Next time you’re cooking with extra virgin olive oil, go ahead and take a little swig. If it burns your throat or makes you cough, you've got some potent EVOO there.
Connoisseurs have long known that the distinctive irritating sting (almost but not everyone experiences it) is the mark of high-quality olive oil. It is also, according to Gary K. Beauchamp of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, indicative of a naturally occurring compound called "oleocanthal." It's unique to EVOO and appears to be an even more potent anti-inflammatory agent than ibuprofen.
Speaking at a recent session of the University City Science Center Quorum "Lunch for Hungry Minds" program, Beauchamp, emeritus director and president at Monell (the world's only independent nonprofit research institute focused on taste and smell), described how research is substantiating the health benefits of EVOO and, by extension, the Mediterranean diet.
Both ibuprofen and olive oil create a similar burning sensation in the back of the throat. Monell set out to determine what accounts for what Beauchamp calls "the throat localized pungency of EVOO" and whether it has the same pharmacological benefits as the pharmaceutical mainstay.
In 2005, Monell (and simultaneously Unilever) identified oleocanthal, the compound that accounts for the throat sting. This natural anti-inflammatory agent inhibits activity of cyclooxygenase (COX) enzymes, a pharmacological action shared by Advil, Motrin and other over-the-counter ibuprofen drugs.
The health benefits of the oleocanthal in EVOO for those raised eating traditional Mediterranean cuisines -- and those who adopt the so-called Mediterranean diet -- could be considerable. It is well known that the regimen can protect against heart disease. Monell researchers believe that oleocanthal might also be associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and certain cancers.
Further research is needed to determine the connection between the sensory attributes of EVOO (bitter, pungent, fruity, etc.) and the anti-inflammatory effect, and to determine the safety, stability, efficacy and cost of isolating the molecule for commercialization. Also of interest to Monell is why humans have come to appreciate the sting of the oleocanthal in olive oil. (As Beauchamp notes, we’re also the only species that likes hot peppers, whose capsaicin affords its own health benefits.)
For now, what is known is that oils pressed from young olives from an early harvest have the highest levels of oleocanthal and the biggest burn.