- Earth's Gift -
Olive oil is a liquid fat obtained from olives (the fruit of Olea europaea , family Oleaceae), a traditional tree crop of the Mediterranean Basin. The oil is produced by pressing whole olives. It is commonly used in cooking, whether for frying or as a salad dressing. It is also used in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and soaps, and as a fuel for traditional oil lamps, and has additional uses in some religions. It is associated with the "Mediterranean diet" for its possible health benefits. The olive is one of three core food plants in Mediterranean cuisine, the other two are wheat and grapes.
Olive trees have been grown around the Mediterranean since the 8th millennium BC. Spain is the largest producer of olive oil, followed by Italy and Greece. However, per capita consumption is highest in Greece, followed by Spain, Italy, and Morocco. Consumption in North America and northern Europe is far less, but rising steadily.
The composition of olive oil varies with the cultivar, altitude, time of harvest and extraction process. It consists mainly of oleic acid (up to 83%), with smaller amounts of other fatty acids including linoleic acid (up to 21%) and palmitic acid (up to 20%). Extra-virgin olive oil is required to have no more than 0.8% free acidity and is considered to have favorable flavor characteristics; it forms as much as 80% of total production in Greece and 65% in Italy, but far less in other countries.
Archeological evidence shows that olives were turned into olive oil by 6000 BC and 4500 BC in Palestine. Until 1500 BC, eastern coastal areas of the Mediterranean were most heavily cultivated. Evidence also suggests that olives were being grown in Crete as long ago as 2,500 BC. The earliest surviving olive oil amphorae date to 3500 BC (Early Minoan times), though the production of olive oil is assumed to have started before 4000 BC. Olive trees were certainly cultivated by the Late Minoan period (1500 BC) in Crete, and perhaps as early as the Early Minoan. The cultivation of olive trees in Crete became particularly intense in the post-palatial period and played an important role in the island's economy, as it did across the Mediterranean.
Greek olive oil and history
As scientists tell us, the exact place where the olive tree sprung for the first time is the greater Mediterranean Basin. The first cultivation of the olive tree worldwide took place in Greece, and more specific in Crete. This happened in about 3500 BC in the Early Minoan times. In this period the olive tree was in a wilder form in comparison to the tree we know today. After 2000 BC the cultivation of the olive tree in Crete was very intense and systematic playing the most important role on the island's economy. The first export of the olive oil not only in mainland Greece but in Northern Africa and Asia Minor as well, started from Crete.
Very soon the cultivation passed to mainland Greece and the olive tree and its blessed product, olive oil became synonyms of the Greek nutrition through centuries. The Mycenaean civilization (c.1600-1150 BC) followed the Minoan in mainland Greece. The olive oil production was very important in the economy of this society. The decipherment of the "Linear B" script brought to light valuable information about the production, the commerce and the export of the olive oil in Mycenaean Greece as we can see in the palace records of Mycenae and Pylos.
In the 6th century BC, Solon, the great Athenian legislator, drafted the first law for the protection of the olive tree excluding the uncontrolled felling. The olive tree was a symbol in ancient Greece and the olive oil was used not only for its valuable nutritional quality but also for medical purposes.
Between the 7th and 3rd centuries BC ancient philosophers, physicians and historians undertook its botanical classifications and referred to the curative properties of olive oil. This knowledge is being "rediscovered" today as modern scientists research and find news why the Mediterranean diet is so healthy. The symbolic meaning of the olive tree as well as the exceptional value of the olive oil is visible in overall sectors of the ancient Greece's life.
Olive oil during the Greek history
During Classical period when Athens reached the peak of its power, the Greek olive oil was exported throughout the known world and as it is normal the greatest merchants were the Athenians winners of the Panathenaic Games.
When Romans occupied Greece, the olive oil production continued and Romans were able to learn the secrets of cultivation.
During Byzantine times things did not change. The production of the olive oil in Greek territories was significant because of the vast size of the Empire. The Empire itself included almost half of the olive oil productive areas in the known world and the product was exported throughout the world.
Large part of the total production was the work of the monks due to the big areas possessed by the monasteries. When Turks conquered Greece the production of olive oil was not affected. The product itself kept alive inter alias the traditional way of life of the Greek nation and was even used for religious purposes.
During this time the olive tree and its oil had a special position in the Christian Orthodox church; it was a symbol of love and peace, an essential part of several solemn rites, from the service of baptism to the oil lamps used in churches and the little shrine that is part of every Greek household.
Undoubtedly, a great part of the total production belonged to the Turkish Government, but the rest remained in Greek hands as well as the "know how".
After the liberation, the olive tree areas were separated into two areas according to the Greek law: the private properties (those areas which belonged to Greeks during the Turkish occupation), and the national areas (those areas which belonged to the Turks respectively).
From this time until today, Greece became the world's most important exporter of qualitative olive oil.
The love and high esteem of the Greek olive-grower for the olive tree is passed on from generation to generation and from family to family. With the birth of a child an olive tree is planted which will grow and develop along with the child. When the child starts school at the age of six, the olive tree is ready to produce its fruit. The blessed tree grows up with the family, only it will have a much longer life and will still be around to be tended by the next generation, and the one after that. Each year, it yields its annual crop of olives in return for the labor and love expended on it.
Greek olive in ancient Olympic games
A number of facts show to us the relationship between the olive tree and its product with some social activities. It is characteristic that when the first Olympic Games took place in Olympia in 776 BC an olive-tree branch was the award to the winners symbolizing the armistice of any hostility and the peace.
This symbolic award was given to winners until the end of the ancient Olympic Games. However, not only an olive-tree branch was the award in games but the product itself. The most impressive example of the value of the olive oil was its use at the Panathenaic Games. These games took place every four years with the occasion of Athens' most important celebration, the Panathenea, in honor of the goddess Athena. The winners of the athletic games delivered as an award olive oil putted in amphorae known as the "Panathenaic Amphorae". The amphorae itself, constituted the quality of the already certified product; this is the very first example of product certification in world history.
The quantities of the delivered olive oil to the winners were huge. For example, depending on sport, the first winner could take as award a quantity in about 5 tons. As a matter of fact, such as a quantity could not be consumed by the winner only. Taking into account that the legislation in Athens excluded the export of the olive oil but this concession was given only to winners of the Panathenaic Games we can easily imagine how rich, any winner became.
In Jewish observance, olive oil is the only fuel allowed to be used in the seven-branched Menorah in the Mishkan service during the Exodus of the tribes of Israel from Egypt, and later in the permanent Temple in Jerusalem. It was obtained by using only the first drop from a squeezed olive and was consecrated for use only in the Temple by the priests and stored in special containers. Although candles can be used to light the hanukkiah, oil containers are preferred, to imitate the original Menorah. Another use of oil in Jewish religion is for anointing the kings of the Kingdom of Israel, originating from King David. Tzidkiyahu was the last anointed King of Israel.
The Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches use olive oil for the Oil of Catechumens (used to bless and strengthen those preparing for Baptism) and Oil of the Sick (used to confer the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick or Unction). Olive oil mixed with a perfuming agent such as balsam is consecrated by bishops as Sacred Chrism, which is used to confer the sacrament of Confirmation (as a symbol of the strengthening of the Holy Spirit), in the rites of Baptism and the ordination of priests and bishops, in the consecration of altars and churches, and, traditionally, in the anointing of monarchs at their coronation.
Eastern Orthodox Christians still use oil lamps in their churches, home prayer corners and in the cemeteries. A vigil lamp consists of a votive glass containing a half-inch of water and filled the rest with olive oil. The glass has a metal holder that hangs from a bracket on the wall or sits on a table. A cork float with a lit wick floats on the oil. To douse the flame, the float is carefully pressed down into the oil. Makeshift oil lamps can easily be made by soaking a ball of cotton in olive oil and forming it into a peak. The peak is lit and then burns until all the oil is consumed, whereupon the rest of the cotton burns out. Olive oil is a usual offering to churches and cemeteries.
Potential health effects
Olive oil consumption is thought to affect cardiovascular health. Epidemiological studies indicate that a higher proportion of monounsaturated fats in the diet may be linked with a reduction in the risk of coronary heart disease. There is preliminary evidence that regular consumption of olive oil may lower risk of all-cause mortality and several chronic diseases.
In a comprehensive scientific review by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in 2011, health claims on olive oil were approved for protection by its polyphenols against oxidation of blood lipids, and for the contribution to the maintenance of normal blood LDL-cholesterol levels by replacing saturated fats in the diet with oleic acid (Commission Regulation (EU) 432/2012 of 16 May 2012). A cause-and-effect relationship has not been adequately established for consumption of olive oil and maintaining normal (fasting) blood concentrations of triglycerides, normal blood HDL-cholesterol concentrations, and normal blood glucose concentrations.
A 2011 meta-analysis concluded that olive oil consumption may play a protective role against the development of any type of cancer, but could not clarify whether the beneficial effect is due to olive oil monounsaturated fatty acid content or its polyphenol components.
A 2014 meta-analysis concluded that an elevated consumption of olive oil is associated with reduced risk of all-cause mortality, cardiovascular events and stroke, while monounsaturated fatty acids of mixed animal and plant origin showed no significant effects.
In the United States, producers of olive oil may place the following restricted health claim on product labels:
Limited and not conclusive scientific evidence suggests that eating about 2 tbsp. (23 g) of olive oil daily may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease due to the monounsaturated fat in olive oil. To achieve this possible benefit, olive oil is to replace a similar amount of saturated fat and not increase the total number of calories you eat in a day.
This decision was announced November 1, 2004 after application to the FDA by producers. Similar labels are permitted for canola oil and foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as walnuts and hemp seed.
Olive oil has a long history of being used as a home remedy for skincare. Egyptians used it alongside beeswax as a cleanser, moisturizer, and antibacterial agent since pharaonic times.In ancient Greece, olive oil was used during massage, to prevent sports injuries, relieve muscle fatigue, and eliminate lactic acid buildup.In 2000, Japan was the top importer of olive oil in Asia (13,000 tons annually) because consumers there believe both the ingestion and topical application of olive oil to be good for skin and health.
Olive oil is popular for use in massaging infants and toddlers, but scientific evidence of its efficacy is mixed. One analysis of olive oil versus mineral oil found that, when used for infant massage, olive oil can be considered a safe alternative to sunflower, grapeseed and fractionated coconut oils. This stands true particularly when it is mixed with a lighter oil like sunflower, which "would have the further effect of reducing the already low levels of free fatty acids present in olive oil".Another trial stated that olive oil lowered the risk of dermatitis for infants in all gestational stages when compared with emollient cream.However, yet another study on adults found that topical treatment with olive oil "significantly damages the skin barrier" when compared to sunflower oil, and that it may make existing atopic dermatitis worse. The researchers concluded that due to the negative outcome in adults, they do not recommend the use of olive oil for the treatment of dry skin and infant massage.
Applying olive oil to the skin does not help prevent or reduce stretch marks.