For ancient Greeks, the olive tree was a symbol of success and peace, and the extracted oil was anointed on important members of the society. It was believed that prosperity and wealth depended on this ritual, and not only olive oil, but the olives themselves, constituted an indispensable food in ancient Greeks' diet.
Oleocanthal, a phytonutrient found in extra virgin olive oil, has been shown to reduce inflammation, a leading cause of cancer. Inflammation is commonly caused by a diet rich in sugar, processed and fried foods, alcohol and environmental toxins such as cigarette smoke. Other components such as squalene and lignans are other properties of olive oil shown effective in defense of cancer.
According to the European Journal of Cancer Prevention, Epidemiologic studies conducted in the latter part of the twentieth century demonstrate conclusively that the people of the Mediterranean basin enjoy a healthy lifestyle with decreased incidence of degenerative diseases. The data show that populations within Europe that consume the so-called ‘Mediterranean diet’ have lower incidences of major illnesses such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. Studies have suggested that the health-conferring benefits of the Mediterranean diet are due mainly to a high consumption of fiber, fish, fruits and vegetables. More recent research has focused on other important factors such as olives and olive oil.
Recent studies have shown that olives and olive oil contain antioxidants in abundance. Olives (especially those that have not been subjected to the Spanish brining process) contain up to 16 g/kg typified by acteosides, hydroxytyrosol, tyrosol and phenyl propionic acids. Olive oil, especially extra virgin, contains smaller amounts of hydroxytyrosol and tyrosol, but also contains secoiridoids and lignans in abundance. Both olives and olive oil contain substantial amounts of other compounds deemed to be anticancer agents (e.g. squalene and terpenoids) as well as the peroxidation-resistant lipid oleic acid. It seems probable that olive and olive oil consumption in southern Europe represents an important contribution to the beneficial effects on health of the Mediterranean diet.