Updated: Sep 29
The three health benefits described below are based on research and interviews conducted for the book "7 Wonders of Olive Oil". This article looks at the discovery of oleocanthal, the first recorded studies, and present-day events to promote and raise extra virgin olive oil awareness.
By Alice Alech for Women in Olive Oil
Extra virgin olive oil is chockfull of disease-fighting compounds, healthy nutrients, and antioxidants, making it one of the world's healthiest oils. But do you know which compound causes that peppery sensation at the back of the throat when you sip the oil neat? It comes from oleocanthal, discovered quite by chance by an American researcher while taking part in an olive oil tasting symposium in Sicily. Sensory chemist Dr. Gary Beauchamp was amazed to find the same throat stinging sensation to liquid ibuprofen, a project he was working on at the time.
The scientist’s task was to improve ibuprofen's taste, the go-to drug for people with arthritis. He was intrigued.
Could there be a connection between olive oil and inflammation?
Back at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, Dr. Beauchamp and his team examined the sample he brought back, separated the oleocanthal molecule, and conducted the first studies. They named the compound from the Latin oleo for oil, Canth the Greek word for the sting, and Al, aldehyde.
What is Oleocanthal?
Oleocanthal is a powerful antioxidant that develops when millers crush olives into pulp; it causes a sting, a peppery sensation in the back of the throat when you sip it neat. The intense prickly component comes from the purest of olive oil; if the oil stings a little, it contains only a little oleocanthal, but if it stings a lot, it has a fair amount of the component.
Interestingly, olive oil is the only vegetable oil that contains oleocanthal. Some of us are more sensitive than others; the sting and irritation will vary depending on the variety of olives used to make the oil and extra-virgin olive oil concentration.
Since its discovery and isolation, researchers continue to recognize the phenolic compound as a preventive and therapeutic agent for many diseases, including arthritis, Alzheimer's, and specific cancers.
1) Oleocanthal reduces arthritis inflammation.
Natural, safe olive oil containing oleocanthal can help people suffering from arthritis.
Arthritis is inflammation of the joints caused by two inflammatory enzymes, COX-1 and COX-2. If these two enzymes' inflammation continues unchecked, it can result in damage to the cartilage, eventually spreading to the bones. And once the deformity sets in, it cannot be reversed.
Doctors recommend non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) drugs such as ibuprofen and aspirin to reduce rheumatoid arthritis pain and swelling. However, taking medications over a long period can be harmful to the body; some can damage the kidneys and even cause intestinal bleeding.
The first Studies at Monell showed that although the chemical structure was different, oleocanthal, a naturally synthesized anti-inflammatory, behaved similarly to anti-inflammatory ibuprofen. It does so by inhibiting these two enzymes' production; it controls inflammation and reduces arthritic pain. And more importantly, it does so without harming the body, unlike Ibuprofen, which can irritate the esophagus.
To rule out the possibility that any other compound was involved, chemists at Monell created a synthetic form of oleocanthal identical in all respects to that found naturally in olive oil. They showed that it produced precisely the same throat irritation.
The researchers concluded that oleocanthal is a natural anti-inflammatory compound that can help reduce the pain and inflammation and prevent joint damage for people living with arthritis.
2) Oleocanthal fights and prevents Cancer.
Scientists have published numerous papers on their findings relating to oleocanthal on a variety of cancer cells. Let us look at the first studies which also took place at Monell investigating the viability and survival of cancerous and noncancerous cells.
Focusing mainly on breast, pancreatic and prostate cancer cells, researcher Paul Breslin applied oleocanthal to human cancer cells. The team was surprised to see how quickly oleocanthal destroyed the cancer cells of the organs. The cancer cells died within thirty to sixty minutes, unlike in any other experiments and studies where cells programmed to die usually take between sixteen and twenty-four hours. The researcher said that oleocanthal pierced the cancer cell center, targeting the lysosomes, the part of the cell that stores waste. As it did so, it released the enzymes within the cell, causing it to die.
Lysosomes in cancer cells are more extensive than healthy cells but what surprised the researchers was that oleocanthal did not damage the healthy cells in any way. In other words, they found that cancer cells were more sensitive to oleocanthal than noncancerous cells.
Numerous papers relating to oleocanthal and how it affects cancer cells have been published since this first experiment. Studies such as the anti-cancer effects of oleocanthal and extra virgin olive oil are incredibly encouraging.
3) Oleocanthal slows Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disease that gradually contaminates the brain as it develops, starting mildly and getting worse over time. Let me explain:
Think of the brain as a tight security system, a sort of blood-brain barrier controlling specific molecules and vital elements going in and coming out. Oxygen and essential nutrients can cross over easily, but a no entry mechanism operates for toxins, bacteria, and certain drugs. This semi-permeable blood-brain barrier protects the brain in a healthy brain, but with Alzheimer’s, the circulatory system breaks down, allowing more harmful particles inside the brain. The danger when that happens in the healthy brain is that neurons start producing an abundance of two abnormal structures, two culprits that begin the destruction process.
The gradual increase of these two abnormal structures, beta-amyloid (formed outside the neurons) and neurofibrillary tangles( inside the neurons), prevent accurate transportation of nutrients, resulting in instability, followed by the brain's shrinking memory loss, lack of communication and reasoning.
Research scientist Amal Kaddoumi has been studying how oleocanthal reacts with Alzheimer's disease. Using the brains and cultured brain cells of mice, Dr. Kaddoumi found that oleocanthal rich extra virgin olive oil restores the blood-brain function by reducing beta-amyloid accumulation. A second question was also studied – could olive oil protect us from Alzheimer’s.
The scientists fed mice with extra virgin olive oil before the amyloid build-up of plaques inside the brain, and a second group put on an enriched extra virgin olive oil diet after build-up. The results were encouraging. It showed several mechanisms that caused the disease were reduced, a more substantial blood-brain barrier created, with a considerable reduction in the amyloid levels.
Dr. Kaddoumi, professor at the Department of Drug Discovery and Development at Auburn University, USA, is as enthusiastic as ever continues her experiments.
Here’s what she told me in a recent email:
“Based on our findings from olive oil in animal models, we currently are studying the effect of olive oil in humans with mild cognitive impairment to test olive oil effect on brain function, memory function, and selected blood biomarkers. Also, we are working on establishing the effective doses of oleocanthal to prevent, stop progression and/or treat Alzheimer’s disease in a mouse model of the disease.”
The discovery of oleocanthal made such a buzz amongst researchers and health professionals that they set up the Oleocanthal International Society based in Malaga, Spain. Members met for the first time in 2015 and continue to meet every two years sharing knowledge and discussing the substantial number of cell-based studies that could prevent and treat human diseases. But it’s not all research. Lectures, workshops, and cooking classes aimed to promote extra virgin have also been included in the many activities.
There’s even a competition to find the world's best healthy Extra Virgin Olive Oil( WBHEC). Clara Villanueva, director of the jury, explained that the WBHEC Contest awards were created by the Oleocanthal International Society, Modern Olives (Australia), and Tello Laboratories (Jaén – Spain) and held uninterruptedly since 2017.
This year a total of 53 samples were presented for three awards.
The best balance between saturated and unsaturated fat
The number of phenols
The best level of oleocanthal
Extra virgin olive oil continues to play a vital role in the Mediterranean lifestyle, and studies demonstrate more and more that oleocanthal is a lead therapeutic agent that can keep certain diseases at bay.
About the author: Alice Alech trained as a radiographer (x-ray technician) and specialized in mammography. She is also a qualified teacher of English as a foreign language. She has lived and worked in Martinique, St. Lucia, UK and Australia.
She discovered the wonderful world of Olive Oil on moving to Provence, drawn into the olive culture where taste, flavor, and quality of olive oil are crucial. With her health background, she is
understandably drawn to extra virgin olive health benefits, even more so after the research for "7 Wonders of Olive Oil", which she co-authored with Cécile Le Galliard.
She now writes on health and wellness from her home in the South of France.