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!
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.
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 Olive may sometimes even produce fruit in England!
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).
Research is currently 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.
Olive oil is also used as a treatment for skin and hair, to delay old age, treat inflammation of the stomach.