Freshly pressed olive oil can ease the pain of living too well -- literally -- researchers said Wednesday.
The throat-stinging squeezings of the pulped olive -- the only vegetable oil that can be consumed without processing -- contains a compound that has the same pain-relieving effect as ibuprofen, scientists at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia reported in research published in the journal Nature.
The discovery of a natural anti-inflammatory agent in extra virgin olive oil offers a reliable biochemical insight into the well-documented but puzzling health benefits of a Mediterranean diet, which appears to lower the risk of cancer, heart ailments and some chronic diseases even though it is high in fat and salt.
In the kitchen of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, where chefs drizzle, dip and splash $10,000 worth of Tuscan extra virgin olive oil every month, and the chic corporate corridors of Gourmet in New York, this newest finding about the pharmacology of food prompted bemused looks, skepticism and more than one deeply satisfied smile.
"It is always reassuring to hear that something so good has a health benefit," said cafe chef Russell Moore at Chez Panisse. "But it does seem strange that there would be whole cultures of people eating an anti-inflammatory all the time."
However, only the freshest -- and usually most expensive -- olive oil has significant amounts of the pungent compound, called oleocanthal, the researchers said. Aging and cooking destroy it.
The irritating intensity of the taste of a fresh extra virgin olive oil turned out to be directly related to how much oleocanthal the oil contained.
The highest levels are found in the olives grown in Tuscany and the lowest in many California olive groves.
As gourmet estate oils have become a connoisseur's collectible in recent years, however, some Northern California growers have established groves of Italian olive trees that appear to yield high amounts of oleocanthal in their oil, the researchers said.
According to the research, oleocanthal inhibits the activity of cyclooxygenase enzymes, the same anti-inflammatory effect of ibuprofen.
Inflammation is believed to underpin a variety of chronic diseases, the researchers said.
"When we checked the pharmacology, it was identical to ibuprofen," said Monell researcher Paul Breslin, an expert in the psycho-physics of food who helped lead a team of scientists that spent two years investigating this chemical property of olive oil. The Monell center is an independent nonprofit research institute and the study was conducted without financial support from the food industry, importers or olive growers.
"It seems plausible," Breslin said, "that oleocanthal plays a causal role in the health benefits associated with diets where olive oil is the principle source of fat."
In the hothouse of health-food claims, in which coffee is promoted as America's number one source of antioxidants and people are urged to crack walnuts just for the omega-3 fatty acids inside, the medical side effects of food can be a marketing ploy.
"I find the whole notion of the pharmacology of food suspect," cautioned Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl. "If you research stuff long enough, you will find some benefit in anything. There are many, many bad food fads and we are still in a fairly primitive science stage with this."
Even so, she said, people have been cultivating olives for thousands of years. "I do believe that ancient peoples were smarter about the medical benefits of plants than we are. It makes sense to me that they would find something like this about olive oil."
Breslin and his colleagues calculated that a daily dose of 50 grams of extra virgin olive oil was equivalent to about 10% of the recommended adult dose of ibuprofen for pain relief.
Author Calvin Trillin, considered one of the first champions of American regional cuisine, said, "There may be a problem if you figure you can cure your headache with a plate of pasta with olive oil.... It may only be a matter of time before there is extra virgin Advil and first pressing Motrin."