Olive Oil. We humans have used this fragrant translucent liquid of a pale green-yellow shade for thousands of years, to fuel lamps, in cosmetics, as medicine and of course in food.
Now two research professors at the Yale School of Public Health want to create an Institute for Olive Science and Health in New Haven. Their goal is to get everyone, everywhere to use olive oil. The professors say it will improve the health of both people and the planet.
Professors Tassos Constantino Kyriakides and Vasilis Vasiliou recently sat down with Morning Edition Host Tom Kuser to discuss their work. Below is a transcript of their conversation.
TOM: What led you to do such extensive research into olive oil?
VASILIS: Yes. It is essentially the passion both Tassos and I have about olive oil and the beneficial effects of olive oil on human health. We know all the benefits but we just want to be sure that the world would be spread about the beneficial effects of olive oil. The other thing is to promote research and education on everything that has to do with olive oil and olive products.
TOM: Let’s talk a bit about direct health benefits if we could. Are there things about olive oil when it comes to health benefits that most of us don’t know about? Professor Kyriakides, perhaps you could weigh in on that?
TASSOS: There’s a lot of science that’s coming out now. The most recent one is Type 1 diabetes and the benefits on that. But also the protection of sun rays and things like that. The exciting thing is, there’s a lot more that’s constantly being discovered. It’s just a matter of how do we harness all that information and pass on the right information for the consumer to be knowledgeable of what this superfood, I would call it, would have to offer.
TOM: I think maybe less well known would be how olives are good for the planet general. You’ve said the olive trees are a major carbon sink.
TASSOS: Yes. That’s another dimension. It is the number one carbon sink. It takes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and puts it in the soil where it belongs. And if you think about it you plant something that has that effect, and needs very minimal care and at the same time it helps clean up the environment and by the way gives you something, both olives, olive oil as well as byproducts that can be used in very beneficial ways for public health.
TOM: So olive trees are more effective at absorbing CO2 than other trees are?
TASSOS: Yes. Yes. Correct.
TOM: Other than in food, how would you like to see people using olive oil?
TASSOS: There’s a lot of work now, there’s a couple cosmetic industries that are using olive oil and its products to put in creams, sunscreen, lip balms, because of its ability to protect against radiation. I’ve heard and I’m sure people are using it for topical applications for skin. You think of inflammatory processes that are on the skin surface, if you use an anti-inflammatory it probably would help.
TOM: Tell us about the institute the two of you want to establish. Why in New Haven? Why not the Mediterranean or a place in the world where olive trees grow naturally.
TASSOS: We wanted this institute to serve as the interface and catalyst between U.S. and global entities working in this place. Olives, olive oil, the trees everything. And not in the Mediterranean because now there’s other olive oil-producing countries that are coming up strong. Australia, Chile, some places in Brazil, China, Japan. So there’s a lot of other places where we have to include them. Using of the Southern Hemisphere when the Mediterranean is not producing olives, is not harvesting, now you have the Southern Hemisphere, Australia, producing olive oil. So we wanted to bring everyone together.
TOM: Could you tell me a bit more about what you hope the institute will be able to do?
VASILIS: Well, we’re trying to develop analytical methods to check the quality of the olive oil, the originality of the olive oil so that we can ensure the consumer that what he’s buying is the right thing. Because do you remember actually NPR had the big issue two years ago about the scam of the olive oil, the Italian olive oil, that was essentially putting a little bit of extra virgin olive and the other was not high quality and they were selling it. So we want to be sure that the consumer is protected. We also would like to really stimulate the partnerships and collaborations between individuals, the industry, the research community, and the producers and also the consumers, so we’re all on the same page. Because there are a lot of false statements. For example, people say not to use olive oil to fry or to cook, because it’s not good, it has more calories. So there’s a lot of misinformation that we would like to cover.
TOM: So the information that I’ve heard about olive oil burning more easily and that means it’s not really a good thing to use in some circumstances? That’s not necessarily true so I should not be using grapeseed oil in place of olive oil.
TASSOS: Yes, Tom. That’s one of the myths that a lot of organizations out there are trying to dispel. We always hear the smoke point of olive oil is 415, 420 so it’s not that good if it starts burning. I don’t know a lot of people who cook at that temperature and even if you do as shown by research proves otherwise.
TOM: Something that governments around the world have had little luck in regulating is climate change. And I’m wondering is climate change having an impact on olive groves?
TASSOS: Yes, there is, definitely. I was recently on a trip down to the Puglia area in Italy. And one of the things they’re seeing there is one of the main killers of the tree Xylella and they’ve seen it in places where they’ve never seen it before. And obviously climate change has impacted the expansion of diseases in places where before it was not seen. So we have to be proactive in that as we’re seeing this coming up because it’s not just the impact it will have on the production of it but now you have whole families and generations of families producing olive oil now they’re at risk of not having a livelihood.
VASILIS: The other thing I may add is that climate change is here. You know, it is very obvious. So the thing is what do we do, what is the next step, how can we be prepared to maintain the steady state of production or have even higher production of olive oil with these new conditions.