Researchers to examine health benefits of olives

By Chris Jones

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Olive oil

The potential health benefits of olives will be the focus of
researchers at the first university-based olive research and
education center in North America based at the University of
California, Davis.

Researchers from UC Davis have already uncovered a myriad of beneficial compounds in grapes and wine and are hoping that the new Olive Center, part of the university's Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, will help them discover similar substances in olives. The center has been established with a combined $75,000 in seed funding from the campus's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and the Office of Research, while olive growers and pressers Corto Olive, the Musco Family Olive Co., Bell-Carter Foods, the California Olive Oil Council and the California Olive Ranch have contributed $25,000. "The university had the privilege of helping move California wines into the world's highest rankings [through its research into the health benefits of moderate wine consumption],"​ said Dan Flynn, executive director of the new center. "Now we look forward to harnessing UC Davis' research expertise to help vault California olives and olive oil into that same league."​ Neal Van Alfen, dean of UC Davis' College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences added that the new initiative would "lead to advances in olive growing and processing"​ and to "a better understanding of the link between olive products and consumer health".​ California is the only state in the US that produces a commercially significant crop of olives: approximately 70 to 80 per cent of the ripe olives consumed in the United States come from California. But while it is an important part of the local economy, the California olive industry is a small player on the global stage - Spain, for example, has more than 5.6 million acres of olives grown by 571,150 producers, compared to the 39,591 acres of olives grown on 1,549 farms in California, according to a 2002 census. California produces around 400,000 gallons of olive oil annually and output has been growing rapidly over the last decade as the body of evidence about the benefits of olives and olive oil has grown. Indeed, Californian olive oil production is now double the level of 10 years ago. Olive oil, as part of a balance Mediterranean diet rich in fish, fruit and vegetables, has been shown to reduce mortality levels and lower incidences of heart disease, obesity and certain types of cancers. Research by a team from the University of Barcelona, for example, found that LDL or 'bad' cholesterol levels could be cut substantially after consuming just 25 millilitres of virgin olive oil daily for one week. The compound hydroxytyrosol is thought to be the main antioxidant in olives, and, importantly, it is also thought to act in table olives as well as in oil. At present, 90 per cent of California's olive production is for canned olives, with only 10 per cent crushed for oil. But with such significant potential, California's olive growers have been keen to invest in new tree varieties that are more easily harvested and have greater yields. As a result, industry experts forecast that California's volume of olive oil will increase by 500 per cent in the next five years, according to UC Davis. "The olive center will help all olive producers, large and small, tackle the pressing challenges facing our industry. We anticipate that the center will enhance the economic viability of the California olive industry in an extremely competitive international marketplace,"​ said Alan Greene, president of the California Olive Oil Council and a vice-president of the California Olive Ranch. The UC Davis campus features what is though to be the most extensive collection of olive trees in North America: more than 2,000 in total. The university began pressing and processing olive oil from its trees in 2005, and produced 6,500 bottles of olive oil in 2007. As well as looking into the potential health benefits of olives and olive oil, the new center will also tackle areas that could help boost the state's olive industry in general. This includes strengthening California's olive oil labeling statutes, conducting research on issues identified by olive-oil and table-olive producers, and identifying better laboratory methods for detecting adulterated olive oil. The center also plans to establish a certified-organic olive orchard and will develop a research taste panel to help improve the quality of olive oils. A new olive-oil processing plant and a state-of-the-art milling center is expected to begin processing oil this fall.

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