Aug 152011

Marie Boyd reflects on the benefits of olive oil and corn oil

Our world is made up of stereotypical labels given to various societies. Americans are known for their unhealthy diets and obesity, while those in the Mediterranean are notorious for being skinny and are renowned for their success in establishing a diet based on all natural and fresh ingredients. A large part of this divergence is the type of oil each culture utilizes. Olive oil, the staple of Mediterranean cuisine has gained a reputation for its delicious flavor and for its many health benefits, while America’s favored corn oil continues to fall in popularity due to negative connotations associated with mounting health concerns. A debate exists in the global sphere that questions the chemical, medical, and practical differences between these two products, therefore this paper attempts to determine and define the generally accepted concept that olive oil is the collectively superior alternative to corn oil.

Today American farmland is compiled of countless acres of cornfields due to the relatively cheap maintenance cost and the national tax incentive given to corn producers. Corn oil is extracted from the germ of these corn stalks, and then bottled up for consumer and commercial use. Corn exists in several practical edible forms including corn syrup, corn starch, anhydrous sugar, maltodextrin, dextrose, and glucose. Not to mention, of course, that there are even some researchers who are attempting to convert corn oil into fuel for automobiles.  Corn oil has great qualities for frying because when it is refined, free fatty acids are removed from the crude corn oil. This refinement also allows the oil to retain flavor, enhances digestibility, and resist discoloration and smoking (Traister). Commercially corn oil is used in margarine and in a majority of fried foods, especially in fast food restaurants, which have become a staple of American culture, and thus has helped corn oil acquire a negative reputation.

Contrary to the mass media messages, corn products are not all bad. For centuries, maize has been a source of high protein and carbohydrate. Corn naturally is a great source of vitamin C, and yellow kernel corn contains traces of beta-carotene forms of vitamin A (zhion). Corn oil contains anti-oxidants and iron, and is a good source of ubiquinone, alpha- and gamma-tocopherols. Characteristically low saturated fat contents are beneficial for lowering cholesterol levels and healthy heart functions. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s De Mejia EG and Prisecaru VI have discovered the health benefits of Lectins, a unique group of proteins and glycoprotein found in corn; these include anticancer properties in the form of therapeutic agents for cancer cells which ‘causing cytotoxicity, apoptosis, and inhibition of tumor growth’ (zhion). Studies at Cornell University have established that corn has the highest total phenolic content and antioxidant activity of several of the whole grains tested. Corn is also able to withstand digestion inside the stomach, hence bringing its nutritional values to the colon. It is also it helpful in the prevention of colon cancer, amongst other diseases. Finally, corn oil is high in linoleic acid, an essential acid for skin and cell membrane integrity and icosanoids production, responsible for reproductive, cardiovascular, renal, and gastrointestinal functions and resistance to disease (CR Sirtori).

Corn oil’s negative reputation did not appear out of nowhere. A majority of the corn utilized in the oil production has been genetically modified for benefits like resistance to herbicides and pesticides. Since such modifications are a recent technology, the effect of consumption of hybridized corn products on short- or long- term human and animal health cannot be fully understood. A study published in 2009, however, found that rats that consumed genetically modified corn experienced toxicity of the liver, kidneys, adrenal glands, spleen and heart (Traister). When corn is processed, the heating process actually increases antioxidant activity by 44%, but decreases amounts of vitamin C. There is even a growing number of individuals who develop allergies to corn, making it nearly impossible to eat a meal in the United States where corn oils and syrups can be found in almost any product. As far as taking the blame for American obesity, the American Medical Association found that corn oil results in higher body weight gains and fatty livers than when its sugar equivalent is ingested (Traister). Americans seem to prefer eating the newer hybrid varieties of corn; genetic manipulation has made today’s corn sweeter and less starchy, but most Americans are unaware that the corn they prefer has been genetically manipulated. The present day sweet taste of corn is enjoyed in various cooking methods.

Cancer is one of the largest mysteries in Western medicine. Many of the intricacies of the causes and functions of the various forms of cancer have not been identified. Regardless, many researches have speculated that the intake of corn oil may increase one’s risk of contracting cancer, due to the high number of polyunsaturated fatty acids, including omega-6 fatty acids that are believed to accelerate the growth of cancer cells (Heavey). In fact, at the Saga Medical School in Japan, it was found that polyunsaturated fatty acids are one of the requirements for cancer growth (Ziohn). In one tablespoon of corn oil there exists 7.436 grams of omega-6 fatty acids; the zero grams of omega-3 fatty acids that were found to protect one’s body from cancer in a 2007 study by Isabele Berquin (Livestrong). According to M.D Brown’s research published in the 2010 in British Journal of Cancer, arachidonic acid, a particular type of omega-6 fatty acid, was found to even promote the growth of prostate cancer and the spread of cancer to bones. This remains to be an escalating issue due to the expanding ratio of the omega-6s to the omega-3s in the average American diet.

In comparison, olive oil is a more limited product, therefore easier to control. Similar to corn, there are several varieties of olives. Other that the olive itself, the only product that is commonly produced from the olive for consumption purposes is olive oil. Olive oil has fewer classifications as well, including extra virgin, the term used for the first pressing of the olives, and virgin, meaning the second pressing. These are the least processed versions of olive oil, and the most popular for consumer use. Extra virgin is generally used in its natural form, while virgin oil is typically for the various cooking methods. Olive oil as a product is essentially solely used for cooking, but the taste is additionally enjoyed in pure form as many poor it over salads or cooked.

The reported health benefits of using olive oil come in several forms. Within olive oil there are several different kinds of fat, including saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated fatty acids. It’s important to have a balance of these fats since saturated fats raise one’s low density lipoprotein, LDL, cholesterol while monounsaturated facts lower these LDL (Langton). This is important, as LDL damages blood vessels and support high cholesterol within one’s body. In addition, monounsaturated fats are found to reduce the risk of heart disease and decrease the production of bile acids in the digestive tract that can promote colon cancer development, while the unsaturated fats might also help the rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes due to anti-inflammatory actions of these fats.  Antioxidants in the form of polyphenols can also be found in olives. Olive oil is not completely innocent, however, since it does contain amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Cardiovascular health benefits in a 100g portion of olive oil include 14mg vitamin E to help in the formation of red blood cells and 62mcg vitamin K necessary for regular blood clotting (oliveoilsource). In addition olive oil contains iron, critical for the oxygenation of red blood cells throughout the body, and the electrolytes calcium, potassium, and sodium that transport electrical charges to muscles and nerves ensuring a regular heartbeat. The vitamins, polyphenols, and chlorophyll naturally present in the oil help “inhibit the effects of damaging free radicals and protect the immune system” (Underwood). It is even said that olive oil has a healthy effect on digestive issues.

Although olive oil has several reported health benefits, it must still be consumed in moderation and viewed as a fatty oil. By nature, olive oil is high in calories, is preferred over other oils for cooking purposes, but is not really a healthy addition to any snack. The attractive qualities of olive oil are not as resilient as that of corn oil, thus heat, light, and air easily affect the taste and nutrients of olive oil (Hensrud). The oil should be stored in the dark at either room temperature or refrigerated to ensure preservation. The fats and healthy phytonutrients slowly degrade, making its shelf life one year, or six months from the time it is opened.

Olive oil appears to have a converse relationship with cancers compared to corn oil. In a study done by Dr. Henrik E. Poulsen, from the Copenhagen University Hospital in Denmark found that olive oil might be part of the reason that breast, colon, ovarian, and prostate cancers, are less common in Mediterranean countries (Sahelian). Yet again, it is difficult to determine whether this is an effect of the oil itself, or the diet of fresh foods and vegetables. A different study in Spain found that higher consumption of olive oil significantly lowered the risk of breast cancer; they were careful to note that their results did not “support a relation between total fat intake and breast cancer risk…(but) they do provide evidence for an inverse association between olive oil and risk of breast cancer” (Martin-Moreno).

As a whole, oils are crucial for optimal metabolism and health. Which oil is better to use is an endless matter of debate amongst scientists. Some doctors take the middle road and say that one should eat a variety and a moderation of each (Sahelian). After analyzing the information available on both corn and olive oil, the overall benefits and taste of olive oil far outweigh those of corn oil. Although olive oil is already known for its great taste, the health benefits such as the importance of LDL cholesterol are not well understood by consumers, particularly in the United States where using corn oil is considered, by most Americans to be the American way. It appears that American’s preference for corn oil needs to come to an end. Admittedly, however, olives are a difficult product to grow, especially in the United State. If there was an increase in demand for olive oil in America, there is the potential for shortages of the product, opening the door for endless attempts to stretch the limited number of olives, making the end product worse for everyone. With the possible foreseeable future shortage of olive oil, researchers at the Agricultural Research Service and Iowa State University are developing new varieties of American grown corn oil with the intention of deriving the healthy benefits of olive oil and combing the natural positive aspects of maize into a new healthier corn oil (Underwood). So far, the oils they have created still contain a monounsaturated fatty acid known at oleic acid that has the potential to lower the risk of heart disease. Regardless, as research continues to make these attempts, the health of the American people progressively suffers as a result of the widespread corn oil use in their diet. It points, generally, to the social ideals of many of the people of the United States that the cheapest option that can produce the biggest supply is generally seen as the best choice to make, instead of looking at the evidence and making overcall concern about he good health and nutrition of Americans a top priority. Until the health effects of each oil can be truly defined, each nation will continue to enjoy their diet’s base oil, the dietitians and nutritionists across the globe to determine which oil has the better effect on health. Who knows, maybe in ten years an oil will be developed from a new plant that will far surpass both corn oil and olive oil taste, quality, and benefits.


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Heavey, Susan. “Corn Oil Products Can Claim Heart Benefit | Reuters.” Thomson

Hensrud, M.D, Donald. “If Olive Oil Is High in Fat, Why Is It Considered Healthy?” Nutrition and Eating Healthy. Mayo Clinic, 26 Mar. 2011.

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Martin-Moreno, J. M., Willett, W. C., Gorgojo, L., Banegas, J. R., Rodriguez-Artalejo, F., Fernandez-Rodriguez, J. C., Maisonneuve, P. and Boyle, P. (1994), Dietary fat, olive oil intake and breast cancer risk. International Journal of Cancer, 58: 774–780.

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