Posted June 12, 2008on:
A Brief History
The olive tree has been celebrated and referenced in the cultural works of every society. Called “the oldest cultivated tree”, it has served as a food, a fuel, a medicine and has been a symbol of peace, unity and healing for thousands of years.
The existence of the olive tree dates back to 35,000 years BCE. Fossilised remains have been discovered in North Africa dating around 20-30,000 BCE. The wild olive tree originated in Asia Minor where it is extremely abundant and grows in thick forests. It was first cultivated in Syria and Palestine around 6000 BCE. Traders from the Middle East brought the tree and knowledge of its cultivation to Asia Minor, Cyprus, Greece and North Africa in around 3000 BCE.
Around 1700 BCE the olive tree was introduced to Egypt by traders from the Middle East. Tutankhamen even wore a garland of olive branches as a mark of honour. The Greek civilisation from 1000 BCE onwards saw olives and olive oil, not only as important foods, but also symbols of holiness, courage and life. During the Roman era, they became expert producers of cured olives and olive oil, developing several different types of oil for cooking. In 1503, the Spanish invaders brought olive tree plants to the Americas and by 1600 olives were grown in Peru, the West Indies, Argentina and Mexico!
Over the last few centuries, the olive has spread to North and South America, Japan, New Zealand and Australia. Today they are commercially produced in Spain, Italy, France, Greece, Tunisia, Morocco, Turkey, Portugal, China, Chile, Peru, Brazil, Mexico, Angola, South Africa, Uruguay, Afghanistan, Australia, New Zealand and America!
In ancient times, the winners at the Olympic Games were given olive-wreaths as trophies and received a large number of olive oil jars! Today, in Turkey, what some consider to be the Turkish national sport, ‘olive oil wrestling’, still flourishes throughout the country!
From the beginning, the calming and healing properties of its oil have been recognised and the olive branch has long been used as a symbol of peace. Today, there are approximately 800 million olive trees with 93 percent of them growing in the Mediterranean basin.
The olive tree belongs to the botanical family of Oleaceae. It is characterised by its extended life span, some in the Mediterranean region are said to be over 2,000 years old! It grows to a height of 20-40 feet and begins to bear fruit in the second year and repays cultivation in the sixth year, continuing to bear fruit even when old and hollow, though the crop varies from year to year.
It bears lanceolate leaves and blooms with fragrant little whitish flowers. The ideal conditions for its growth are at a mean temperature of 15 to 20 C, i.e. especially in Mediterranean countries. During maturity, the oil content of the olive increases and reaches 15 to 30% weight of the total fruit. Olives are found with several different colours, these aren’t different kinds of olives but just the same basic olive at different stages of ripeness and cured in different ways.
The fruit is about 3/4 inch long, ovoid and often pointed, the fleshy part filled with oil. The thick, bony stone has a blunt keel down one side. It contains a single seed. Being hardier than the lemon, the Olive may sometimes even produce fruit in England!
The Average Composition of Olive Oil
Vitamins – A, Thiamine (B1), Riboflavin (B2), Niacin (B3), C. E. K.
Antioxidants- Squalene, B-sitosterol, Campesterol, Flavenoid Polyphenols (Tyrosol and Hydroxytyrosol), Tocopherols, Phytosterols, Avenasterol.
Minerals- Water, Sodium, Calcium, Iron, Potassium, Phosphorous.
Acids- Free fatty acids, Omega-3, Omega-6, Palmitic, Palmitoleic, Steric, Oleic, Linoleic, Linolenic, Arachic, Benzoic, Cinnamic, Thiobarbituric.
Production & Composition
It takes between 1,300 to 2,000 olives to produce just over one litre of olive oil. Each olive is approximately 15 calories and each tablespoon of olive oil has approximately 120 calories. It is the oily juice of the fruit and not (in contrast to other vegetable oils) a seed oil. Native olive oil is virtually the only oil that can be consumed exactly the way it is obtained from the fruit, and when properly processed, maintains the taste and odour of the fruit unchanged.
To produce the best oil, olives are first harvested by hand at the proper stage of ripeness and maturity. Experts feel that hand harvesting, as opposed to mechanical harvesting, enables olives of the same size and ripeness to be picked and eliminates bruising of the fruit which causes tartness and oil acidity. Once at the mill, the leaves are sucked away with air fans and the olives are washed to eliminate any remaining impurities (e.g. dust or soil). Then they are crushed whole, without prior stoning. Traditionally with two granite millstones rolling within a metal basin.
The oil, comprising 20% to 30% of the olive, is nestled in pockets within the fruit’s cells. To separate the solids and liquids, the olive paste is spread onto a pulp mat, which is then stacked onto other mats to form a cylindrical load held fast by a central guide. The pressure exerted on the stack causes the liquids to run while the solids (pomace) are retained on the pulp mats. During the process, the temperature must be maintained between 16-28 degrees Celsius to prevent thermal deterioration of the oil.
The vegetable water and oil gradually seep out, running down into a set of decanters. Pressing is the oldest and most common method of oil extraction. The mixture of water and oil produced by this traditional pressing method can be separated by gravity in decanting vats. A more rapid separation can be achieved in centrifuges. The first pressing yields the superior quality oil, and the second and third pressings produce inferior quality oils. The best olive oils hold a certificate by an independent organisation (not regulated or financed by the industry) that authenticates the stone ground and cold pressed extraction process.
The result of the producers’ efforts is a cold pressed extra virgin olive oil with high quality standards and organoleptic characteristics, which give the oil its unique properties. Olive oil is a complex compound made of fatty acids, vitamins, volatile components, water soluble components and microscopic bits of olive. Olive oil is rich in monosaturated fat, oleic acid, polyphenol, and vitamins A and E. Its chemical structure, a compound of carbon and oxygen, is very stable and contains antioxidants and no cholesterol!
Research & Benefits
Olive oil has always been placed somewhere between food and medicine. Hippocrates, recommended the juices of fresh olives as a cure for mental illness and poultices of macerated olives for ulcers!
In the Middle Ages, it was used to treat gynecological complaints and in the Mediterranean countryside, was used as a treatment for ear aches, as a purgative, especially for children, as a treatment for stomach aches, gastritis, gastro-duodenal ulcers and to soften calluses!
Olive oil’s low percentage of saturated fats compared to other oils is one of the factors that make it “the choice” among all kinds of oils. It is said to help accelerate the digestive process, protect arteries, the stomach, the liver and is also said to be effective in preventing several diseases.
Unlike all other oil varieties whose chemical structure features more than one double link, olive oil’s has only one. Its peculiar chemical structure enables olive oil to stand high temperatures (both in cooking and frying) and to prevent the forming of compounds which are detrimental to people’s health.
The flavenoid polyphenols in olive oil are natural anti-oxidants which have been shown to have a host of beneficial effects from healing sunburn to lowering cholesterol, blood pressure, and risk of coronary disease. Many other nut and seed oils have no polyphenols. The polyphenols are not the only substances in the olive with health promoting effects. Research has shown that while polyphenols are important, tocopherols, phytosterols, and particularly avenasterol contribute to the olive oil’s anti-oxidant activity.
Anti-oxidants help prevent damage caused to the body by “free radicals”, which are produced when the body needs oxygen. Their production increases as one ages and they have been linked to heart disease, cancer and ageing.For many years research has shown that when olive oil, rich in monounsaturated fat, replaces saturated fat in the diet, it lowers total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL, the “bad” cholesterol).
Researchers believe that olive oil may help to-
Protect against cancer
Keep colon cancer at bay
Protects against bowel cancer
Reduce blood pressure level
Protect against heart disease through the immune system
Reduced the incidence of developing breast cancer for women
Inhibit the growth of human prostate cancer cells
Reduce the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.
Inhibit or delay the rate of growth bacteria such as Salmonella, Cholera, Staphylo-coccus, Pseudomonas, and Influenza in vitro.
Research is currently also has focusing on the protective effect of minor constituents of olive oil on cardiovascular disease. These studies illustrate the commitment that the world-wide scientific community has made to explore the full health potential of olive oil. The combination of new health findings and olive oil’s taste profile clearly seem to distinguish it from all other cooking oils.