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Oleocanthal, The Secret of the Mediterranean Diet Revealed!

Ever heard of oleocanthal?  It’s fun to say!  It’s also good for you and is found in quality extra virgin olive oils.

Oleocanthal is one of the many, many different biophenols (aka polyphenols) found in real extra virgin olive oils that tend to disappear when the oil is treated with heat or chemicals, and is yet another reason that ensuring your EVOO is authentic is worth the extra effort.  

This amazing compound was first discovered and isolated by Dr. Gary Beauchamp a biomedical researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia after attending a molecular gastronomy conference in Erice, Sicily in 1999!

Here’s the experience as described in “Extra Virginity” by Tom Mueller:

A SHARP SEAR came at the back of Gary Beauchamp’s throat, together with an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. As his eyes filled with tears and he started coughing convulsively, a eureka moment came of the kind that scientists dream of, a chain reaction of interdisciplinary inspirations ricocheting through biochemistry, immunology, and human history. All triggered by one sip of extra virgin olive oil.

The reason for Dr. Beauchamp’s déjà vu?  He had been working on a study comparing ibuprofen to acetaminophen.  Ibuprofen, when chewed and swallowed, produces a very distinctive burn on the back of the throat, and Dr. Beauchamp experienced the same burn when tasting olive oil in Sicily!

He took some of the olive oil back to his lab, isolated the individual compounds, and began tasting them.  When he tried (what he would later name) oleocanthal, there it was again.  That distinctive burn in the back of the throat.

After further experimentation, they confirmed that oleocanthal - like ibuprofen - inhibited COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes in very similar ways.  Inhibiting COX enzymes is the main chemical property that gives ibuprofen its pain relief and anti-inflammatory effects.

OK, that’s a little deep.  I’m not a scientist so please don’t ask me anything ore about COX inhibitors!

It is also worth noting that - unlike ibuprofen -  we already know that olive oil contains a whole host of additional compounds with numerous health benefits!

Before I wrap up this post, a little bit about the name oleocanthal.  Dr. Beauchamp and his staff named the compound by combining the latin words “oleum” (oil), “aculeo” (sting), and “aldehyde” (aldehyde).

Since the term “Mediterranean diet” was popularized as a healthy approach to eating in the 1950s, researchers have been trying to figure out why.  Oleocanthal may not be the only reason, but it is certainly a major factor!

Additional reading:  Google is your friend, but this short article from the IOC is great!

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