Olive Odyssey: Our Year with Olives

Submitted by Patricia B. O'Hara on Saturday, 1/3/2015, at 1:33 PM

Check in on my sabbatical progress through my blog, Our Year with Olives, which I invite you to follow.  The link here opens you to the home page.  Week by week blog entries are found on the right side of that page.  Please follow us and give us comments and feedback!

CHEM 485 - Chemistry of Olive Oil

Submitted by Patricia B. O'Hara on Sunday, 11/16/2014, at 3:33 PM
Chemistry and Utility of Olive Oil
Boğaziçi University, Fall 2014
Richard A. Blatchly, Patricia B. O’Hara, Zeynep Delen

This course hopes to connect the underlying chemistry to the physical properties, culinary aspects and health benefits of olive oil.  It will begin with a history of olive trees and olive oil culture and develop the botany and biological chemistry of the olive fruit.  The course will analyze the fatty acid make-up of the oil with particular attention to its biological impact.  We will explore the development of international standards for olive oil.  Both historical and modern techniques for the chemical aspects of processing of olives into oil, packaging the product, and transportation to the consumer will be explored. The use of olive oil throughout time has included the production of soaps, pharmaceuticals, and as a base for potions and perfumes in addition to its culinary aspect.  Discussion of the health benefits will establish its place as the healthiest of oils.


  • “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil” by Thomas Mueller 
  • “The Immortal Olive” by Artün Ünsal

Evaluation: Four quizzes worth 40%, an online discussion forum worth 40%, and final project due at the end of the semester worth 20%.

 Tentative Topics list:

  • Setting the Stage: Background History of the Olive Trees and Olive Oil Culture
  • Designing an Olive from first principles:  The Olive in all its biological and molecular glory.  What gives rise to the golden and greenish colors of the oil?
  • Liquid Gold: Analyzing the fatty acid composition of olive oil and comparing it to other nut, seed, and animal oils and fats.
  • Separating the Olive Oil from its original container while maintaining quality: lessons on solubility and the processes used today and in the past for isolating oil from the olive.
  • Olive Oil Extractions as early pharmaceuticals, potions, and perfume.
  • When bad things happen to good olives:  Sources of degradation of the oil including oxidation, degradation, and contamination.  How these chemical reactions can lead to “off-notes” in the flavor or aroma of the olive oil.
  • Preserving quality: How a delicate balance exists in the bottle, and how light or oxygen can be a catalyst for breakdown of even a good oil.
  • International Standards for Olive Oil:  What are the IOOC standards and how do we test for them?  Are tests for free fatty acids, peroxides, and organoleptics necessary and sufficient?  What other factors should be used in evaluating olive oil? 
  • Properties that contribute to Health Benefits of Olive Oil.  In addition to providing a healthy blend of fatty acids, two particular compounds are important in the health giving properties of olive oil.  Antioxidants such as the tyrosinals and polyphenols are thought to contribute to preventing cancer and other anti-inflammatory agents such as oleocanthol act to relieve pain and swelling.  Are there others?
  • 10. Are the data credible that show that olive oil consumption leads to a longer and healthier life?  We will examine recent epidemiological studies and collect first person narratives that address the question of the long-term effects of olive oil. 
  • 11. Olive trees live for thousands of year and continue to produce fruit.  What is it in the biochemistry of the tree that creates such fruitful longevity?
  • 12. What are the culinary considerations for olive oil?  Is there a single flavor and fragrance profile that is associated with good oil?  What is the smoke point of olive oil and how does that affect its culinary limitations? 


Olive Oil - Workshops, Curricula, and Contacts

Submitted by Patricia B. O'Hara on Friday, 7/25/2014, at 11:42 PM

Below find our papers and newsletters about Zeytin, the olive, and the science and international experiences made possible by  Ege'de Atolye, a nonprofit educational organization in Turkey.  I am so grateful for funding to the Whiting Foundation, whose generous grant got me started, and this year, the College's Senior Faculty Sabbatical Funding.