still, these findings add to the growing body of evidence that oleocanthal can destroy cancer cells in some capacity, and it’s definitely worth exploring if it can be used to help treat cancer in people.
Bottom line: Olive oil is incredibly beneficial — but make sure you’re getting the right kind.
All things considered, it is important to include olive oil in your diet. However, if you want to reap the all the health benefits, you’ll need to invest in the higher-quality stuff. The cheaper, overly processed products aren’t going to do you much good.
“Olive oil comes from olives. Anytime we take a whole food and degrade it, process it, pack it, transport it, stabilize it, etc., we are changing its original form,” said Sharon Zarabi, a nutritionist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. Creating capsules, supplements and oils from the olive’s natural form affects our metabolism and how our bodies process it, she added.
To reap the most benefits, always buy extra virgin olive oil, which usually goes for anywhere from $20 to $150 a bottle. Most higher-quality olive oils that contain potential cancer-fighting powers will have a strong, pungent — even peppery — taste.
“When you eat olive oil that has high content [of oleocanthal], you get a little burning in your throat. You may think that this is a bad quality, but that’s the opposite — it’s the [oleocanthal],” Vasilou said.
Another important tip: Buy small bottles of extra virgin olive oil. If olive oil isn’t stored properly or used swiftly, the fats can degrade over time and may actually pose more of a health risk than benefit.
“Degradation of any compound will cause oxidative stress and actually contribute to degenerative disease, doing the complete opposite of what it was intended to treat,” Zarabi said.
Lastly, don’t overdo it. While it may be tempting to center your meals around olive oil based on all its health powers, it’s always best to eat your foods in moderation. Adding high-quality olive oil to an overall healthy diet is the best way to go.