We Will Never Understand Food Until We Fall in Love with Complexity

Only the olive contradicts. My eye,
Traveling slopes of rust and green, arrests
And rests from plentitude where olives lie
Richard Wilbur
From Grasse: The Olive Trees, The New Yorker, 1948

Opposition is an evocative force in art and literature, and perhaps essential—what would a story be without its antagonist, a baroque painting without light juxtaposed with darkness?  A song delivered only in soprano can be sweet, but a deep, dark bass accompaniment can move the heaviest heart.  In nature, contrast and opposition are everywhere, and biology offers many examples, one of which can be illustrated within the olive itself.

In Wilbur’s vivid description of one of the earth’s most historically celebrated trees, there is an unintentional, yet faithful representation of a critical theme in polyphenol pharmacology.  The olive (Olea europaea)has been harvested at least 5,000 years for its oil and for its medicinal leaves.  Over the past two decades, scientists have identified associations between the Mediterranean diet and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease [1].  Speculation of the possible accountable constituents has since arisen with premature vehemence in the medical literature, and much of the discourse has illuminated the monounsaturated fat in olive oil due to (1) its abundance, and (2) functional distinctions from the polyunsaturated and saturated fats more commonly consumed in the U.S.  Olive oil contains heart-healthy fat.  How often have you heard this?

Is Monet’s Regatta at Sainte-Adresse blue? Yes, but would that capture it?   So begins a more dignified interpretation of plants.

Olive oil contains small amounts of polyphenols, the most familiar of which are oleuropein and hydroxytyrosol [1].  In vitro, hydroxytyrosol activates SIRT1, an enzyme associated with extended life span and partial resistance against cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity [2].  Preliminary studies suggest that to some extent, olive phenolics functionally antagonize the effects of increased fat intake (this is inevitable when you consume the oil) [1].

Is Monet’s Regatta at Sainte-Adresse blue? Yes, but would that capture it?   So begins a more dignified interpretation of plants.

Through supple mingling with cellular transcription factors, olive polyphenols oppose their caloric accompaniments by activating genes that would normally be engaged by famine [2,3].  Like many polyphenols, hydroxytyrosol and oleuropein activate genes that tell fat cells to (1) stop accumulating oil in the first place, (2) when possible, waste the calories as heat, and (3) consider suicide, a process known as apoptosis.  These are examples of nutritional antagonism within a single food—contradictions that  unilaterally serve the eater with an elaborate program of protective cellular changes that are consistent with a net reduction of disease risk.

In simple terms, the polyphenols in olive oil modify various unwelcome effects of the fat and calories that dwell beside them. 

Not to torture the topic of uncertainty, but the principle most likely extends to other food plants.

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