A spoonful a day keeps the doctor away?

For years, nutrition gurus have been preaching the health benefits of olive oil. Research from scientists at the Monell Chemical Senses Center and Penn may help to explain why it’s so good for us.

Freshly pressed extra virgin olive oil, the scientists report in a recent article in Nature, contains a natural anti-inflammatory agent that acts in a similar way to the common painkiller ibuprofen.

Gary Beauchamp, Monell’s director, hit on the idea of a possible link between olive oil and ibuprofen while attending a conference on molecular gastronomy in Sicily. One evening he attended an olive oil tasting, where two of the conference organizers who owned an olive grove near Palermo had set out tiny cups of freshly pressed oil for the participants to taste and compare—just like at a wine tasting.

The first sip took Beauchamp by surprise. “I’ve been using olive oil all my life,” says the scientist. “But I’m too cheap to ever use the expensive kind, and I’d certainly never drunk it.” Beauchamp noticed that the oil irritated his throat in much the same way as ibuprofen. He and his colleagues at Monell had been studying the anti-inflammatory drug extensively to try and understand its peculiar sensory property, so Beauchamp was familiar with the sensation and recognized it instantly in the potent extra virgin oil.
If the oil caused the same stinging feeling in his throat, reasoned Beauchamp, perhaps it contained similar pharmacological properties.
To a non-scientist that might seem like a leap, but, says Beauchamp, “there’s been a historic interest in our field in trying to relate sensory properties to pharmacological properties—it’s something we’ve always been interested in.”

Back in Philadelphia, Beauchamp worked with Monell scientist Paul Breslin and Penn chemistry professor Amos Smith to isolate and evaluate the compound responsible for the throaty sting. Though the scientists worked only with extra virgin oils (the highest quality grade), they cast their net wide, shopping in grocery stores for American brands—which are milder, says Breslin, to suit the American palette—and making trips to the Italian Market for stronger European imports. “We had our eye out for the most irritating,” says Breslin, who found some potent samples in a Greek store in his Northern New Jersey neighborhood.

Breslin was struck by the perfect correlation between the intensity of the stinging sensation and the concentration of the compound. “You could sip it and tell how much was in it,” he said, in the same way that the more capsaicin a chili pepper has, the hotter it will be.

Once the scientists had identified the compound and named it—oleocanthal—Smith’s lab set about making it from scratch to be certain this was the active ingredient causing the irritation.
From there, the team tested the compound’s pharmacological properties and found that, like ibuprofen, it inhibits the activity of COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes, suggesting that oleocanthal is a natural anti-inflammatory agent. Though he had suspected this from the beginning of the research, Beauchamp was still surprised—and jubilant—at the results. “It was really an incredible long shot,” he concedes.

The media jumped on the long shot. Though the word “oleocanthal” has only existed since the publication of the Sept. 1 article, a Google search now yields more than 17,000 results. While Beauchamp is tickled by the attention, headlines like “Olive oil dulls the pain” and “Headache? Try some olive oil” have him shaking his head. “To think you could cure a headache by drinking olive oil, that’s nonsensical,” he says. “The levels are far too low.” In fact, the amount of olive oil a typical Mediterranean consumes in a day—around 50 milliliters—amounts to only a tenth of a dose of ibuprofen.

The larger implication of the research, according to Beauchamp, is that it may partly explain why the Mediterranean diet, which is associated with a reduced risk of coronary and cardiovascular diseases, as well as several kinds of cancer and dementia, is so healthy. “Some component of the value of the Mediterranean diet,” he says, “may derive from consuming small amounts of olive oil every day.”

Gary Beauchamp and Paul Breslin