By Eugenio Lendaro, La Sapienza University of Rome (Latina’s polo)

It is known that the South Europe nations present the lower cardiac disease’s effect. The factor that could explain this phenomenon, called “Mediterranean paradox”, lies in the lifestyle of this regions, characterised by a regular physical activity and a particular diet. These evidences were been demonstrated for the first time in 1980 by the doctor Ancel Keys’ epidemiological study, who coined the term Mediterranean Diet. From this year are been realised a lot of studies that demonstrate how Mediterranean Diet is probably associated to a reduction of mortality incidence, not only of the cardiac diseases but also of a lot of cancer forms and neurodegenerative diseases.

The Mediterranean diet is characterised by:

  • An high consumption of vegetables, legumes, fruit and cereals,
  • A regular but moderated wine use,
  • A moderated fish and white meat consumption,
  • A moderated milk products’ consumption,
  • A low red meat’s consumption,
  • A partial high use of trans fats (over 40% of daily kcal) mainly coming from the extra virgin olive oil.

The olive oil’s benefits are well known since ancient times and this nourishment was traditionally considered like a substance halfway between food and medicine. Traditionally, the beneficial effects on the human health are been attributed to the high content of trans facts acids and in particular of the oleic acid, the greater element (around the 75%). However, today some scientific investigations have demonstrated that these effects can be mainly attributed to some “lesser elements”, around the 1-2%, and in particular to a class of water-soluble molecules, the phenols. This part of elements has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer  and anti-microbial activities. The olive oil’s phenolic composition changes the quality and the quantity according to the plant species, the land’s composition, the degree maturation of the fruit, the climate, the drupe’s conservation method, the production method and the conservation’s condition of the final product. Conventionally the phenolic compounds extracted from plant sources are called polyphenols even if not all the molecules are polymeric derivative of the unitary subunit, the phenol. Generally in the oil there are four principal molecular polyphenols classes: the simple phenols, the secoiridoids, the lignans, the flavonoids.

It’s interesting  that the simple phenols (for example hydroxytyrosol) and the secoiridoids (for example oleuropein) are present, for an high quantity, only in the extra virgin olive oil; moreover, the experimental evidences gathered over the last few years indicate that these molecules are able to mediate the oil’s pharmacological activities.

There is an interesting relation between these molecules’ content and the oil quality; in particular the secoiridoids are present in higher concentrations in the young oils whit a bitter-spicy taste and produced with a particular attention during the work processes. Moreover, even if the polyphenol’s assimilation and the metabolism is complex, some studies have demonstrated that these molecules are highly bio-available because of their own good water solubility, with an absorption’s efficiency of about the 55-66%. One of the main polyphenols’ property is their antioxidant capability. It sounds strange but the oxygen and its metabolism produces, like inevitable by-product, some highly reactive and toxic species, the free radicals. The radicals’ target are the oxidise lipids, DNA and proteins; these alterations’ accumulation are the bases not only for normal processes of an organism’s ageing, but also for a lot of diseases. It is known that the deposit of the cholesterol’s species oxidative are the main contributory cause into the atherosclerotic plaque’s formation, requirement of some pathology, like myocardial infarction and the stroke. Moreover, the free radicals modifying the DNA, macromolecule that has the information for the correct cell’s functioning, can alter the genetic program pushing the cell in a slow but inexorable neoplastic process, base for ontological pathologies. In the last years it has been demonstrated that the oxidation and the inflammation state are two processes deeply interconnected. In fact, the oxidative damage activates the production of molecules that regulate the mechanism of inflammation, the cytokine. These states make worse the above-mentioned pathologies’ case, trigging processes self-sustaining, for example allowing the cells to duplicate themselves, promote the cancerous masses’ formation. As we have yet mentioned the extra virgin olive oil’s minor components are able to block the free radicals and to inhibit the cytokine’s issue; some researchers believe that the polyphenols’ inflammatory action, in particular of the oleuropein, is like that of ibuprofen, active ingredient of a lot of medicines. Recently, has been accumulated some information about the polyphenol’s beneficial effects in the learning processes and about the memory impairment. Moreover, it has been demonstrated that hydroxytyrosol and the oleuropein are able to limit, in the neurodegenerative pathologies, the production of Amyloid-beta and other cytoskeleton components like the Tau protein. The deposit in the form of fibrils of these proteins inside the neurons is the main cell’s damage that provokes the cellular tissues’ death in Alzheimer and in the correlated tauopathies. These works’ news is that, for the first time, has been supposed the physical interaction of polyphenols with some molecular targets; in other words these molecules could be able to interpose themselves into the fibril aggregates “dissolving them” and sometimes these bonds could be able to set off protein switches able to mediate complex physiological processes. The last frontier in this field is surely the nutrigenomic effect mediated by the extra virgin olive oil. In fact, it seems that the polyphenolic components are able to modulate the processes with which the genetic information is transferred during the protein synthesis, in other words, are able to modify the messenger molecule’s stability (mRNA) their maturation and post-transcriptional modification’ states. In spite of the huge number of studies realised on oil and human health’s polyphenols, in my opinion, only some aspects have collected unambiguous sufficient scientific evidences. In fact, excluding the case of mechanism involved properly in the cardiovascular sector, all the other properties scribed to this molecule’s class have not yet been investigated especially on the involved mechanisms’ level. At this level, the role of the different players of the olive industry is fundamental. I think that could be desirable to find a common route between producers and academic world. There are already some organizations, especially in the oenological sector, where the agricultural holdings are became research’s promoters not only to the agronomical level. In this regard, we have to remember that in the actual Latina’s Department of Science and Med-Surgical Biotechnologies, some researches are being carried out in order to determine the pharmacological properties in the oncological sector of the polyphenols extracted from European Olea vr Itrana’s monocultivar oils. My interest in this research sector was born in 2007 monitoring the doctor Roberto Monticolo’s experimental thesis and it is grown during the years. The scientific data until now connected had represented the base for a research project, called “Olive oil phenols as potential source of chemopreventive and therapeutic agents against bladder cancer”. I think that in our territory is growing an unique opportunity where the exceptional oil quality can find an added value into the financing of the research developed inside the university pole deep-seated in the Pontine territory.