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A new study conducted by molecular biologists at the University of Cordoba, Spain, and the Nutrition and Genomics Laboratory of the JM-USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston, Mass., has found that the phenolic compounds in virgin olive oil can modify genes involved in the inflammatory response — an effect that can be seen in as little as a single meal.

Researchers fed volunteers who had metabolic syndrome two virgin olive oil–based breakfasts — one with an olive oil low in phenolic compounds (70 parts per million) and then, after a six-week “washout” period, one with an olive oil high in phenolic compounds (398 parts per million).

Directly after the volunteers ate each breakfast, researchers used blood samples to track the expression of more than 15,000 genes. They found that 79 genes (including many associated with obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and inflammation) were turned down by the high-phenolic olive oil — far more than with the other oil.

“The human body is quite responsive to external inputs in terms of changes in gene expression,” says Laurence Parnell, PhD, one of the lead researchers, noting that our genes respond not just to olive oil, but to everything we eat — for better, or for worse. Learn more in “Olive Oil Odyssey” in the November 2010 archives.

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