Photo © Steven Foster
The olive is an evergreen tree that grows to about 33 feet and is characterized by gray-green leaves.1 Olive trees have been cultivated on the island of Crete since 3500 BCE and some live more than 500 years.2 Today, olive trees are cultivated throughout the Mediterranean in Italy, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Portugal, Morocco, and Syria as well as the United States, Australia, and South Africa.2,3
History and Cultural Significance
Greek mythology states that the first olive trees were actually sprouts from where the goddess Athena pierced the soil with her spear.2 Ancient citizens of Greece decided to name their capital after Athena to honor the goddess for such a bountiful tree.2 Since the olive tree is so productive and long lived, it became the symbol of peace and productivity for ancient Greeks.2 Olympic athletes were rewarded with a single olive branch as a sign of vitality. Homer wrote in the Odyssey that olive oil was “liquid gold”.2
Traditional uses of the fruit include nutrition and the production of olive oil.4,5 The fruit is cold-pressed to produce the renowned cooking oil traditionally thought to have medicinal properties.1,4 Olive oil has been used historically for relief of intestinal gas, for lubrication of the intestines, and as a mild laxative.5 Externally, olive oil has been applied to soothe minor burns and dry skin. In combination with other products, olive oil has been used in the treatment of stretch marks due to pregnancy, as well as for firming the breasts.5
One of the components of olive oil, squalene, is thought to have antioxidant properties and it occurs naturally in human skin.6 Squalene, an unsaturated fatty acid, is used as an emollient in many cosmetics and is thought to be beneficial in replenishing skin suppleness, especially when skin has been damaged by the wind or sun.7
In one study, researchers were able to show that a diet rich in olive oil intake significantly correlated to a decrease in blood pressure in healthy adult volunteers.8 Another investigation indicated that a reduced fat diet high in extra virgin olive oil allowed for lower daily dosages of antihypertensive medications.9
Recently, externally applied olive oil combination products have been studied for the treatment of diaper rash.10
The growth and production of olives and olive oil is a worldwide, multi-million dollar industry. It is estimated that 1 million tons of olives and 2.25 million tons of olive oil are consumed annually, worldwide.11 Italy, Spain, and Greece are the major producers of olive and olive oil, but new plantings are under way in South America, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.12 With consumption increasing yearly and production increasing at an even faster rate, the olive industry is showing no signs of slowing.
1 DerMarderosian A, Beutler JA, eds. The Review of Natural Products: The Most Complete Source of Natural Product Information. 3rd ed. St. Louis, MO: Facts and Comparisons; 2002.
2 Anonymous. The Olive Tree (Olea europea). Explore Crete web site. 2005. Available at: http://www.explorecrete.com/nature/olive.html. Accessed: April 4, 2005.
3 Anonymous. Olive Fruit Facts. The California Rare Fruit Growers web site. Available at: http://www.crfg.org/pubs/ff/olive.html. Accessed April 4, 2005.
4 Bruneton J. Pharmacognosy, Phytochemistry, Medicincal Plants. 2nd ed. Paris: Lavoisier Publishing Inc.; 1999.
5 Blumenthal M, Busse WR, Goldberg A, Gruenwald J, Hall T, Riggins CW, Rister RS, eds. Klein S, Rister RS, trans. The Complete German Commission E Monographs¾Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. Austin, TX: American Botanical Council; Boston: Integrative Medicine Communication; 1998.
6 Jarvis WT. Shark Liver Oil. National Council Against Fraud web site. 1997. Available at: http://www.ncahf.org/articles/s-z/sharkoil.html. Accessed April 4, 2005.
7 Anonymous. Sqaulene Oil. Second Report of the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel. Journal of the American College of Toxicology. 1982:1(2):37-56.
8 Psaltopoulou T, Naska A, Orfanos P, Trichopoulos D, Mountokalakis T, Trichopoulou A. Olive oil, the Mediterranean diet, and arterial blood pressure: The Greek European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004;80:1012–1018.
9 Ferrara LA, Raimondi AS, d’ Episcopo L, Guida L, Dello Russo A,
Marotta T. Olive oil and reduced need for antihypertensive medication.
Arch Intern Med. 2000;160(6):837–842.
10 Al-Waili NS. Clinical and mycological benefits of topical application of honey, olive oil, and beeswax. European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases. 2005;11:161-163.
11 Anonymous. The world olive market. International Olive Council web site. Available at: http://www.internationaloliveoil.org/noticia.asp?pNew=46. Accessed April 5, 2005.
12 Anonymous. Global Olive Industry. OliveBusiness.com web site. Available at: http://www.olivebusiness.com/OliveHandbook/OliveIndustry/global.htm. Accessed April 5, 2005.